The Hamster Wheel Challenge: Funding & Sustainability for Grassroots Groups

A stock photo of someone in a white tshirt holding a small jigsaw globe. Read bold text reads "Funding and sustainability" and black text underneath this reads "the never-ending scramble for grassroots orgs survival"

It’s a chilly winter afternoon and am sitting by the fireplace, staring at my laptop, imagining how many BME women and families we are going to help with the project we are rolling out. I see their faces, the single moms, the young couples, the elderly and infirm in the community, and my heart is full…

I cannot for the love of chocolate imagine that any organisation we approach with this vision would say No… And then reality hit. By the end of January 2021, I had sent out over 16 funding proposals and applications and had not heard back from any.

As the projects lead in our organisation Women and Digital Inclusion also lovingly known as WODIN, I am tasked with putting together information, data, testimonials and anything a funder or stakeholder may need in order to see and catch the WODIN vision, partner with us and help us bridge the gap to end digital poverty and social isolation in the BME communities in Liverpool.

Yet, like with most grassroots organisations leadership, I am not trained to write project proposals let alone funding bids. So, you can imagine my shock at the amount of information, the complicated jargon, every single application form demanded. One funding application form had 63 questions, with over half of these questions demanding 150-500 words each!

Most of the questions on funding bids are confusing, demand a high level of skill in project writing and storytelling. Yet I push through, burn the midnight oil for most nights as I try to fit the WODIN story into the funder criteria.

I communicate with quite a few grassroots non-profit organisations: charities, CIOs; CICs, constituted groups and I have come to the realisation that WODIN is not alone in the funding challenges. And frustration with the amount of information funders demand, the complication of the forms, the frustration when asked for documentation you don’t have and have no resources to have created for you by a professional… and…

Without funding and resourcing, no organisation grassroots or otherwise can be sustainable.

So, what does the funding cover for a small grassroots organisation?

Funding needs can be for:

  • Core costs like staff time/salary, volunteer expenses and costs
  • Staff training and certifications (CPD)
  • Rent, utilities, insurance and other admin costs
  • Phone, computer, software for computer like MS Word, anti-virus
  • Membership subscriptions
  • Furniture – tables, chairs, stationery, postage, leaflets, fliers, banners, logo design
  • Digital resources – website design and maintenance, branding, social media marketing
  • H&S tools – Hand sanitiser, soap, hand towels, cleansers, toilet paper, HiVis vests, branded merchandise for brand visibility and recognition
  • Marketing and promotional materials, including fund raising events
  • Travel costs, motor vehicle maintenance costs for some
  • Projects running costs
  • Then there are some unexpected ones like ICO data protection annual fees
  • And so much more because each organisation has its unique projects related costs

So where do Grassroots voluntary organisations get Funding?

Speaking from our WODIN experience, plus conversations with various community leaders in the northwest, most grassroots organisations have a complicated system of fund-raising ranging from:

  • Personal donations/self-funded
  • Charitable Trusts grants esp. for under £10k
  • Local Authority funding – (which has been cut to almost nothing at least in Liverpool)
  • Government funding (very few less than 2% have actually ever received this)
  • National Lottery – Awards for All (this is a huge help and go to for most grassroots organisations and WODIN’s very first funder)
  • Membership subscription fees
  • Fundraising events and donations (again very few use this method and attract very little money)

From the above snapshot, and according to the CEO of Support and Action Women’s Network (SAWN) Mrs. Rose Ssali:

Clearly most grassroots voluntary organisations are hugely reliant on external financial support to deliver their services. The funding is short lived, depends on short-span little projects. And staff time is usually not counted inside such funds. It becomes very difficult to grow, expand and do bigger projects let alone cover core costs.

And for an organisation to become sustainable and thrive, core costs must be covered in a secure way.

Some organisations can attract funding if they have a unique service. For instance;

A small charity in Oldham was serving Asian women in Chadderton, due to lack of funds it closed, but before it did, it had become so popular in Oldham they were offered £100,000 funding by local authority to keep going. Not all small organisations are that lucky…

The biggest challenge to grassroots organisations sustainability is funders do not take them seriously. And when they attract some little money, they cannot be sustainable working with 10k project-based funding for a year. They are perpetually chasing one pot of money after another, many of which they find they do not meet the funder’s criteria.

I agree with Mrs Ssali.

See, WODIN is subscribed to a large number of funders newsletters, yet a large proportion of these funding sources are not suitable or open to WODIN. We simply do not meet their criteria.

That’s why, WODIN was self-funded to begin with, just doing our best to give what we could to our community. We didn’t have a bank account, nor were we registered. We served the BME community as and when the need occurred. Obviously, this wasn’t sustainable as often times we couldn’t handle the demand and we had no capacity to do so.

I’ve come across multitudes of passionate people running their non-profits the same way.

And it’s clear that the last 18 months have seen radical changes for migrant and minority groups’ ability to access funding to sustain our organisational activities. Most organisations simply cannot meet the demand, they are stretched thin and many end up closing their doors because they lack the capacity to keep serving!

So, let’s talk about the strategy discourse between funding and sustainability…! That’s what this is about, right?

