Monday, 24 September 2012

What is the ‘plus’ in Funder Plus?

One of the specific areas the Fund asked us to look at as part of our research into the approaches used by funders to bring about positive social change relates to the additional activities that funders get involved in beyond the provision of funding; activity that is often called ‘Funder Plus’. They posed the question, “Does Funder Plus add value or is it more trouble than it’s worth?”

It is important to have a clear understanding of what Funder Plus means, since the term is used by different funders in different ways. Following our research, we feel that there is an important distinction to be made between two types of Funder Plus. The first type is where the funder supports their grantees in a range of different ways according to their need. This might be through the provision of additional funding so that a grantee organisation can commission a formative evaluation of its project, or so that they can access capacity building training from an appropriate provider. Or it could be through simple things such as the provision of meeting rooms or the making of introductions to key individuals or organisations which will enable the grantee to be more effective.

We have referred to this type of Funder Plus as ‘supporting grantees’ and it is something which many funders, including the Fund, are engaged in. From our interviews we formed a clear sense that although the actual grant money is the most important contribution, many grantees do feel that this type of additional support from funders can add value, if it is provided in the right way. This type of Funder Plus is most likely to be effective if the support needs are identified in conjunction with the grantee and the support is offered rather than imposed. It is also important that any support, for example training, is delivered by the most appropriate provider, which may not be the funder itself. In addition, funders and grantees need to communicate very openly and honestly about any support needs and the funder should be prepared to recognise when they have nothing to add.

The second type of Funder Plus is not as widespread and is, we think, more controversial. While it has the potential to add considerably to the achievement of funders’ charitable objectives, it can also create tricky challenges. We have called this second sort of Funder Plus ‘agent of change’ since it refers to the funder proactively taking on roles such as intervening in or convening sectors, direct lobbying or seeking to influence public opinion – in other words where the funder becomes a direct agent of change in its own right.

There are fewer funders who engage in this second type of Funder Plus compared to those supporting grantees as described initially above. And while there are some funders, including the Fund, who argue that they should do everything in their power to bring about positive social change in the areas they fund, there are those who feel it is not appropriate for funders to get involved in direct activities, as they see this as the responsibility of the charities that they fund.

Personally, I believe it can be particularly hard to get this ‘agent of change’ type of Funder Plus right. Playing dual roles of funder and agent can place extra demands on staff and requires a broad range of skills and experience as well as nimble and flexible decision making processes. There is also a fine line between, on the one hand, collaborating with grantees, jointly developing strategy and carrying out complementary activities such as targeted lobbying and, on the other hand, being seen to interfere and potentially muddying the waters. However, if there is clarity on the roles of funder and grantee and agreement on the objectives to be achieved by each then there is the potential for a funder to play the agent of change role effectively.

There is also the related question of who the agent of change type of activity is adding value for – the grantee or the funder. The answer is likely both, in that both grantees and funders are trying to achieve social change. Yet it is worth bearing in mind the potential for negative perceptions from grantees, other players in the sector and other funders. But, if it is done well, being an agent of change may certainly be worth the trouble from the funder’s perspective and if a greater impact is achieved, it may help mitigate any problems that arise during the process.

If you have any thoughts on the topics covered please email Dörte Pommerening. If you would like to contact the Fund about their work please email Andrew Cooper.