This report explores the ways that user-led mental health groups find it difficult to get funding to sustain themselves. It aims to support funders to resource these groups sustainably.
About the report
In the winter of 2021 we carried out a survey of 137 grassroots user-led mental health groups regarding their funding experiences. These small and often-overlooked groups do vital and urgent work to support the mental health and wellbeing of their communities in many different ways, with limited capacity and resources. “User-led” in this context refers to groups led by and for people with lived experience of a particular issue; they are by and for their communities, which may be based on shared experiences, identities, or geographies.
Grassroots user-led mental health groups: these groups may not explicitly call themselves “mental health groups”, but often work at the community level and offer support – emotional, cultural, material, practical, financial, and much more – that seeks to meet community-specific needs and alter or alleviate social conditions that drive distress or mental ill-health. These groups often do not see their experiences of mental distress and trauma as separate to other and multiple forms of marginalisation and oppression.
‘Funding Grassroots Mental Health Work’ draws on our survey, the contributions of our Side by Side grantees, and previous research commissioned by NSUN including ‘What Do User-Led Groups Need?‘ (Mark Brown & Emma Ormerod, 2020) and ‘Mapping The Lived Experience Landscape‘ (Rai Waddingham, 2021).
Our research confirmed that these groups and organisations find it very difficult to get the funding they need to sustain themselves. We hope this report, including the action points and self-evaluation questions, can support funders to resource small grassroots groups sustainably while preserving the qualities that make their work effective and powerful, such as their independence and autonomy.
- Those who have previously applied for funding reported inaccessible, inflexible and overly-complicated processes. Intensive application processes that demand huge amounts of information and paperwork with no human element are described as a burden on the extremely limited capacities of grassroots groups, which are often run by a small number of volunteers who do this (unpaid or underpaid) work alongside other commitments.
- Over half of the groups surveyed did not feel that funders understood their work or the reality of the conditions they operate under – doing urgent and often deeply emotional work with little capacity, no time for impact measuring procedures to “prove” that what they are doing helps people, and often no fundraising expertise.
- Groups who have not previously applied for funding have many reasons. They often simply struggle to know what funding opportunities are available. They might be put off due to rigid eligibility requirements around things like structure or they are discouraged by extensive application and reporting processes, which are regarded as inaccessible.
- Grassroots groups urgently need more funding pots where they can apply for money to go towards core costs to be made available. There is a huge amount of need for larger, longer-term amounts of funding that is not just for new projects, so that groups can move towards sustainability rather than constantly chasing small, restricted pots of funding.
- Funding norms are having a negative impact on the already-difficult working conditions of those in user-led organisations. Burnout, fatigue, and precarious working conditions were prominent themes in this research. The process of applying for funding is exhausting and financial insecurity creates huge amounts of anxiety. This is on top of the work itself already being emotionally taxing and deeply personal.
Action points for funders
Increase simplicity, flexibility and transparency
Making the application and reporting processes as simple and flexible as possible increases their accessibility to user-led groups, which are often run by a small number of volunteers with extremely limited capacity and little fundraising expertise. Ways to improve funding processes for these groups include:
- Using straightforward language without jargon
- Evaluating whether the requirements in the application are reasonable and proportionate to the amount of funding on offer
- Increasing flexibility in the eligibility criteria and the reporting requirements – not all user-led groups are registered with the Charity Commission or Companies House, have a bank account, or have extensive finance documentation and ‘impact reporting’ paperwork
- Improving clarity on eligibility criteria and greater transparency around how funding is allocated so time is not wasted on applications that are unlikely to be successful
- Working with intermediary funders and infrastructure organisations with deeper roots in the communities you’re aiming to resource
Offer support and interactivity to small, user-led groups
Providing a way for an applicant representing a user-led group to interact with “an actual person” from your organisation is felt to be hugely valuable in order to allow user-led groups to fully explain their work and what they need. Again, the person writing the applications often has no prior experience of doing so and would benefit from guidance and answers to questions around costing their activities and more broadly what funders want and need to see in applications in order for them to be successful.
Make your offer less project-bound
The desire for longer-term, unrestricted and stable funding for core costs was the most prominent theme to arise throughout this piece of research. The push for new and innovative projects to fund comes at the cost of allowing groups to continue working on their urgent core activities and what they know is needed (and what they know they do well), hindering the ability for user-led groups to become sustainable and stop constantly chasing funding or run with no funding.
Work towards trust
Many representatives of user-led groups spoke of the importance of mutual trust between themselves and funders. This includes trust from funders that groups know what is needed in their communities without extensive demands for data and evidence, trust that they will deliver their work with funding without intensive reporting requirements, and trust that funders are aligned with their values.
Funders could provide evidence of previously funding user-led work and articulation of funders’ values, aims and priorities to help groups feel that they stand a chance of being funded by an organisation that understands the nature of and need for their work and so will be a “good fit”.
Reject a one size fits all approach and develop your understanding of the work of user-led groups
The above recommendations are underpinned by rejecting a one size fits all approach in favour of developing an understanding of the hugely varied work these groups do and the range of constraints they face.
Funders should recognise the deeply personal emotional labour and time cost for user-led groups of searching for funding out of desperation to continue working to support their communities, and build this understanding into how they approach their funding processes. Funders should recognise the gaps in knowledge around the needs of user-led groups and seek to work proactively to fill them by working with and interacting more meaningfully with these groups.
Further recommended reading
- What Do User-Led Groups Need – NSUN
- Mapping The Lived Experience Landscape in Mental Health – NSUN
- Resourcing Racial Justice – Ten Years’ Time
- Digging Deeper – Baobab Foundation
- Below The Radar – Local Trust
- Booksa Paper – The Ubele Initiative