Caroline Howe: How Lloyds Bank Foundation selected charities and partnerships for its Reform Justice National Criminal Justice Programme

Caroline Howe, Policy and National Programmes Manager at Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales, led on the development of the Reform Justice Programme. Here she explains how charities were selected for the Foundation's new criminal justice programme and why it's crucial to involve them in the decision-making process in order to make 'good grants'.

How Lloyds Bank Foundation selected charities and partnerships for its Reform Justice National Criminal Justice Programme

How funders make decisions and the nature of their relationships with charities have been the focus of a growing number of discussions. At the Foundation, these discussions came to the forefront in designing our latest grants programme. Our new criminal justice programme, all about influencing improvements in the criminal justice system, aims to strengthen the sector. But, when there are so many challenges with the system, how could we be sure we were reflecting the priorities of the sector itself in our grantmaking? This is something we tried to address by designing a new approach to grant making for us, one which put applicant voice at the heart of deciding which grants to award.

Alongside assessments by Foundation staff, we asked external experts and applicants themselves to help us understand which pieces of work addressed key issues in the sector, helping us to achieve our ambition of funding a range of approaches and specialisms.

Applicants could choose if they wanted to be involved – and they all did. Each applicant then read the project summaries of five others, chosen at random – no two applicants viewed the same five. This meant we benefited from a much broader insight from those already part of wanting to change the system.

 

What did applicants think?

We asked applicants what they thought of our approach, after they had found out whether they had been successful or not. Overall, most applicants valued the opportunity to contribute to decision making. Importantly, most found it a worthwhile use of their time including some of those which didn’t receive funding. This was a relief.

We had hoped that the process would benefit the charities involved – not only in contributing to decision making, but also through learning about other projects and how they were presented. Charities told us how it helped them understand how their own applications could be improved in the future, which is a really encouraging outcome for us. As a Foundation, we want to make interactions with us as valuable as possible for both parties.

The positive experience certainly wasn’t unanimous though. Some felt uncomfortable judging their competitors or basing decisions on short summaries. And of course, it was another drain on charities’ time.

Other concerns turned out to be unfounded. Some worried that more niche, specialist or hyper-local causes could be overlooked. In reality, more unusual causes typically scored highly in applicants’ assessments – sometimes more highly than with our and other assessors.

A further challenge was being unable to clearly state how we would use applicants’ assessments to inform the panel; we weren’t, for example, looking to have them dictate where a certain percentage of funding would end up. In effect, this process was more focused on improving decision making than really devolving power.

 

Did it make a difference?

Participants’ assessments, alongside those by external assessors and Foundation staff, informed the final grant decision making. Ultimately, decisions were made by a panel of senior Foundation staff and trustees but their discussions and decisions were grounded in the assessments provided.

There are some clear examples of where charities’ assessments shifted the panel meeting debate and decision making. Trustees commented how the inclusion of different perspectives really broadened their thinking and increased their questioning of decisions. There was however often lots of diversity of opinions between charities’ assessments, so relatively few decisions were clear cut.

Considering this diversity of opinion, how did it play out in discussions? While applicants’ assessments were in the room in paper form, applicants themselves were obviously not. So they were unable to reinforce their assessments in discussions. In contrast, Foundation assessors and external experts involved in assessments were. While different people at the meeting brought in applicants’ views to ongoing discussions, perhaps the meeting would have benefited from a specific advocate whose role was to ensure these views were reinforced across the board.

 

How could it have been improved?

A number of applicants would have preferred existing charities supported by the Foundation to contribute to decision-making, rather than applicants themselves. This is tricky. While we fund many charities supporting people throughout the criminal justice system to deliver services, we didn’t already fund influencing work in the sector. That meant we didn’t have a cohort of criminal justice charities working on influencing projects to draw on.

For the application process as a whole, the greatest challenge was the time taken to apply. We provided free theory of change training from NPC as well as follow-on support, yet many applicants found the development of a theory of change difficult and time-consuming.

We included theory of change training in our last influencing programme around domestic and sexual abuse once they had received funding – feedback showed it was helpful but would have been better earlier in thinking about the work. We encourage a theory of change approach so that charities think clearly about how their activities will address the need and meet their aims. But it is clear that some charities still find it daunting.  

 

Would we include charities’ views in assessments again?

In short, yes we would, in some shape or form. We’re keen to explore whether there are ways to include charities in our other grant-making decisions – building in the learning from this process. The bigger question is whether there is a way to do this so that all those involved find it worthwhile. We know charities are under huge pressure already, and while we want to include their views in our decision making, we don’t want to add to their burden if they don’t get something out of it.

When charities do have the space and time to feed into our decision-making process, their insights are invaluable and offer up a useful diversity of voices to inform the thinking behind who is ultimately awarded a grant. We want to make ‘good grants’ which fit into our ambitions as a Foundation to support small and local charities to make life-changing impact – and that means listening to and learning from these charities’ expertise about what is needed. Going forward, we will think about how we can best achieve it.