Flexible funding models: why we love them - and what we’ve learned (Part Two)

Part Two of our two-part series exploring the benefits of agile funding models for charities doing digital

Part Two: what we’ve learned 


Welcome back to our journey into agile funding. In Part One, we looked at the ‘theory’ of progressive funding models: why they exist; who they work for; how they work and who is providing them. 

These models, as we explored in Part One, have several elements of difference. 

In any agile funding model, charities are exploring what’s needed, rather than just working towards an outcome they’ve defined in advance. 

And in some, including our programmes, the work doesn’t just involve money. It also features connections with mentors, coaches, peer networks, and other elements of support.

Here, we’ll take a look at one particular model: our most recent Tech for Good programme. We’ll explore how it’s worked in practice - and what we learned from 12 months of close collaboration with funders and grantees.

Does it work?

The results seem to speak for themselves. In our most recent cohort of nine charities, all teams completed a discovery process involving in-depth user research with service users, and all said they finished the programme with more knowledge of - and confidence in - the digital process. Some teams chose to develop a new digital prototype, others chose to reuse existing tech, while others still chose to pivot based on evidence from their user research. 

We’re in the process of sharing the participating organisations’ stories here, so please do dive in and discover what they accomplished in the nine months, as well as their key reflections on the process. We’ve also pulled out some quotes relating to the specifics of the programme design - user research, coaching support and peer connections - as below: 

Against Violence and Abuse (AVA), who engaged in co-production with users to develop a digital resource for survivors of gender-based violence: “[The process of co-production] has been an absolute joy. We loved working with our experts by experience. They were positive and full of ideas. It’s been very valuable for them. They’ve seen how digital development happens. When service users come to use your resource, they can see it’s been designed by people like them. We were really driven by them, and the features they wanted were a priority.”

Bipolar UK, who worked closely with coaches and partners to create a new chatbot for their users: “We wouldn’t have the chatbot had it not been for this funding. Through the support of CAST and my Digital Coach I got access to expertise that I just wouldn’t have found by myself. I spoke to four or five different people, specifically at one point around digital safeguarding, which of course is crucial and we learnt from what other people had already learnt, rather than reinventing the wheel, so we could make quite confident decisions about the development of the service based on what other people told us worked.” 

Hestia, who acted upon learnings from peers and users to develop an app for employers: “It’s been a highlight glimpsing other organisations’ digital journeys, and seeing organisations working in exciting ways, really involving users in design and development, and knowing that you have those opportunities coming up where you can share what you’re working on. Coming into a situation where I was the first digital specialist role, that can feel a little bit lonely. It was really helpful to see that I wasn’t the only person struggling with this.”

What have we learned? 

We’ve worked closely with grantees and funders throughout our programmes, and gathered feedback and reflections to fine tune future versions. Here are our key learnings: 

Set aside resources for additional support needs: We had factored in various levels of support with different aspects of digital, but the onset of the pandemic sparked the need for additional guidance in new areas, such as conducting user research remotely. Naturally, this year has seen unprecedented disruption due to COVID-19, but there’s always a chance that external factors will impact on charities’ needs, so it’s advisable to factor in time, staff resource and budget for additional needs within supported funding programmes. 

Think beyond the cohort: Consider how any tools, resources or learnings might be made available for the benefit of the sector as a whole. This may be as simple as encouraging charities to share their digital discoveries via Catalyst’s Service Recipes platform, so that other organisations can learn from - and possibly replicate - the journeys taken and solutions developed. However, it may be that during the course of a supported programme, it’s possible to develop something entirely new - for example, as a response to the growing need for digital safeguarding advice, we scaled up our Tech for Good work with Against Violence and Abuse to develop DigiSafe, a step-by-step, open access guide for charities. 

Humanise the reporting process: Throughout the Tech for Good programme, we checked in with grantees face-to-face (via Zoom) to report on progress and understand how we could best support them. This offers obvious advantages over ‘form-filling’ reporting: the interactive approach allows for a two-way question and answer process, opening up a full dialogue to reveal the ‘whole picture’. Comic Relief has also now begun to conduct reporting via face-to-face discussions, to complement the standard written format. 

