Community Foundation Northern Ireland - Our response and learnings through COVID-19

13 Sep 2021 Jocelyn Horton    Last updated: 15 Sep 2021

We asked the Grants and Donor Care Team at Community Foundation NI to reflect on the last 18 months to let us know what they have learnt during the pandemic and any changes they have made.

What did you do in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

The Community Foundation’s core focus is always ‘Connecting People Who Care with Causes That Matter,’ so in March 2020 when lockdown began, the Foundation was one of the first funders to open a Covid Response Fund. Initially acting as an emergency fund, it grew to over £4m and developed into supporting ‘New Needs’ identified by communities across Northern Ireland.

Did you make any changes to your processes during the pandemic?

The process to apply to the fund was streamlined to enable applicants to submit key information through a simple application form. We adapted our processes, from signed hard copy contracts and documents, to accepting online signed acceptance. This enabled us to pay grants out within one to two days of awards being approved.

Our assessment process also became more flexible and easier for applicants.

  • We didn't seek information from applicants that was available to us from elsewhere, such as Companies House, and/or the Charity Commission.
  • We employed freelance assessors to enable us to process applications quickly and build the capacity of our team to deal with the significant volume of applications.
  • We encouraged assessors to be as flexible as they could to support those most in need at that time, and at pace.
  • Our internal panels met regularly to make decisions as quickly as possible with many grant applications receiving notification of success within 24 hours, and payments made within 48 hours.

What changes will continue?

Since the pandemic, we continue to adapt and do things online. We now use docusign to enable online acceptance of terms and conditions of funding. We have also signed up to the following eight commitments around more risk taking and open and transparent grant making:

  • We will not waste applicants’ time
  • We will only ask relevant questions
  • We will accept our share of risk
  • We will act with urgency
  • We will be transparent about our decisions
  • We will enable grantees to respond flexibly to changing priorities and needs
  • We will be clear about our relationship from the start
  • We will commit to light touch reporting

Has the pandemic influenced your strategic priorities?

Whilst our strategic priorities have not changed as a result of the pandemic, we are particularly proud to have prioritised supporting people on the edges and encouraging community innovation and voice; areas that are ever more in need since the pandemic. As a leading independent, grant making trust here in Northern Ireland, we focus on inspiring generosity and achieving impact, and we encourage and support those who want to give and empower the local community to effect change.

As such, The Foundation has always encouraged consultation with those who have lived experience of particular issues to ensure that our funds adequately support their needs, and to involve those with lived experience in the design and delivery of funding and programmes through participation in design making panels. Consequently, we have expanded the representation of our Grants and Impact Committee to include the BAME and LGTBQ+ communities.

In addition

  • We have used this experience of a more flexible approach to encourage our donors and funders to support more core and unrestricted costs; and to support what community groups say they need financial support for rather than what funders think they should need. We have had significant success and have since established a number of new funds providing core and unrestricted costs.
  • We have further developed our working relationship with our grantees, through the establishment of a grantee network. This network is helping inform our strategic direction, and consulting with local communities around the needs that they are facing, and to encourage the sharing between communities of best practice.
  • We now facilitate monthly ‘Chat to the Funder’ events to support organisations both pre- and post-application including helping them with their monitoring and rollout of their projects.
  • We encourage all of our applicants to seek guidance from our staff, and we have been open to changes and amendments to projects and costs associated.
  • We have also developed new funds since the start of the pandemic to include a focus on mental health, housing and homelessness, supporting children to thrive, food and digital poverty, capacity building for people on the edges, support for carers, and support for patients and families living with cancer. 

What did the Foundation learn from its COVID-19 response?

In the future, we want to continue with our flexible approach to grant making, and ensure that our funds are accessible to all, focusing our efforts on the issues and thematic areas that have been further exacerbated as a result of the pandemic. Some of our key learnings are:

  • The value of the sector to deliver at times of need is significant, and the Community Foundation should think more about how we further enable this.
  • The ability of the VCSE sector to adapt has been significant and that we too should consider how we can adapt further.
  • Some duplication of provision exists, from those acting both as funders and support organisations. We will consider how we manage this in practice .
  • Core and flexible and longer-term funding is needed and we have already started to develop programmes around this.
  • The importance of embedding learning and knowledge in our organisation to inform our practice.
  • The importance of building on our commitment to agile and flexible processes
  • The need to encourage and support collaboration in the VCSE sector
  • The importance of developing new relationships between funders
  • The need for creating a new narrative between government and the VCSE sector

We are particularly proud of how our communities responded to COVID-19 at the grass roots of our society and we were privileged to be able to work in collaboration and partnership with other funders to support them (some of the grantees pictured below).

Friends of Parkview

In Your Space

Black Mountain Action Group

To find out more about Community Foundation NI and to apply for grants, please visit their website.


The opinions, views or comments in this article do not necessarily reflect any views or policies of NICVA.'s picture
by Jocelyn Horton

Fundraising Advice Officer

[email protected]

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