Sharing insights from a snapshot study on funder responses to Covid-19 and how non-profits experienced different responses:

Nicky Wilkinson
Firetree Philanthropy
14 min readMar 1, 2021

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Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

2020 was unequivocally grim, particularly for many in marginalised communities and the non-profits working at the frontlines to support them.

For funders and philanthropy globally, 2020 was a year of reckoning, in so many ways. I’ve blogged here and here about Firetree’s response last year.

By the end of the year, we wanted to explore how other funders based in our region had responded to Covid-19, as well as how non-profits had experienced different responses from various funders. Crucially, we also wanted to explore what non-profits most want from funders going into 2021.

So we commissioned Just Cause to conduct a simple and rapid snapshot research between the end of 2020 and January 2021. This blog and the slide deck at the end of it aim to share back the findings from this.

Why we did this:

We commissioned this for our own benefit — Firetree is deeply committed to learning, we try to continually reflect on our own work and get feedback from our partners.

In thinking about Covid-19 responses by funders, we had seen a lot of data and research that focused on US/UK/Europe, but much less so in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. We also wanted to hear directly from other funders and get feedback from a wider pool of non-profits, beyond partners we currently fund.

In line with our commitment to share our learnings and experiences we also commissioned this snapshot as a resource for other funders and non-profits in our region.

Focus and key questions explored:

The snapshot focused specifically upon private and corporate funders based predominantly in Singapore and Hong Kong, (funding non-profits based in those two cities and/or the whole of South-East Asia.)

Please see the Appendix at the end of the slide deck for how ‘corporate funders,’ ‘private funders’ and ‘non-profits’ were defined for the purposes of this snapshot.

Brief overview of the methodology:

The snapshot research sought perspectives from funders and non-profits through:

  • ‘Dipstick’ surveys; brief, anonymised surveys for both funders and non-profits;
  • Anonymised 1-hour interviews; led by Just Cause, with a range of funders (not including Firetree) and a range of non-profits.

The infographic below summarises the methodology and you can read more about the survey profiles in the appendix of the slide deck:

This is taken from slide 5 in the full insights deck at the end.

Funder surveys were produced in English & Chinese. In line with our values, non-profit surveys were produced in English, Chinese, Thai and Khmer.

Smaller non-profit interviewees that are not currently funded by Firetree received a small payment for their time.

Limitations:

This snapshot focuses on specific profiles of funders and non-profits, which may not be representative of the sector more broadly. It was conducted in a short timeframe in December 2020 with small sample sizes and respondents ‘opted-in.’

Additionally, please note that not all the non-profits surveyed are funded by the funders who participated in this snapshot. This is very important to remember in terms of analysing some differences in responses to the same questions by the two groups.

This blog and the accompanying insights slide deck are designed to simply share anonymised data / insights from the snapshot in the hope that this might be useful for others in prompting reflection, rather than to be robust academic research with in-depth analysis -so please keep these limitations in mind when reading it.

The key questions we set out to explore were:

How have private and corporate funders in Singapore and Hong Kong adapted their grant-making in response to Covid-19 and how have non-profits experienced different funder responses?

What are the needs and challenges for effective grant-making going forward?

What We Found:

Of the funders Just Cause interviewed, responses to Covid-19 broadly fell into 3 categories, summarised below:

Taken from slide 8 in the insights deck

The graph below summarises the findings from the funder survey. Key insights from this showed that:

  • All funders (100%) surveyed reported allowing grantee project goals and timelines to shift, with at least some of their grantee portfolio
  • Over 80% reported providing increased size of their existing grants or providing supplemental funding, with at least some of their portfolio
  • However, far fewer funders (41%) reported converting restricted grants to unrestricted funding.
Taken from slide 9 in the insights deck

When non-profits were asked how they had experienced different funders Covid-19 responses, the trend was broadly similar to what funders reported — but with some important differences;

  • a higher proportion of non-profits reported greater restrictions
  • and a lower proportion reported increased flexibility (see below.)
Taken from slide 10 of the insights deck.

Delving into this a bit further, our non-profit survey found that:

Smaller non-profit organisations were much less likely to experience additional funding outside of current grants or unrestricted funding:

Taken from slide 12 of the insights deck

Also, non-profit organisations with a ‘fully local board’ also reported being much less likely to experience increased size of current grants, additional or unrestricted funding:

Taken from slide 13 of the insights deck.

This was also reflected in interviews with both funders and non-profits (see slide 14 in the deck.) It speaks, I believe, to so many issues related to power, language, decision-making, race and privilege that are part of the structural issues with and legitimate critiques of philanthropy.

HOW funders behave is as important as what we do:

When Just Cause asked non-profits “which Covid-19 response(s) from funders was helpful and what was not”, what they heard was not just what was done by funders, but how it was done.

Defining features of helpful Covid-19 funder responses, as shared by interviewed non-profits, were:

· Speed

· Authenticity

· Clarity

· Ongoing Adaptability

Taken from slide 15 of the insights deck

What are the needs and challenges for grant partnerships going forward?

We asked surveyed funders which actions that they took in response to Covid-19 in 2020, do they intend to maintain in 2021.

