Funder Reports - And Why Treebeard Avoids Them
During my decade or so as a fundraiser, the words I most dreaded hearing from a new funder was “we’ll send you our report template”. What linguistic contortions was I going to have to perform this time in order to coherently present our project across a report format drawn up in another place and time, for a different purpose and without this particular project in mind? And how were my colleagues in service delivery going to have to restrict their own freedom of approach in order to satisfy the purse holder? “I’m sorry”, I would tell them, cringing, “we are going to have to add in these five KPIs”.
This may sound ungrateful towards my former funders, which is not the case. During my fundraising years I was (almost) always grateful for the grant in question. I have to squeeze in that “almost” because there was the occasional grant whose monetary size, when weighed against its demands, simply made poor financial sense for our organisation, and I’d argue that every fundraiser has known at least one of those. I also worked with many grants officers or CSR managers who would acknowledge that their template did not suit or enhance our project and welcomed a more bespoke approach. Despite this, the funder report form was one of the elements of fundraising that I was most happy to leave behind when I stepped over to this side of the fence, to work for a funder. Here are some reasons why.
Firstly, the power balance. One of my main issues with funder reporting templates is that they are very top-down in approach. They set a tone for the relationship. The power-balance between funder/grantee is already hugely skewed in the funder’s favour (I know of many funders, including ourselves, who are actively trying to re-address this in their work). Top-down reporting requirements place power into the hands of the funder from day one before a single pound is spent, and they restrict, rather than enable, the grantee. When designing an intervention, the frontline service provider must be the one who drives thinking about the outcomes and how best to measure them. Where they hold expertise and experience, the funder should of course be actively engaged in this discussion. But if the grantee is restricted by looming and inflexible reporting templates, this inherently curbs their freedom, innovation and the ability to use their expertise and experience to best effect. It also curbs their ability to be honest about challenges.
Secondly, what good are these funder reports doing? Standardised funder reporting requirements can breed resentment, as they take up a huge amount of time, duplicating (or at worst, replacing) the charity’s existing Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) resources and strategy, and with very rarely anything to show for it in terms of impact. I recall hundreds of hours painstakingly filling out report forms, submitting them, and watching them disappear into the ether. At best, I would receive some feedback and/or follow up questions. At worst, complete silence. One might presume that reports were analysed, presented to trustee boards, and used to inform and improve funding elsewhere. But rarely would there be evidence of that.
Thirdly, do they allow for the nature of impact measurement? Standardised report templates suggest that measuring impact is an ordered, linear process. In reality, it is typically complex, and requires flexibility of approach and thought. Evidence is a powerful and vital tool, it unlocks understanding and resource, it can be highly influential and ultimately it can improve lives. But funders with set reporting requirements should question whether their particular way of tracking and recording impact is the best way. Is it not open-minded insight, reflection and constant questioning, rather than a neatly filled out spreadsheet, that truly drives impact?
Fourth, funders must consider the unnecessary pressures they are creating. Philanthropic funding is a competitive and fragile thing, and it is a relentless battle for frontline organisations to raise a steady income. The levels of stress and pressure amongst frontline organisation staff - fundraisers in particular – are significant, and I speak from my own experience here. Funders should be there to help, to enable, and to work as an equal partner with organisations to create the conditions and context from which positive outcomes and meaningful impact can emerge. There is a temptation to think, on giving funds, that we are relieving financial stress and therefore making everything better. But are we? We should steer very clear of creating conditions which put our partners on the back foot, under a hovering shadow of blame and withdrawal of funds if funder outcomes are not met.
Fifth – do set reporting requirements allow for the variety of a funder’s partner portfolio? Many funders have the same reporting expectations of a grantee whose income is under £250k and who does not have a dedicated fundraiser, as they do of a multi-million-pound partner with a fundraising department of ten staff. Consider, if you will, the CEO of the former organisation spending several hours that absolutely should be used elsewhere filling out report forms. And in contrast consider the benefits that may come from a funder sitting down with said CEO in person, to talk through the project, the ups and downs, in a way that may spark ideas, innovation or helpful connections. When a relationship between funder and grantee is based on trust, adaptation and learning, everyone, beneficiaries included, wins.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the many funders here in the UK and globally that have a significant amount of expertise and knowledge to bring to the impact measurement table - in some cases, far more than the organisation they are funding. This is hugely valuable, it should be made use of and it significantly enhances the quality of M&E. I do not deny that outcomes should be measured and analysed, and rigorously so. But the issues being tackled are immensely complex and multi-faceted and indeed, ever changing, and frontline organisations must be able to work alongside their funders to adapt if they are to stand any chance of achieving impact. As funders, we must steer clear of any behaviour or demands which threatens or curbs this.