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Chasing long-term sustainability over short-term grants

As part of our Open Call for Innovative Solutions, Oaks Consultancy provided sustainability support to the chosen cohort, here, we blog with Oaks on the support itself and learnings from the Open Call project.

24th March 2022

by Naomi Curniffe and Aaron Dunkley
Naomi is a partner support manager at Sport England and Aaron is the head of account management at Oaks Consultancy.

From inception we knew we wanted our first Open Call for Innovative Solutions to look and feel different.

We wanted to move away from how we’ve traditionally run funds and, instead, deliver an approach that moved swiftly, challenged current ways of working and focused on how we upskill organisations – beyond just funding them.

As a result, we developed a non-financial support package based on the needs of the cohort which included; an onboarding ‘Freshers Week’, regular networking sessions and connections to relevant partners.

Our six-month investment helped to build momentum and deliver significant impact but we recognised that securing more funding was an increasing priority for the cohort, particularly in smaller organisations where staff cover multiple roles.

Throughout our conversations, the cohort talked about the frustrations of “chasing short-term grants” – which meant they often would have to pivot to meet the needs of funders, or focus on income-generating programmes rather than social-impact programmes that more aligned to their purpose.

We knew another short-term investment would only delay the problem and so devised a plan to support and upskill the cohort in their planning for long-term sustainability, and that delivered through a bespoke support programme of online workshops, 1:1 support and accompanying resources.

How did we devise and deliver support?

The cohort were asked to complete a self-assessment, comprising questions on their activity levels, confidence and relevance of various organisational functions. These were:

  • financial position and sustainability
  • governance, strategy and business plan
  • impact measurement and marketing and communications
  • income generation, including grant funding, corporate partnerships, trading and charitable fundraising.

There was huge diversity in the self-assessment responses – the outcomes of which were:

  • Many were confident in managing their governance and happy their organisation existed in the governance structure which best fit their long-term goals. Some, however, highlighted challenges and uncertainty around their governance model, which were very specific to their situation.
  • A number of organisations did not have an up-to-date organisational strategy or an up-to-date business plan. Of these, 76% (strategy) and 70% (business plan) said support in this area would be relevant to them.
  • The subjects which rated highest by the cohort as being ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ relevant to them were impact measurement (100%), grant funding (88%), and corporate partnerships (75%). The subjects scoring the lowest were trading income (59%) and charitable fundraising (37%).

Marketing and communications also rated highly but the cohort were more interested in how to tell their story than the operational side of it. This would become a common thread across the online workshops, while the cohort were signposted to Sport England’s Digital Marketing Hub for resources around the operational side of marketing.

The self-assessment results were used to develop the following programme:

  • Online workshops on grant funding, corporate partnerships and impact measurement.
  • Accompanying workshop resources including:
    • building a case for support
    • developing a corporate partnerships strategy.
  • Digital guides including:
    • introduction to strategic planning
    • how to create a business plan
    • how to launch a fundraising campaign.
  • 1:1 support calls.

What did we learn?

We gained several learnings through delivering the programme and engaging in honest conversations with the cohort about their key concerns.

Here are a couple we feel are important to note:

  • No one-size fits all approach

Group sessions had to be delivered in such a way that all attendees could benefit, regardless of the context behind why they were attending. Webinars had to be structured to start with the fundamental theory on subjects, then moving into interactive practical tasks and discussions where attendees could apply the theory to their own organisation. We found following this grounding in a subject there were more 1:1 support calls than originally planned. These calls were particularly valued as we could provide more in-depth, practical support to address unique challenges.

  • Understanding governance structures

A lack of knowledge around governance models is a common challenge and inhibitor to long-term sustainability. A diverse portfolio of income streams – one that generates income across the spectrum from charitable income (e.g. grants, individual giving) to earned income (e.g. trading) – is critical to most sustainable organisations. We found that several cohort members had a governance model that sadly created a barrier to one or more key income streams and would need to be addressed.

We have found long-term sustainability can have many obstacles, even when we try to design for self-sufficiency by using a short-term funding intervention. The alignment of an organisation’s purpose with their social impact programmes and their governance model is critical to long-term success, which is underpinned by long-term planning.

You can find more insights on long-term sustainability through Oaks’ bi-monthly newsletter.

What next?

As we at Sport England continue to implement our Uniting the Movement strategy, it’s imperative that we apply these learnings to ensure we use more than just our investment to provide organisations with a secure foundation on which they can build their vital work.

We believe that long-term sustainability planning is an essential component for organisations to be able to continue their vital work without detriment to them or their communities.

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