Process, process, process – What we’ve learnt from the London Community Response, and what we’re taking forward

Geraldine Blake (Director of Collaboration, London Funders) reflects on what worked and the processes behind the unprecedented funder collaboration.

It seems so long ago now, the scramble to pull together the largest funder collaboration that London has ever seen, getting a grant programme open within four days of lockdown being announced and the first grants flowing just a few days later. From March 2020 to April 2021, the London Community Response (LCR) drew on 67 funders from all parts of the funding world who, through five waves of funding, distributed over £57.5m, with investment moving from crisis response in the early days of the pandemic, to building towards the recovery and renewal of civil society. 

But back to those first days. London Funders had some experience of supporting crisis funding collaborations through our work on the Grenfell Fire response. Back in 2017, John Lyon’s Charity and the Tudor Trust, as experienced local funders, led the way on the design of process, with London Funders acting as the public face and developing a funder portal to support shared decision-making.

Using the knowledge gained through the North Kensington funding programmes, we knew that the best place to start with a funder collaboration was to get a firm set of principles agreed, and that process would then flow from these. The LCR funders agreed that this collaboration would be intelligent (seeking intelligence from those on the ground about what is needed and feeding this in continually), straightforward, easy for applicants, quick, trusting, equitable, flexible and reflective. Our London Community Response Learning Report on Process (produced by Reos Partners) maps how these principles were embedded in each stage of the process, and includes reflections from both funders and grantees about why they were important.

In a ‘normal’ crisis, we’d expect funders to get out on the street, talk to people directly and get them the support or resources they needed.  In this crisis, everything had to move online. London Funders ran daily (at first, then weekly and monthly) intelligence gathering zoom sessions with members, supported with input from civil society groups, which fed into the priorities for each wave of funding.

Thanks to the heroic efforts of our tiny but mighty IT support partner we were able to launch a website with a single application form that all of the collaborating partners had agreed to use. Completed applications were then checked for eligibility by over 100 volunteer ‘sifters’, all experienced grant managers – and funders agreed to share and “passport” groups through due diligence if the applicant already had a grant from one of the other collaborating funders.
Funders were able to select the applications that were most relevant to them for assessment, using our online portal, where they could search by geography, theme, size of request and, from Wave 3 onwards, by equity characteristic (i.e. organisations led by and for Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, LGBT+ communities, Deaf and Disabled people and/or women – the communities most affected by covid).  Funders then made their own grant decisions, communicated directly with grantees, and reconciled the data into their own grant management systems.  Funders also agreed to keep reporting light touch, and to all incorporate some key questions so that in the coming year, we can look together at impact and learning.

We were learning as we went along, and are grateful to the ‘Operations Group’, a small group of people from key funders who came together weekly to review how the processes were working, to troubleshoot problems as they arose, and to find practical solutions, recognising that being ‘straightforward’ in a crisis means seeking to do the possible not the perfect in a fast-changing environment. We’re grateful to the teams of volunteer sifters who checked 10,605 applications within a couple of days of them being submitted, and particularly to the ‘team leaders’ who met with us regularly to support each other, share expertise and reflect on how we could do this as efficiently and fairly as possible. By the time that the fifth wave of funding from the LCR drew to a close, the system designed during Grenfell for about £2m of applications had held together as it took in £225m worth of requests.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the ‘equity partners’, Ubele, Consortium, Inclusion London and the Women’s Resource Centre, who joined the LCR part-way through Wave 2.  Not only did they help the collaborating funders to make equity and inclusion a priority for funding and reach out through their networks to encourage and support small groups who wouldn’t usually access funding to apply, they went further. They reviewed our processes and identified where we needed to be more thoughtful and flexible about groups with less experience of fundraising, where the Trustee Board was weighted towards lived experience rather than professional skills, where the accounts might not look so robust, and then they trained our sifting teams, tracked applications that may not have got a fair hearing, and, by the end, sat on the panel for the pooled fund that made decisions on about half of the grants. This resulted in 77% of the funding in Waves 3, 4 and 5 going to equity-led organisations. You can read more on the LCR approach to equity-centred grant-making, and we’ll shortly be publishing some case studies of how funders made this happen and what they will be embedding in their processes going forward. 

What next? There is much to explore on processes that enable funder collaborations to be as effective as possible.  As we head towards recovery, we’re interested in diving deeper into the idea of shared due diligence, in building on the single application form - so welcomed by civil society – and in pushing forward with equity-centred and participatory approaches to grant making – let us know what you’re most interested in.  We’ll be publishing our ‘CollaborAction’ (working title!) resource in the autumn, and look forward to working with members to develop exciting new collaborations to support London’s recovery.