Caroline Mason: on Esmée Fairbairn’s response to coronavirus


It’s been an extraordinary, incredibly challenging six weeks for our society and the civil society organisations that are its lifeblood. 

I wanted to share what we’ve been doing in response to coronavirus with you - our friends and partners. These are extraordinary times and, like many other funders, we have put aside our ordinary rules and process and taken unprecedented action.

By being open about our approach, I hope our decisions will be better understood by the organisations we fund, and by the many more we can’t support. We also want to encourage other funders to take similar actions.  

Additional funding

On 14th April 2020 we announced that Esmée Fairbairn Foundation was making an additional £16 million of funding available this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, more than ever, we need a strong and diverse civil society so we wanted to give the majority of this funding - £14 million – in “fast-response grants” to some of the organisations we already fund across all of our sectors: the arts, children and young people, environment, food and social change.

For these fast-response grants to be meaningful, we decided to offer the equivalent of six months of our funding, capped at £60,000. This meant offering grants to 540 of the 750+ organisations we currently fund. We didn’t want to ask organisations to compete for funding, so we made some difficult decisions and allocated the support ourselves – we’ve shared our logic below.

Extraordinary grant-making

On 13 March 2020 we contacted everyone we support to reassure them that our funding is flexible and intended to help them deal with challenges. We offered to move payments, give grants plus support and relaxed our reporting requirements. We then started working on a fast-response grant offer, which was approved at an emergency meeting of our Trustee board on 8 April.

By 24 April we had made 540 grant offers for the equivalent of six months of our funding, capped at £60,000. Our offer was so simple, we had several emails in response to check it was not a scam.

Grants can be used for core costs, and will be unrestricted unless organisations are not a registered charity.  Because we already fund these organisations, we didn’t ask for any documentation or for them to make an application. The grants will have no written reporting requirements, though we do want to learn about their effect later on.

We asked organisations to tell us if they don’t need this support, so that we can re-allocate the money to others. We aim to make payments quickly and once offers are accepted grants should take two weeks to process, but may take a little longer if there is a lot of urgent demand.

Closing to applications

How does it feel to send out 540 grant offers in one day? Not as good as you might think. We have eased the pressure on some organisations, but we know that many, many more will continue to struggle.

It is always an immense privilege being a funder - a charity which never has to fundraise – but it is a great responsibility too. We are always aware of the huge demand for our funding, and have worked hard over the past three years to be clearer about what we fund in order to reduce the number of applications we receive, and the accompanying amount of wasted time and effort.

On 3 April we closed to new applications. This was originally planned to prepare for the launch of our new strategy in May, and has also given us time to develop our emergency response. However, as the situation became more difficult, we could see that the need for support amongst organisations we already fund was so great that we would need to concentrate all our time and funds on supporting them in the short to medium-term. So we have decided to delay our strategy launch until September, when we will open again to new applications.

Collaboration is key

As a colleague said in the first weeks of this crisis, there is no perfect path for funders to take. We will not have got everything right, but I hope that by talking about the decisions we’ve made and the way we’ve provided support, other funders will find it easier to share their own choices.

All our grants will be published to 360Giving and we recommend using the COVID-19 tracker, as we are, to co-ordinate support with other funders. This is just one way we can work together and, from now on, working together needs to become the new normal. We all want to make an impact, and what we do – or don’t do – now could make more of a difference than ever before.     

Questions and Answers:

How did you decide who should get these fast-response grants?

We prioritised organisations for this support that:

  • are experiencing negative effects of coronavirus on their costs or income streams;
  • are working with a vulnerable group; or
  • are increasing their services in response to increased demand.

With a limited pot of funding, we did not prioritise support for:

  • One-off or time-limited projects where work has mostly been completed or could be delayed;
  • Organisations with relatively large reserves, or the majority of whose funding is generally secure or comes from trusts and foundations
  • Organisations to which we have recently made new grants.

For organisations that we are funding with social investments, we decided to consider requests for support on a case by case basis.

Why isn’t this funding open to applications?

We want to focus on the organisations we already fund. We currently support more than 750 organisations that we think are key to a strong and diverse civil society. They work in the arts, with children and young people, for the environment and for social change. All of those organisations have been affected by the coronavirus crisis, and many are struggling.

Most of the organisations we fund will not be eligible for the emergency grant funds that are responding to coronavirus. We want to enable these pioneers and partners to survive and ensure that the UK can thrive in the wake of Covid-19

Will this funding affect our grant/ application currently being assessed?

No. This money is given in addition to our funding and is not an extension of the grant period. We will continue to invite and consider applications for continuation funding, and assess and make grants in response to applications already invited.  

My grant has just finished and I haven’t heard from you – are we entitled to any of this funding?

We’re sorry, but we have only offered to support to organisations with active grants. And amongst these we have prioritised organisations for support that:

  • are experiencing negative effects of coronavirus on their costs or income streams;
  • are working with a vulnerable group; or
  • are increasing their services in response to increased demand.

We aren’t entitled to the extra support. When will the Foundation be open to new grant applications?

We should open to applications in September 2020, when we will launch our new strategy. This was planned for May 2020, but has been deferred so that we can focus on responding to coronavirus.

How will the additional £16m allocation impact future funding levels? Will you have less to spend in subsequent years?

Trustees decided to make £16 million of new funding available this year, in addition to our existing grant budget. This money comes from our investments, and we will continue to base future spending levels on a range of factors, including the long-term performance of our endowment.  

How did you arrive at the £16m figure? Why can’t you make more money available?

£16m is our emergency response. Of the £16m, £2 million will go to emergency funding schemes in collaboration with others, and £14 million will be allocated in fast-response grants to organisations we already fund, that we prioritise for support.

£14m represents the equivalent of six months of grant support for organisations in our portfolio that:

  • are experiencing negative effects of coronavirus on their costs or income streams;
  • are working with a vulnerable group; or
  • are increasing their services in response to increased demand.

Coronavirus might not have an immediate effect. Could funded organisations access additional support in future?

This is a new world for all of us. We will continue to listen, learn and re-evaluate our funding decisions based on the experiences of the organisations we fund and the people they work with. We also think it’s key to work with others in the sector – we are rarely an organisation’s sole or main funder – and so additional support may be offered in collaboration with other funders in future.

If we take up the fast-response funding, are we still able apply for Grants Plus support?

Absolutely. We realise that organisational needs and priorities may change in the wake of coronavirus. Our Grants Plus support has been adapted to provide current grant and social investment holders with help to deal with some of the resulting challenges and uncertainties.

We are not struggling as much as other organisations. Should we still accept the offer of a grant?

No. If your organisation doesn’t need this support, please tell us so that we can re-allocate the money to others who are more in need.

We may not survive the crisis. Can we use the grant towards winding up costs?

This fast-response grant is intended to help the work we are funding to continue. If you already know that it can’t, please get in touch to tell us.