Reflecting on Crisis Grant-Making at Turn2us

Read this blog reflecting on findings from our Winter Grants programme.

This article is 9 months old


June 2023 marks 16 months since Turn2us opened the Winter Grants Programme (“Winter Grants”). Using learning from our programmes delivered during the Covid-19 lockdowns, the aim was to help families experiencing a severe financial crisis over the winter against a backdrop of rapid increases in inflation and the aftermath of the pandemic.  

The decision to develop Winter Grants came shortly after we suspended our longest-running grant programme the “Elizabeth Finn Fund” (“EFF”). A review of the EFF found it had become burdensome and there were barriers to accessing support, particularly for people of colour. It was no longer fit for purpose.  

Winter Grants was an opportunity to trial a different way of working. We stripped it back to the essentials and focused on trust. We wanted the process to be light touch, enabling a rapid turnaround time, to introduce the option of receiving the grant in instalments alongside a one-off lump sum and for the process to support recipients to have the agency to use the funds however they felt best.  

When Winter Grants opened for referrals on 14 February 2022, Boris Johnson was Prime Minister, inflation was pushing towards 6%, there was peace in Ukraine. A pint of milk cost 49p. The landscape of the UK has changed dramatically since then. We have had two new Prime Ministers, inflation sits around 10%, the war in Ukraine has displaced 14 million people. A pint of milk costs 70p.  

The shift to a radically different way of working tested us in lots of ways, we needed support from across the organisation and asked a lot from the grants team. We went from a heavily evidential process with the EFF to listening to people’s stories, capturing what information we needed through a conversation and providing rapid financial assistance. We introduced digital ID checks and used an online secure platform to verify bank details.  

We distributed £450,000 in six weeks. Grant recipients told us the grant gave them some breathing space, they felt heard and seen. They were trusted and believed. In a society where the poorest are often judged harshly, having your word taken at face value might feel small but can be extremely powerful.  

The Winter Grants evaluation was an important instrument that helped us to establish the foundations on which we would go on to deliver a further £1.4m of grants (to date) across a further three crisis-response grant programmes. Responding to escalating need and a deepening crisis affecting millions of families across the UK.  

Our learning and reflections 

Learning has been fundamental in helping us navigate crisis-response grant-making. The lessons have been wide and varied but there are five that stand out as having underpinned everything else.  

We had the support of our senior leadership team from the start  

We took an untried and untested route. The Covid-19 response programmes gave us a solid foundation to build from but we would not have been able to make such a radical shift in our approach without the support and trust of our senior leadership team. They gave us the space to test and learn. This trust was rooted in our knowledge, experience, and priorities. Our senior leadership team were prepared to take risks and learn. 

People in financial crisis need us to work at speed  

A crisis is an immediate and urgent situation. People experiencing a financial crisis need money first. Asking for lots of documents and information slows down the process and can delay a grant being awarded by weeks or even months. Adopting a very light-touch approach helped us to provide a rapid response. The average turnaround time throughout the Winter Grants programme was two days (from referral to a decision on the grant). We’ve continued to achieve a similar turnaround time in our subsequent programmes. 

Most people aren’t trying to abuse the ‘system’  

There is often stigma and suspicion when people ask for help. When someone is experiencing financial insecurity, they are often expected to open every aspect of their lives for scrutiny to prove they need help. 

Our welfare system is inherently suspicious, intentionally designed to make it as challenging as possible for people to access the support they need and are entitled to. The EFF evaluation highlighted a heavily evidential process that felt intrusive and eroded dignity. In response we made a choice to put trust at the centre of our crisis response programmes and prioritise dignity. We believed what people told us without asking them to prove it.  

Adopting this approach meant we had to accept the risk that a (very) small number of people may try to take advantage, but the positive impact because of this approach has far outweighed the risk. It has meant people feel valued and heard whilst freeing up our partners and team to focus on the person, not the process.   

Crisis grants respond to an immediate and urgent need  

Grants are tools that have the greatest impact when they are used in combination with other tools like information and wider support. They need to be deployed at the right time to support an individual where they are and in the way they choose. 

Crisis-response grants are short-term interventions designed to address an immediate need. In this case, supporting people experiencing a severe financial crisis, unable to afford food, warmth, or essentials for their children.  

Most people who received a crisis grant over the past year are living in persistent, entrenched financial insecurity. Their situations are complex and whilst a single event may have tipped them into the crisis, this is likely the result of an accumulation of factors and events over a much longer period.  

Crisis grants can provide a lifeboat to help people who are underwater, but they are unlikely to change their situation in the longer term.  

That is not to say they are not impactful. Crisis grants provide much needed breathing space and increase the choices available to people. Importantly, they can often prevent a situation from worsening but the impact is likely to be short-term.  

To achieve longer term impact and change so people have financial security, they will need access to other tools, different types of financial support and a system that helps to lift people up rather than pushing them further into crisis.  

We had the space to test and learn in real time 

Time and space to test new ways of working and capture learning is a luxury many charitable organisations do not have. We were extremely fortunate that we were able to create the space that allowed our crisis-response work to evolve, applying the lessons as we went.  

For example, offering the choice of a grant paid as a lump sum or instalments, introducing additional support to specifically help with household goods, working with partners to build and test new ways of working, exploring ways to integrate grants alongside ongoing support and advice and gathering evidence to support wider campaigning and policy work.  

There were three things that helped us to create this space: 

  • We adopted a referral-only model, affording us more control to manage the volume and flow of applications, help us understand the resources needed to deliver the programme and enabling us to take a more targeted approach to manage the funds available when the need is so high. 

  • We relied on the depth and breadth of skills and experience within our team and partner organisations to help us mobilise, identify and overcome challenges quickly and implement changes in response to feedback and learning. 

  • We had access to skills and expertise from across the organisation including finance, digital, IT and impact.  

As an organisation we are actively seeking ways to reduce the control we hold and share power with the people and communities we serve. It feels uncomfortable talking about the benefits of retaining more control and restricting access to our funding but it is unlikely we would have introduced the depth and breadth of changes we did if Winter Grants had been open for individuals to apply directly via our website. This would probably have resulted in a far higher number of applications than we had the funds available to support and we would most likely have fallen back on asking for evidence and information to help us make decisions on who we could support and why.  

Our crisis-response programmes have given us the confidence to be bolder and challenge our assumptions around risk in our grant-making. We are actively exploring ways in which we can shift to a trust-based approach in future grant programmes that will be open for people to apply directly. Something that 16 months ago would not have seemed possible but now feels like an obvious next step.  

What next?  

The move into crisis-response grant-making was intended to be short term but the devastating impact of the cost of living situation for so many millions of people has made it hard for us to exit.  

The reality is that we would prefer not to be a crisis-response funder but right now we need to be. The scale of our crisis-response grant funding is tiny in comparison to the level of need but it can still make a difference. We are increasingly integrating this area of work alongside our other longer-term programmes and services delivered on a national and local level. By combining our learning and experience with the voice of people with lived experience, we will continue looking for ways to instigate change on a systemic level. Working with others to tackle the inequality and discrimination within our system to better protect the basic human rights of millions of people in the UK.  

For now, we are able to continue working with a small number of partners to integrate the crisis grants alongside other forms of support to try and maximise the impact they can have for people. We will continue to be bold and challenge our assumptions and we will continue to learn and listen to the people we are here to serve.   

We hope you enjoy reading this report which shares some of our learnings and recommendations around crisis grant-making.