I’m delighted to publish this guest blog from Dr Richard Piper, who is the CEO at Alcohol Change UK. Richard, you may laugh, but I’d love to play that game you created some time!
Most people know me as a charity leader, with a background in working on ‘impact’ and ‘strategy’ and, before that, ‘charity shops’. Not many people know me as a computer coder. But I am. Well, I was. When I was a teenager. On the ZX Spectrum 48k.
And I once created an entire computer game. It was one of the highlights of my life. It was a great game, with real 3D graphics and innovative controls. But it had two big problems. First, it’s overall concept: Narrowboat Simulator. Yep. Horrendous. It should be a joke. But I was actually serious. I’d been on a narrowboat holiday with my family, thought “this is nice”, and leapt into turning it into a computer game without any thought as to whether a critical public would want that kind of ‘nice’.
But it’s second problem was even worse than the concept: it was impossible to win the game. For the first hour or two that you played it, this was compelling. You thought, “if only I can get through those locks quicker, I can keep the water level higher in the canal, and make that corner before the timer runs out”. It was deeply challenging and that was motivating. You were so close to making it, and that made you try again. But after a few hours in, after failure after failure after failure, that sense of challenge turned to exasperation. And pretty soon, you wanted to give up. When I looked back at the code, I eventually realised that it was mathematically impossible to ever win the game. Unless I changed the fundamental rules of the narrowboat universe that I had created, it was just never going to work. I gave up and started work on Knight Jousting Simulator (still working on it).
As charities, social enterprises, social change agencies we can’t just give up and walk away from the Funding Game that we’re playing. But I am becoming more and more concerned that the game is impossible to win.
Consider this real email, about a partnership funding bid to a trust, from another charity that I came across. To be clear, this is not a bid from my charity. I write this not as a sore loser, but as an observer of a system that I’ve had enough of.
“Sorry guys, disappointed to say that after all the work we weren’t successful with the bid :-(.
We essentially had almost top marks but they felt that with our level of reserves we weren’t in as much need as other charities which had applied and could self-fund. We’ve spent the last three/four years painstakingly building our reserves up after a bit of a sketchy time, to ensure we have 6 months running costs and a buffer for the upcoming retender so this is a bit of a shock to us!”
I’ve worked for a grantmaker. I love that grantmaking trusts are independent and can make whatever rules they each want to. I know that coordination between them is very challenging. And of course I accept that, faced with more demand than they have resources, tough choices have to be taken and not every project can be funded.
But in this game of Funding Simulator, if you don’t have enough reserves, you’re told that you’re not a safe enough investment. Which leaves you open to be closed down for good by a pandemic or other shock. So you build up your reserves. But once you’ve done that, you’re told you’re not in as much need as other charities and can’t be funded.
In this game of Funding Simulator you also have to spend a massive amount of resource creating bids that fail because too many funders still don’t have clear initial eligibility criteria up front. My personal view is that all funders must have a light tough initial eligibility quiz that stops potential bidders wasting their resources with bids that will never succeed. I’ve yet to be persuaded otherwise.
Even foundations with such criteria still sometime get this wrong. In this particular case, I’m aware that the bidder did meet the initial eligibility criteria on reserves, but was still turned down for funding because of their reserves! This is not how eligibility criteria should work. Once you are eligible on the basis of a particular criteria, that criteria should not then be reintroduced as a discretionary criteria at a later stage in the process.
I know. I know. I’m not saying anything new. A million people have said all this before me. But that’s partly my point. We’ve got to stop accepting these as ‘just the rules of the game’. It’s too dysfunctional. This has to change. And urgently. We need changes in the rules about reserves in this new world of pandemics. I would suggest that no grantmaker should ever refuse funding to a charity because they have up to twelve months reserves.
More than that, we need trusts and foundations to come together, with real intent and joined by the charities they support, convening a UK-wide collaboration to create the rules for a new, functional game that allows charities to win the resources they need in order to create social impact and that enables grantmakers to see their resources achieve more change.
The aim of these new rules should not be that every bid or charity can or will be successful. But it should be to remove perverse incentives, to encourage and reward success, to balance risky innovation with stable delivery, and so on. I don’t know exactly what those rules should be or how they should be implemented or enforced, but I do believe they should be created together, by the players of the game as well as by the rulemakers, and with creativity and some radicalism.
Because charity leaders and funders cannot walk away, and because the game as it stands is putting an intolerable additional strain on people, this is an urgent issue of wellbeing across our great sector.
I look to my friends at ACF, NCVO, ACEVO and others to show leadership here and do something meaningful and permanent about this, not with a talking shop, but real, practical change led by vision and drive.