Learning from lockdown

6th November 2020

When the pandemic hit, the Community Foundation for Surrey had to quickly adapt its processes to continue to meet the growing needs of our charities at such a critical time. We came together, and effectively distributed over £3 million in grants across our communities to our most vulnerable residents.

It is only now that we have been able to reflect on the whirlwind of the past eight months. So, what have we learnt?

Kate Peters, our Director of Grant-making tells us…

Remember March? The world turned upside down, and we all had to come to terms with living a totally different kind of life separated from loved ones and our normal routines. Meanwhile, the voluntary sector was not only stepping up to be a lifeline to thousands of our vulnerable neighbours, but facing a disaster in terms of lost income. Charity shops were closed, fundraising events and community fundraising were cancelled, along with every other type of face to face income generating activity. Contracts and grant funding were put into question as projects became undeliverable.

The Community Foundation for Surrey launched a Coronavirus Response Fund on 26th March. We made our first awards after only 6 days on 1st April. Eight months and £3 million of grants awarded later, we are still busy, but there is a little breathing room to reflect and see what we can take out of this time to develop our grant making in the more normal times.

It’s not just the money

Although the money was obviously critical, what we heard from our grantees back in April was how important it had been to groups to know someone was going to help. A number of key funds closed to applications at that time – just knowing we were there for them was really valuable.

It was not a big job to send a message to all our grantees, stating that whilst we understood that projects might pause or even fail, we would be flexible with reporting and changed delivery. That was one less thing for grantees to worry about and an element of funding that could stay in the budget. It is a message I still need to reiterate to grantees as their grant reports come due and I really always sense their relief.

So, what did we learn? – How you make grants is as important as what you fund. Our impact as a Foundation can be seen in the invisible, intangible support we give to our groups.

Keep it simple

Keeping the criteria for the Response Fund simple and flexible made it much easier for us to be inclusive and responsive. As a Community Foundation we have a large range of funds with sometimes very targeted aims. Working with one Fund was refreshing and made it a lot easier to make quick decisions.

So, what did we learn? – We can take a look at the criteria for our programmes, and perhaps simplify for the benefit of our applicants and for ourselves.

Relationships, not process

The biggest factor enabling us to make quick decisions was our knowledge of our applicants and grantees that has built up over years. We could cut down the length of our application forms and accept a light touch on due diligence because we know these groups; we know they can deliver good work.

But what about the groups we don’t know so well? And the pop-ups and small un-constituted groups? We worked with the support groups, including the CVS network, which agreed to act as fund holders for small or new groups. These local support bodies knew what was happening in their areas and their advice and intelligence allowed us to be confident in our grant-making.

So, what did we learn? – Investing our time in getting to know our grantees pays off. Being part of the local sector and networked with the key players is invaluable. We must make time to get beyond the forms and reports and build relationships.

Even more relationship building

Those groups, who we already knew struggle with accessing our funds, were left behind in the initial stages of the Response Fund. While experienced applicants can quickly jump on a new funding stream, those groups for whom grant funding is an unfamiliar world could not take advantage of our support in the same way.

So, what did we learn? – There is an opportunity to take something good out of the crisis; more and better relationships with groups which don’t traditionally look to Foundations for funding. We must take time to promote and offer support to inexperienced groups when launching any programme to ensure everyone gets a fair chance. We have made a commitment to do better and we will.

What Next?

We focused our Covid grant making on being there for our community; a rapid response, enabling groups supporting vulnerable people to just keep going. Response to a crisis is not the same as long term grant making, but there are good lessons we can take from the experience to inform how we make better grants for the long game.


You can also find Kate’s blog published in the Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR): ivar.org.uk/how-you-make-grants-is-as-important-as-what-you-fund/ 

To find out more about our Coronavirus Response Fund and the inspiring local groups being supported at this time, please visit our webpages: cfsurrey.org.uk/surreycoronavirusresponsefund/