Blog: Stronger Foundations? The response to the Covid-19 crisis

ACF’s Stronger Foundations initiative aims to open challenging discussions about foundation practice and identify what it means to be a ‘stronger’ foundation. As part of the project, we will be publishing a series of provocations from members offering their personal views on the initiative’s themes.

This contribution is from Chris Llewellyn, Director of the CriSeren Foundation and chair of the Stronger Foundations Funding Practices working group. Share your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #StrongerFoundations.

Over the last 18 months I have been proud to chair the Stronger Foundations working group on Funding Practices. It’s been a pleasure to work with an engaged group of funders, identifying best practice in the sector and contributing to a report intended to be published this summer. This blog will look at how those practices could help or hinder the response of civil society to the Covid-19 crisis we are currently experiencing. 

One recurrent question has been ‘which external factors could cause foundations to change?’ As they often exist without the funding pressures faced by the rest of the voluntary sector, why should foundations alter the way that they operate? With the systemic shock caused by Covid-19 there has never been a more important time for us all to knuckle down and ensure that our resources are directed as efficiently and effectively as possible. To this end it is disappointing to hear one funder asking for extraneous information to release already secured funding, including inherently outdated financial forecasts. 

There will be a number of different overlapping stages to this crisis for civil society. Firstly, the need for immediate funds to deal with direct effects such as delivering food to isolated vulnerable people, and secondly, helping organisations adjust to the significant hits to all fundraising and delivery strategies (NCVO estimate a loss to the charity sector of £4.3 billion over the next 12 weeks alone). It will be incumbent on foundations to immediately assess how best to achieve their charitable mission in this massively changed context.  

There were a variety of interlinked themes which emerged from our Stronger Foundations work, and many of these are reflected in the best responses from foundations, some of which I have illustrated below. This is not an exhaustive list of what foundations have been doing well, purely my personal impressions, from my limited experience, I would be very interested in other examples or approaches.  

Of course foundations have an extremely important role to play in supporting civil society at this moment of crisis, but cannot do this alone; central government needs to step in directly to fund the sector as this letter signed by more than 100 MPs suggests. This needs to happen very soon, or the ramifications could be very severe. 

However foundations, individually and collectively, have a duty to rise to this moment, it’s crucial that foundations act appropriately, with sufficient resource and quickly. This is an opportunity to show all the qualities of bravery, independence and initiative that encapsulate foundation funding practices at their very best.


Themes from Stronger Foundations: Funding Practices discussions and their applicability to the current moment

Flexibility and relational funding

Organisations have been flexible with their grantees, proactively contacting them to ensure that reporting and grant requirements have been relaxed. Much of this relates to the ability of good foundations to trust good organisations, especially those with whom they have built up a relationship over time.

  • Blagrave Trust have contacted all grantees directly ensuring them of flexibility around reporting requirements
  • Sussex Community Foundation have contacted grantholders to assure them that in the case of project delivery being delayed, the funds can be retained by the grantholder, and that any changes to that delivery can be discussed. 

Being true to the foundation’s values

A cornerstone of our work on Stronger Foundations is that the most effective foundations are those who stay true to the core mission of their organisation, and live through their values.

  • Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an organisation devoted to solving UK poverty, is concentrating its initial responses to alleviating the experiences of those on low incomes and working closely with those with direct experience of poverty. 
  • Arts Council England have recognised the potential existential threat to England’s cultural ecosystem and have announced a £160 million emergency package to support cultural organisations and the freelance workers on which they depend. 


In such a fluid situation, with business models having been dramatically changed with very little warning, speed is of the essence. I am involved with a community pub in Brighton, the Bevy. Having applied to the Chalk Cliff Trust for an emergency grant the money was transferred to our account in less than 24 hours. It is difficult to quantify the difference this made both to morale, being trusted by a funder, but also to have quick access to funds in such a fast paced situation.


Choosing appropriate partners (including but not exclusively other foundations), not duplicating work and collaborating where possible (formally and informally) to work efficiently has sometimes appeared a challenge for funders, so some of the positive working in partnership has been impressive.

  • Indigo Trust working quickly with NPC and the Philanthropy Workshop to source appropriate funders including Trussell Trust and the NET and providing funds extremely quickly
  • Umbrella bodies have a real role to play here. ACF has been convening webinars and the crucial statement from London Funders subsequently taken up by over 100 funders has defined how things should be operated.


Throughout our Stronger Foundations discussions, we often returned to the utility or otherwise of restricted funding. As this thoughtful blog from one of the working group participants lays out, there are potentially legitimate reasons for imposing restrictions, but it is arguable that should not be the default position. 

  • Following through on this the William Grant Foundation have subsequently converted all their revenue grants into unrestricted to enable their grantees to best respond to the crisis. 

Using all the tools in the toolbox

We recognise that a common response for any Foundation is to immediately default to create a funding programme, however, it is important for organisations to use all the different options open to them, including advocacy and powers of convening:

  • Alex Ferry Foundation is using the outbreak to ask serious questions about the current nature of work, aiming to highlight uneven access to rights and protections across our economy.

Particular role of community foundations

The fact that the National Emergencies Trust has been channelled via community foundations demonstrates the importance of this network of organisations with existing direct knowledge of the various contexts and appropriate networks and mechanisms to ensure funds can be quickly channelled to grassroots organisations across the country. It is arguable that there is significantly more opportunity for collaboration between national funders and community foundations in future.


The isolation measures the crisis necessitates will force voluntary sector organisations both to operate remotely and deliver services online. It may well be the case that funders who have not previously specialised in or provided digital funding will have to consider it, to support the internal and external activities of their grantees.

The broad spectrum of civil society

The breath of the responses to the crisis from a huge variety of different organisational structures has been remarkable. With activities from everyone from established registered charities and social enterprises to grassroots organisations and self organised community groups, such as the national network of internet-based mutual aid groups. There will be potentially be a role for foundations in supporting different parts of this spectrum, in varying ways, including direct funding but also with support, advice and amplification.

Balancing the needs of present and future beneficiaries

The economic effects of the crisis are likely to have ongoing effects on the financial position of the majority of foundations and it is likely that income from foundations’ investment assets will be reduced. It was notable in the recession that followed the 2008 banking crash that some foundations felt the best way to achieve their mission in this circumstance was to increase their grant spending as far as possible, in response to the increased significant increase in need. 

Chris Llewellyn
CriSeren Foundation

For more information on this topic, please visit our dedicated webpage, which is updated regularly. 



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