Most funder respondents reported that they intend to continue allowing programme goals to shift. However, far fewer intend to continue to provide additional funds.

Although far fewer funders reported unrestricting their funding in 2020, of those that did, it appears that many plan to continue doing so.

Taken from slide 18 of the insights deck.

However, looking forward from the non-profit perspective; most non-profits wish funders would continue to provide additional types of funding and unrestricted funding, perhaps unsurprisingly:

Taken from slide 19 of the insights deck.

There was some variation in survey responses across geographies in terms of which practices non-profits most wish funders would maintain in 2021 (see slide 20 in the deck.)

Interestingly, our survey found smaller non-profits appear to value unrestricted funding more versus larger organisations, which appear to value larger amounts:

Taken from slide 21 of the insights deck.

Comparing which practices funders intend to maintain and which practices non-profits most wished they did, reveals some clear differences and disconnects between funders and non-profits (see below)

  • Increasing size of existing funding, providing additional funding outside of a funders core priorities and unrestricting funding were the changes most non-profits wished were maintained in 2021, but less than half of funder respondents report intending to maintain these;
  • Almost all funders report intending to continue to allow project goals and timelines to shift, but less than half of non-profits selected this as a top wish.
Taken from slide 22 of the insights deck. Non-profit respondents selected top 3 wishes from a list of potential actions, funder respondents selected all applicable actions from a parallel list. The graph shows top 6 results.

We asked non-profits what they foresaw as their top challenges in managing grant relationships in 2021.

The top answers related to managing relationships with existing funding — the top two cited challenges were:

  • Managing expectations and relationships with funders and
  • Understanding whether their funding is secure
Taken from slide 23 in the insights deck. Non-profit respondents selected top 3 challenges from a list

For funders out there, irrespective of your funding model, an easy action point from this is to clearly communicate and reassure your current grantee partners that their funding is secure. We have tried to do this consistently throughout 2020 and 2021.

However, when asked the same question, funders responded that their top two challenges in 2021 related to finding new partners, not working with existing partners.

These challenges were:

  • Building trust with new grantees;
  • Finding new grantee partners.
Taken from slide 24 of the insights deck.

Comparing top responses from non-profits and funders, shows that while non-profits’ top challenges relate to managing existing partnerships, funders’ relate to finding new ones.

Having been on the non-profit side, I can totally understand the focus upon existing relationships and funding partners. As one non-profit interview put it:

With the time it takes to establish relationships, it’s better to channel resources to existing ones and double down.”

Or, as one of our partners who was reflecting on this deck put it to me so eloquently:

“There is an insight to be had here re. the time component being asked of both parties. Just like in romance, a question as to whether this is a healthy relationship where both are investing similar amounts of time or an unhealthy one where one is clearly more important than the other…and ultimately what the vision of the relationship is and whether folks are conscious that making a relationship work is an intentional effort from all sides.”

I particularly like this analogy because provides a clear motivation for us as we try to always be intentional in our funding relationships about building ‘healthy’ relationships.

I can also relate the funders’ perspective — and certainly for Firetree as an explicitly trust-based funder, building a relationship and developing genuine trust through Zoom, when you have never actually met (and when access to internet is poor, as often happens) is a new challenge.

A more detailed comparison between non-profit and funder survey responses, highlights some important commonalities and distinctions in challenges:

  • Understanding whether their funding is secure is a top challenge for non-profits, but very few funders report this as an issue. I feel this shows one of the many ways that power imbalances manifest themselves in relationships between funders and non-profits;
  • Adapting to changes/managing changes to programmes is common across both funders and non-profits;
  • Finding opportunities for collaboration and learning came back as a key challenge for funders, but much less so for non-profit. This is interesting and perhaps speaks to how time-stretched non-profits are. As it happens, from our partial experience with Firetree’s own partners, we have seen lots of examples of collaboration between non-profits — particularly in relation to responding to changing needs. This topic deserves further and much deeper investigation.
Taken from slide 25 of the insights deck. Respondents selected top 3 challenges from a list of potential challenges. Funder respondents selected all applicable actions from a parallel list. Included above are the main challenges — i.e. ones which represented more than 20% for funders and/or non-profits.

Finally, we asked non-profits their advice to funders to help them better support non-profits in the future.

The most common advice focused upon engaging in conversations on needs, challenges and opportunities, not on more funding:

Taken from slide 26 of the insights deck. Respondents provided free text responses

The advice to funders with most mentions centred around deepening relationships, followed by responsiveness to change and unrestricted funding. More funding does feature, but only as the 7th most common response from non-profits.

So once more, it’s not just ‘what’ is done but also ‘how;’ with communication as a central theme.

Here is what the non-profits we surveyed said about their advice to funders to help them better support non-profits in the future (see the slide deck for more quotes.)

Conversations about needs, challenges and opportunities:

“Schedule a call without requiring a presentation or report- just to check in on what’s happening, how we are doing.”

“Engage with non-profits to understand operational challenges and flex the project guidelines and goals in line with the social mission of the funder.”

