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Working collaboratively to transform grantmaking to individuals

Published 23 December 2021​

Donal Watkin, Chief Executive of the Association of Charitable Organisations (ACO) and Paul Carbury, CEO of Smallwood Trust, explain how they’re working alongside the sector to transform grantmaking to individuals.

Lightning Reach portal mock up on laptop and mobile

The pandemic has not only highlighted the urgent need of millions of people facing financial hardship across the UK, but also the urgent need for digital transformation within the grantmaking sector - to enable organisations to quickly get financial support to the people that need it, when they need it.

The challenges faced by individuals in financial hardship and the organisations supporting them

As the UK’s umbrella body for charitable organisations that provide grants and wellbeing support to individuals in need, ACO hears a lot from their members about the challenges they face with meeting demand from the people they support.


For some grant-giving charities, the pandemic meant they were inundated with requests for support while also receiving less income as fundraising opportunities and events could not go ahead. This was particularly the case for charities supporting professionals in industries particularly hard-hit by lockdowns, including hospitality, travel, retail and the arts.


Conversely, charities with the means to support individuals during this challenging time saw minimal changes in volume as people simply do not know they exist. This is an ongoing issue for benevolent funds who struggle with awareness amongst the people that they can offer support to. 


The pandemic also brought to the forefront the importance of charities having an effective digital grants and application system in place. Smaller funds and charities often still rely on paper-based systems or multiple spreadsheets to manage their grants processes. However, the rise of home-working as a result of the pandemic highlighted the inadequacies of these systems in being able to provide timely support to an increased volume of applicants.


For example, prior to the pandemic Smallwood Trust had previously required applications to be submitted by post. The challenge was therefore to find a way for applicants to submit their information in a timely way and electronically if possible, whilst also protecting the applicants’ data and meeting organisational anti-fraud requirements.


Facing increased pressure on their resources, charities had highlighted to ACO the wish for a more effective system to be in place to facilitate collaboration with other organisations on applications for support - so multiple charities could help meet the needs of individuals.


It could also prevent charities duplicating work; by enabling them to see what other funds an individual may have applied for, they could talk to and work with those charities about who is best placed to support them.

The Social Innovation Council

It’s clear there’s an immediate need to bring about change for the sector, and when we were approached by tech for good startup Lightning Social Ventures to become a founding partner of the Social Innovation Council, alongside leading charities Turn2us, End Furniture Poverty and the Charity for Civil Servants, we jumped at the chance to be involved. We’ve also since welcomed the Royal British Legion to the founding group.


The aim of the Council is to co-develop a collaborative online grants platform; a centralised portal that will enable people to apply to multiple sources of support, when they need it. Not only will this make the process of applying for support easier for people in financial hardship, but it will also streamline processes for charities - folding in financial technology solutions to speed up processes and reduce fraud. It will also facilitate collaboration across organisations and ultimately get help to people faster.

We’ve made swift progress; from initial vision setting in mid-June we’ve designed and developed the first beta version of the portal which just went live at the end of November. Alongside fortnightly workshops with the founding partners, we’ve also held additional workshops with the wider Social Innovation Council membership of 40+ organisations to gather feedback and insights to inform the development of the portal. We’re really excited with what’s been built and for rolling this out with real users, which Lightning is now starting to pilot with the Smallwood Trust, Teaching Staff Trust and Electrical Industries Charity.

"By working collaboratively with other charities throughout the process, ACO has deepened our understanding of the needs of our members"
Donal Watkin, Chief Executive, Association of Charitable Organisations

Lessons learnt and the future

Being part of the Social Innovation Council has been an enjoyable and hugely valuable process. It has been a learning in how agile product development in the tech space works, and by working collaboratively with other charities throughout the process, the ACO has deepened their understanding of the needs of their members - from learning more about the systems they are using to the challenges their grants teams are currently facing. 


Using a human-centric approach has meant that both grantmaking charities and people with lived experience have been at the centre of the development of the portal. By gathering insights from potential end users, and the organisations that support them, throughout the iterative process, we’re ensuring that the portal is meeting the needs of both groups.


For the Smallwood Trust, a key benefit of the portal is the potential to reach those women who are most eligible for their support, to understand more about their needs and to get grants to them quicker. The portal also has the potential to allow them to become a more responsive funder – quickly changing their focus and getting timely support to women in need in response to regional, national or world policy changes or events.


This has been an exciting example of what can be achieved when our sector takes a collaborative approach to solving a problem. With a clear vision set by a core team, and working with a human-centric approach to develop a product that meets the needs of users and organisations, we’ve developed a potentially game-changing solution for the sector, by the sector. 


And with benefits for both organisations and individuals, it represents a much-needed technological transformation to grantmaking.

The early beta version of the application portal is now live and may be shared with people in need of financial support. If your organisation would like to get involved in the pilot or find out more, please get in touch.


You can find out more about the Social Innovation Council and sign up to receive monthly updates here.

This article was originally published on the Funders Collaborative Hub.

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