Funding Vs Sustainability

With funding being sporadic, sustainability is next to impossible. Unless you sell a specialist, service which brings in unrestricted funding. Or find a way to collaborate with bigger voluntary organisations to run projects or be commissioned for a service and thus tick along until you have enough reserves to stand on your own.

The pandemic and economic downturn in the UK has had a significant impact on grassroots minority organisations. Many simply could not access government funds and grants as they operated from a place of love and passion. Rather than organisational administration and governance.

Let me also state at this point that many BME-led organisation leadership agree with me when I say, that government guidance and support, promotes “BAME” a term that focuses and thus promotes cohesion at the expense of equality, misrepresenting single groups and reinforcing negative stereotypes.

Trust me, many black-led organisations find themselves financially stuck even when there is a lot of talk about funding being directed at the BAME communities in the UK over the past few years. They will agree with me in saying it doesn’t seem to trickle through to us.  Indeed, it is clear to most minority organisations that government focus on mainstreaming services does seem to compromise minority organisations’ identity and role in serving our communities.

Recently, I was a participant at a National Survivor User Network (NSUN) networking event for small grassroots non-profits.

It was clear that 90% of the participants at this event found it extremely difficult to attract funding. Yet, they notice funders constantly commissioning and funding larger voluntary organisations to carry out grassroots projects. This makes it truly difficult for smaller organisations to diversify their income streams for sustainability.

One of the attendees was hugely affected by this and several others agreed with her.

Which lead me to believe that the funding structure as it stands today “builds resentment on others.”

You see, while the large organisations have the capacity and resources to craft winning funding bids, and get the funding… it came across that they almost always signpost people in need to the smaller organisations who are working in the trenches, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, putting out one fire after another, while their long-term sustainability is hanging on a cliff.

The same lady also had a very common problem among minority BAME organisations leadership: language issues. It was clearly a major challenge for her especially when dealing with over lengthy, complicated application processes, so much so, she leaves many to pass by.

And even when she manages to submit an application, the feedback is less than acceptable, especially when the application is rejected with no clear reason given other than “we received so many applications we couldn’t fund or give feedback to all.”

Irrespective of the significant amount of time and effort put into crafting and submitting funding applications, there is no guarantee of funding. I have found that the commonest reasons WODIN has been given for rejection of a funding application are:  

  • The competitive nature of the grant
  • Lack of or inappropriate governance and safeguarding processes
  • The business case for funding was not robust or clear enough
  • Lack of clarity on the transformative impact the funding would have on the organisation
  • Lack of clarity on what happens at the end of the funding – aka no clear sustainability strategy beyond the life of the grant

And if a small organisation is successful in receiving funds, we face the challenge of the funder’s administration processes, and reporting demands. Which sometimes ask that the organisation leadership attend compulsory workshops for 2+ hours monthly. Time, they need to do the work on the ground. More often than not the funding received doesn’t cover the demand on the time put on the leaders of these voluntary organisations.

That’s why…

I am on a mission to help organisations willing to try digital ways to raise funds to get sustainable.

Over the summer months, I held workshops in collaboration with the Women Resource Center (WRC) teaching grassroots organisations leaders, “how Affiliate Marketing and Social Media Selling can help create a stream of income to sustain their organisations”.

I passionately believe this is a great way to increase their fund base and even reserves. And I am happy to do this for more organisations — details can be found on our website.

This is important, because over the last 20 months we’ve lived through a global pandemic. It has affected every one, socially, economically, mentally, communally, physically, psychologically you name it… so, finding funds, and staying sustainable is a juggling act for most grassroots organisations to keep on serving our communities. With a lack of core costs funding sustainability is a pipe dream. Yet, most funders DO NOT cover core costs. Some funders even refuse to fund overheads. I’ve found that many foundations would rather fund project-based bids, because they give a specific result — quick gains, making them look good. Rather than long term support for longer term results.

I could go on for England about this topic, but you get the gist.

Final Word

Without a strong core funding base an organisation faces serious sustainability issues. These include inability to hire both managerial and administrative staff, lack of money to pay volunteers allowances, let alone run sustainable projects. In fact, most small organisations workers, directors and leaders I know are volunteers.

That’s why most lose track of or change their original aims, constantly reinventing themselves and their objectives to meet funding requirements, so that they can keep afloat to serve another day.

Meaning, most leaders in this space barely make time nor have the resources to get appropriate training to develop strategies that can actually help us build sustainable organisations that serve our communities more and better.  

We need more support to keep on serving the at-risk communities, otherwise they fall through the cracks and pose an even bigger challenge to the societies we live in.

Sylvia Kalungi is a married proud mother of 2 young adults and a digital geek. She’s extremely proud to lead the talented and committed Women & Digital Inclusion CIC – (WODIN) team who continue to help Black African immigrant women in Liverpool UK, to create and build their skills so they can become Job ready, more productive and improve their livelihoods. Thus, bridging the social and digital gap to support their lives and families in the UK.  You can learn more about what WODIN do on their website and follow them on; Facebook, IG, Pinterest, Twitter their handle is @WodinLiverpool.