Greater / continued responsiveness to changes:

“Because COVID-19 is so unpredictable it has been very difficult for us to know what we will be able to do, and when we will be able to do it. We have appreciated funders who have been willing to let us adjust our goals and plans.”

Unrestricted funding:

“I think that 2020 shows you what type of organizations you are supporting. If you are impressed with how they are responding, you should probably consider trusting them more going forward. This means you should probably consider unrestricting your grants and changing reporting.”

“Unrestricted funding is essential to any non-profit and is the foundation of our work.”

Longer term support:

“[My advice]…to not believe that they should not fund beyond 3 years because it will cause dependency on them….as soon as they stop, we will spend a lot of time, work and energy to seek another partner …Long term, trusted relationships with key donors helps us to make lasting mind set changes in the communities. It takes a lot of time to do this!”

Full slide deck: To access the full slide deck, please click here.

Once again, Thank you so much to all the funders and non-profits who participated in this snapshot.

Going forward:

Have these findings really surprised us? Honestly; no, not really.

It’s not that we have everything figured out — we absolutely don’t. We are constantly learning as we go and there is much in here that we can get better at.

We rely on snapshots like this and even more so on on-going feedback from our partners to continually adapt, improve and strengthen our effectiveness and accountability to our partners and the communities they serve.

The reason we were not that surprised by the findings is that non-profits have been calling for multi-year, unrestricted funding for years.

We know from our own experience running NGOs, and from our partners feedback, how essential this really is. More than that though, we know how exhausting top-down funding approaches can be.

We are also aware from our own feedback from partners how important transparency, clarity and communication are.

So, here’s what we as Firetree are going to do:

Double-down on our commitment to multi-year, general operating support funding with our partners, wherever possible. This is our default model and always has been.

For full transparency, at the time of writing, we currently have 1 partner where we have not been able to give fully unrestricted funding, this is for external compliance reasons though in the context in which that organisation operates, rather than our decision. When this happens, we make sure to explain the reasons in an open and clear way to our partner. However, in this case the funding is still flexible and covers overheads, salaries etc etc.

We go into any partnership with the expectation that, if we fund, it will be unrestricted though. Our position on unrestricted funding really aligns with this recent article from John Rendel and his fundamental point of:

“If you don’t trust the organization, don’t trust the project! And conversely, if you do trust them, give them unrestricted funds.”

Double-down on our commitment to supporting grassroots organisations. We made this a formal commitment last year, but plan to strengthen it going forward — and we will have a greater focus upon networks and collaborative working in the future.

We have worked on strengthening our referral networks through our partners and created a board with deep contextual / lived experience. We will also be undertaking more intentional grassroots mapping in specific areas, led by people embedded in those contexts.

Double-down on our commitment to the principles of trust-based philanthropy as we work to try to build deep, trusted relationships that seek to address the inherent power imbalances between funders and non-profits and centre greater equity in our work.

In our (still limited) experience, all of these principles of trust-based philanthropy, when done well, really help address some of the points made by non-profits that clearly emerged from the snapshot research.

For example, we find that unrestricted funding is very helpful in managing uncertainty — on both sides - as well as crucially ceding power and building trust. Likewise, streamlining reporting processes and having much faster and frequent exchanges, (for example by Signal/WhatsApp and Zoom) helps us to better respond to partners when they need us.

I need to be clear though, for us as Firetree Philanthropy, with all the privilege and flexibility we have as a private trust; the principles of trust-based philanthropy should be the minimum-standard. We really have no excuses to work with non-profits any other way — nor our very engaged board would allow us to.

Fundamentally, this is about who we see ourselves as accountable to and the role we seek to play. This is on-going, intentional work. There is much more we can do and we are constantly learning.

We see ourselves as principally accountable to our partners (and, by extension, the communities in which they work.) What Shaady Salehi eloquently wrote in this recent blog, really sums it up, for me:

“…If we want to transform philanthropy to be a sector we are proud of, we need to start by committing to a longer-term vision of alleviating structural and interpersonal power imbalances.”

When we find grassroots organisations and networks with shared values, the legitimacy/deep contextual knowledge and an aligned approach, we aim to play the role of a supportive partner.

Communities are highly complex and constantly evolving — assets, needs and stakeholders shift. We want to trust our partners to best respond to the needs of their communities and support them to have the capacity to learn, explore and adapt what they are doing, as needed, to ultimately achieve their missions.

You can read more about how we are doing with this and feedback from our partners here.

For other funders that are looking to explore this type of trust-based approach, please do feel free to reach out, I would love to connect with and learn from others.

I know that there are funders who may not, for structural reasons, be able to shift to unrestricted funding or implement some of the other recommendations that came through from the snapshot.

My personal position on this, for what it’s worth (and with absolutely no one asking me ;-) is this:

Those funders -like Firetree- that can do this; should.

We are more than happy to share our own experiences on various aspects of this with others funders, if that’s helpful — and we love to learn from others. As above, we certainly don’t have everything figured out!

Those funders that — for whatever structural reasons — cannot, will hopefully still find the insights of this snapshot on how funders operate and many other resources out there useful, in order to strengthen their funding relationships— and ultimately the lasting impact we can all collectively achieve.

To access the full snapshot slide-deck, please click here.

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