No time for time-wasters – a response
14 June 2011
by Peter Wanless
Allison Ogden Newton has written a characteristically interesting piece about Funders which I felt moved to comment on. I’ve spent 30 minutes struggling to post these comments directly onto her blog but failed, so here’s a link and my thoughts. 2/10 for my IT skills!
You raise some important issues that funders grapple with constantly. Here are some immediate reactions from a Big Lottery Fund perspective.
Keeping funding criteria tight is extremely important when developing “strategic” or “targeted” funding programmes. We have worked increasingly hard to ensure, through detailed work with relevant experts, that we are increasingly precise about the issue we are seeking to address or the need we are seeking to meet. Our recent funding aimed at young people is a good example (young carers, young people leaving care, young people leaving young offenders institutions, young people growing up in extremely challenging circumstances.) I have heard good things about our efforts to engage scores of relevant organisations in sharpening where and how in England we can best develop a funding programme to support older people. We also have experience of using geographical criteria to restrict access to certain aspects of our funding – again developed with relevant experts – where we know demand would otherwise be completely unmanageable. Such constraints are not always popular, especially with those just on the wrong side of a definitional dividing line, but if our approach is evidenced it protects against the dangers of nugatory bid costs you are describing.
However, it would be hugely controversial to apply this approach across the entirety of our funding portfolio. Many people out there value our “open” or “demand-led” programmes such as Reaching Communities. They are willing to trade some risk of losing out to others for the chance to explain from their perspective why what they want to do is important, rather than seek to fit it within targeted criteria developed from here.
In such programmes there is, however, definitely scope to use an EOI, PQQ or Outline Proposal Form (OPF) as we call it. Following our extensive Big Thinking consultation we are making extensive use of OPFs. We know that most organisations prefer a quick “no” to a protracted bidding process with little chance of ultimate success. If you are now invited to submit a full application to Reaching Communities you currently have a 50% chance of success.
I agree very much with the sentiment of your challenge to us funders “did you need to know that?” As you may be aware – see the coverage in the latest issue of Third Sector magazine – Lottery distributors are under pressure to reduce their administrative overheads and questions such as yours are very much our starting point. Where and how can we be better, faster, cheaper?
However, engagement, dialogue and feedback of the kind you favour is also classified as an administrative overhead. Each pound we spend on such activity is a pound not going directly to the good causes. We have worked hard to improve our feedback mechanisms. We speak directly to many more unsuccessful applicants than we ever used to. We are willing to share assessment forms. Ultimately there will be disappointments, because we are oversubscribed, but applicants have a right to understand why they were unsuccessful, even if they do not always agree with the decision. We will do our best to protect such a service but it’s not costless and if it – or particular aspects of it – are valued, people need to say so.
Keeping it real is important. Watch our grant officers in action and you’ll see that they can rapidly distinguish the authentic from the professional bid writer. It’s a risk we need to be alive to.
Finally, I understand what you say about valuing experience over innovation. I would only note that the outcome of our last consultation was that only around 20% of 3,500 respondents said that BIG should concentrate only on what is known to work. I know for a fact Allison that you are full of ideas and projects that you know work but which mainstream deliverers of public services would regard as highly innovative. And we don’t want to rule those out do we?