Embrace ‘failure’: It’s important to understand (and to communicate to grantees and build into reporting structures) that ‘success’ doesn’t always equate to a ‘positive result’ - especially in fast-paced, shorter-term programmes. The emphasis on the journey rather than the result means that the ‘measure of success’ must be defined as whether anything valuable and actionable was learned along that journey. If so, then the time was well-spent, even if what was learned was that, for example, digital is not a viable solution to the problem at hand. As one Digital Journeys interviewee put it: ‘We would love to see funding being more open to failure...this would encourage more conservative organisations to take the jump into digital.’

Consider ‘first stage’ (or dual stage) models: With this in mind, it’s worth considering whether it is possible to build a ‘discovery’ phase into programmes (as per the current Catalyst and The National Lottery Community Fund COVID-19 Digital Response fund, detailed in Part One), in order to identify user needs and establish whether digital offers a route to success. Where time and budget allows, this is an excellent way for charities to test the water in a light-touch, low-risk way that does not require significant time or resource commitment from their side, but which quickly sets them on the right path and with the right information to begin building a solution (digital or otherwise). Equipped with this knowledge, eligible charities can then move to apply for development-stage funding. (A tip for any charity keen to get on board with understanding user needs in preparation for development funding: start with a free Design Hop.)

Scale support according to need: On the Tech for Good programme, we quickly discovered that the participating charities’ understanding and adoption of digital varied greatly: some were tech-savvy and had developed several products already; others were just starting to explore the possibilities. It’s important to gauge this early on and understand not just how much support is needed - but how much is wanted. For charities already well acquainted with the basics, too much intervention can feel like overkill - so it’s important to strike a balance, perhaps offering more tailored, targeted support to these advancing organisations, and freeing up general coaching slots for charities that need help with the basics. 

Recognise that ‘big organisation’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘big digital’: As a side note to this, it’s important to remember that assumptions cannot be made on levels of digital maturity: just because an organisation is labelled as ‘large’, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is digitally advanced. Describing the experience of a relatively large charity, Digital Journeys states: ‘Funding is still hard to secure and arbitrary budget ceilings often see them labelled as a ‘big’ organisation by funders when their digital is still so small and nascent’. It’s important to gauge levels of knowledge and competence during the onboarding process, in order to accurately and fairly scale support provision. 

Consider self-serve options: In advance of welcoming the Tech for Good grantees, we put together a consortium of partners designed to offer a wide range of support across a number of digital specialisms. Grantees were eager to access the support, but reported that they felt overwhelmed and needed help to understand which options best suited their needs. In response, we designed a ‘self-serve’ menu, hosted on our own Fusebox platform, through which participants could self-navigate to select and book workshops, calls and interactive sessions according to their changing needs. 

Incorporate provision for core costs: It is important to factor in funding to cover potential core costs, including the project lead’s time, as this can be fundamental in terms of whether the activity succeeds or fails. Our research showed that the biggest barrier in terms of charities’ participation in the programme was ‘lack of time to engage’. Charities need to understand that it is OK to budget for the project lead’s time within a funding application. Comic Relief is currently reviewing budget allocation for forthcoming programmes, in order to potentially allow for this.

Think longer-term: As highlighted in the Digital Journeys report, a risk with any funding (flexible or otherwise) is that it instigates projects but doesn’t necessarily support continuation to completion - so that sometimes, when the money and the support stops, so does the project. This is compounded by the fact that early-stage digital projects present challenges in terms of impact evaluation, so it may be difficult to secure ongoing funding. We try to ensure that when any programme finishes, we help to guide participants to 'next steps' avenues of support. In the case of the Tech for Good programme, we kept our resources open for several months and encouraged participants to book an additional coaching session in the weeks following the programme end. We're committed to learning more about how best to support participants at (and beyond) the end of the programme: in addition to our conversations with grantees, we've found this paper from the US to be a useful source of information and advice.

In conclusion, we believe that agile models provide an effective ‘guide’ to help charities navigate a path through digital, supporting the journey without specifying the destination. We’re still navigating that journey ourselves and we’ll bring you more as we travel further down the path! In the meantime, sign up to the free Catalyst weekly newsletter to be amongst the first to find out about the new round of Tech for Good funding, due to be released towards the end of this year.

Footnote: Did you catch our Digital Leaders Week talk on this topic? If not, you can watch the recording here.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels