Fences Not Ambulances: the role of funders


Magazine article


Early action – building a fence at the top of the cliff rather than running an ambulance at the bottom seems like an eminently smart approach to public policy. You’ll struggle to find a practitioner or a funder, a policy maker or a politician who wouldn’t agree with the principle but it has seldom been embraced on any scale in public policy.
As the economic environment has deteriorated the fence building has particularly suffered, despite the recognition that good preventative work is about reducing needs and ultimately therefore about reducing costs and reducing deficits. The Early Action Task Force has been unpicking this paradox, considering why common sense is not finding its way into common practice and endeavouring to do something about it.
We began with language. The conventional language of prevention, avoiding the worst, presupposes problems, victims, perpetrators. It is pessimistic, reductive and discouraging. The language of “readiness”, becoming the best that we can be, identifies assets and builds on strengths. It is optimistic, aspirational and motivating.
We picture a society which is defined not against the countless things that don’t happen – heart disease, under achievement at school, violence in the family – but by reference to its strengths. Its people are ready and able to benefit from opportunity, to learn at primary school, to thrive in secondary, to succeed at work, to be good parents and, because we all experience difficulties at some point in our lives, they are ready and able also to manage adversity – to cope with losing a job or a relationship, to rebuild after illness or bereavement, to adapt to change.
We visualise this ‘ready for everything’ community at the top of a cliff where universal services and clear rules equip us to flourish, protect us from harm, prepare us for change. ‘Fences’ or prompt interventions at the cliff edge respond early to problems which, if not forestalled, could lead to more serious difficulties. Further down those interventions become more focused on crisis, less likely to be totally successful and very likely to cost more.
Earlier action yields a triple dividend – thriving lives, costing less, contributing more. Yet voluntary agencies that are delivering acute services with a queue at the door can’t immediately release the time or the money to track back and work on prevention.
If we believe that this journey is important and timely we must begin it with funders in the vanguard (as grantmakers are already doing by asking applicants for evidence of their environmental policies, which is driving change across the sector). First, by requiring Transition Plans, establishing milestones for the gradual shift of resources into earlier action. Second, by supporting the development of those plans with a kind of “grand bargain”: when a grant seeker asks
for funding to meet the needs at their door the grant maker should offer 25% more – first to meet the need and then to reduce it. That or nothing.
Once the strategy has been established it becomes realistic to plan for the steady migration of core funding, staff time and organisational capacity. But without dedicated funds most organisations will continue to meet the same needs, in the same way for as long as they can. Sadly, as we know, funds are disappearing and needs are increasing, so if this was ever an intelligent strategy it certainly isn’t now.
The Task Force is also talking to grant makers and investors about a joint fund that pays, and only pays, for transition to earlier action. It wouldn’t necessarily focus on any specific client group but would be entirely concerned with the success and replicability of the process of transition. This clarity of focus would ensure that the money is not sucked into paying for acute services no matter how valuable and it would enable us to build up a serious body of experience
and expertise.
Ask anyone in the third sector about their long term vision; invariably they will talk about obsolescence, working for the day when they are no longer needed.
It’s the right mission but press further. What did your organisation do this week, this year to advance that day? Too often the answer is little more than an unhappy shrug. Many funders display a similar disjunction between what they do and what they think they are for.
We know that present trajectories, social, economic and environmental are all unsustainable. These escalating needs cry out for braver, bolder, more
challenging leadership from third sector funders driving the shift to prevention and unleashing the triple dividend. We need change that is thoughtful, rigorous,
sustained, and ambitious – a measured revolution but a revolution none the less.