18 Feb 2014
A cautionary tale: when funding goes bad
While introducing funding to a Transition initiative is generally a good thing, unlocking previously unrealisable opportunities, it can sometimes go wrong. Today we share a cautionary tale from a Transition initiative which has asked to remain anonymous, which has useful insights for groups attracted to go after large funding opportunities. Our group, let’s call them ‘Transition Town Anywhere’ (TTA) heard through the grapevine that the a large national funder had a new funding stream focused on community resilience, and got very excited, seeing it as the opportunity to make a number of their Transition dreams a reality.
The fund required this to be a partnership project from the outset. So they contacted a number of key local organisations, who were very keen, and together they submitted an expression of interest, which to their amazement, and to great celebration, was accepted.
In spite of the excitement, it was here that the problems began. The funder insisted that the co-ordinating organisation must have “due diligence” in place, and insisted that they partner with an existing charity with at least two years of audited accounts. There were only two local charities that were suitable, and one of those was already committed to supporting another nearby Transition initiative’s bid to the same fund, so they were in a position of having to work with the one remaining charity.
There was already a bit of odd history with this charity. In the early days of TTA, when they were networking and giving presentations to local groups, they were invited to address their local county council, at an event at which this charity was also present. They made it clear that they felt TTA were encroaching on their “paid” area of work, which made bridge-building difficult.
The first sign of difficulties came when the charity, whose involvement thus far had been to field two phone calls, issued a press release to say that they had got through the first round of the funding process but neglected to mention TTA anywhere. The work proceeded to prepare a full bid, supported by a grant of £10,000. The Transition group’s idea was to have 15 strands of work, which included energy, economic, social, biodiversity projects and more. “All our dreams of Transition”, as I was told.
As the process of creating the bid proceeded, it became clear that the charity viewed TTA as being all volunteers and that they refused to give the TTA volunteers access to the development funds. As I was told by a member of TTA, “we had to virtually mutiny to remain involved in the bid development process”.
Things ran well for the rest of the bid development phase and the group understood that it had an arrangement where the charity would run the project for the first two years and we would then incorporate and phase in to running the project towards the end of the funding period. When the charity wrote the bid in the last week before submission they effectively wrote TTA out of the running of the project, with their just being invited to be members of the partnership board, on the same level as any other partners.
As I was told, “this transition from our aspirations coupled with the fact as a group we had invested a year of our time into the process was fraught and painful”. In spite of their disappointment and anger over what had happened, the group decided to make the best of the situation and work with the process as it was.
It got to the point where the TTA group had agreed it would be more desirable for the bid to be refused, in the event it was successful and the Charity duly release another press release claiming all of the credit and failing to mention TTA again. The full time members of staff were appointed and directly employed by the charity, which led to a position described to me in this way:
“We remain totally committed to the project and try to guide things as best we can, but in effect we have created a well funded, full time staffed version of a Transition group that has the same objectives and all of our project ideas in it with us on the outside looking in”.
Their sense is that rather than accelerating the work of Transition, the influx of funding has slowed it right down. For example, a major food project which had been proceeding well, has been held up until the project was up and running. A year has been spent in setting up governance and structures, creating a new office and so on. To the wider community there is still, a year in, no evidence of anything actually happening on the project with the first public events only just beginning to happen. The relationship with the charity has been puzzling too. The person I spoke to has attended an event where he met the chair of the charity and introduced himself and the fact that he was from TTA, to be met with the response “right”, and his turning round and walking off.
So having been through such an exhausting and frustrating process, what, I wondered, might be the group’s advice for other Transition initiatives considering going for large funding pots such as this?
“Firstly, only work with partners you already know well and have a good understanding of. Jointly develop the bid with them from the start. Secondly, manage your expectations. There will be strings attached to large pots of funding, and it is unlikely that you will be able to do exactly what you want to do. There will be compromises as part of the process. Thirdly, consider strategies for how to keep your volunteers with you. Once a group gets involved in such a bid, a lot of time and energy goes into it, and many of those involved and giving their time to your group will find they don’t have the skills, patience or energy that it requires, and may drift off. Think through how best to manage this. Lastly, get advice on the legal aspects of this. It is best to enter such a process with a thorough understanding of your rights in the process as well as the limitations”.
So where are they now? Two years after we started this process things are now moving but there is still a strong sense that, as I was told, “we have been left on the outside looking in at our projects”.