With roots that can be traced back some 800 years to the building of the first stone bridge over the Thames River through London, City Bridge Trust is increasingly part of the fabric of the city. Established 20 years ago to make charitable use of surplus income not required to maintain the five bridges crossing the Thames into the City, the trust is now London’s biggest independent funder granting some £20m a year.
With the City of London Corporation as the sole trustee, the City Bridge Trust occupies a unique space between civil society, local government, and business. The trust is currently carrying out its five-yearly funding strategy review, for the first time bringing in an independent third party to work on the plan. The new strategy will be based on extensive consultations with stakeholders across sectors. Director David Farnsworth and Sufina Ahmad, brought in from the Big Lottery Fund to lead the strategic review, talked Charity Times through the trust’s plans.
City Bridge Trust is conducting its five-yearly review of its grant strategy. What is different this time?
DF: In the past, it has been done in-house, headed up by a team member here and then sometimes commissioning different bits of research. But this time we have brought in somebody dedicated to it. Partly that is for pure capacity reasons. But we also now find ourselves in a position of being the largest independent funder in London, which is not something we chose. The London Councils used to have a pot of £28m to distribute, but that has shrunk to about £8m. So we are trying to maximise our chances of being as right as we can be given what the needs are, and our position in the funding ecosystem. To make that happen we’ve got somebody in from another funder, Big Lottery Fund, London Team, so funders are not all working in silos.
SA: Because this strategy kicks off in 2018, we have time to talk meaningfully to a wide range of stakeholders. We’ve spoken to well over 300 people. We’ve commissioned a grantee perception survey and got over 200 responses for that. We have the online survey. So, we have a really strong evidence base which just allows us to be really thoughtful about what we can do and what difference we can make with the money and the assets beyond the money.
DF: We often push charities to work better together, and yet funders don’t necessarily do that as well as we should. It’s important that funders try and model what they’re asking charities to do, otherwise you have this discordant position which isn’t terribly helpful. We’ve made sure we’re working closely with the umbrella group London Funders, they’re on a steering group we’ve formed to support the strategy. Also Trust for London, who in some ways are like a sister funder to us in that they have a similar background. Our chairman and two of our elected board members are on their board as well. So, there’s a governance link. They’re also going through a strategic review. They’re being incredibly helpful sharing their stuff with us, and us with them. I had an email the other day from a colleague at the Lloyds Foundation. They’re about to engage on a strategic review and they’ve already been in touch wanting to collaborate.
Has there been anything in the consultation feedback so far that has particularly surprised you?
SA: I’ve been really struck by a few different things. I think people have perhaps missed that we do quite a breadth of things, so there is something in there for us to be a bit clearer on how we articulate who we are and what we want to do as a funder. There has been some really interesting feedback that the sector feels like it’s in a crisis. We’ve heard - for probably the first time in our 21-year history - the groups that we’re talking to about the development of the strategy may not actually be around by the end of 2023, through no fault of their own. Equally though, there’s been a lot of ambition to stay rooted in community, and recognition that there is a need to keep adapting, keep evolving in order to meet increasing demand.
DF: I’ve had a number of people from across sectors tell me they have valued the time to be able to speak openly.
We feel like stewards of this money, the money for Londoners from Londoners. In an 800-year context, we’re here for the blink of an eye. It gives us the privilege of being able to think in terms of 50 years, 20 years with some credibility because that’s the lived reality of the corporation. We have the assets bound in a charity, so even though the corporation’s elected members are subject to elections that doesn’t impact on our charitable objects and directions.
Does the pressure on the sector’s funding influence the priority the trust places on supporting the sector’s resilience?
DF: It’s been a committed seam of our funding for many years now in what we’ve called ‘supporting the voluntary sector’. London Councils did a consultation and decided to cease funding that area. We’ve reiterated our commitment to that area, and we’re working closely with different organisations and London Funders about ensuring that continues at a time of increased vulnerability for organisations. It may be via expert financial input, or governance input, or even sometimes merger advice.
SA: There has been feedback that funders ask for a great deal from the organisations that we fund, and we have to because money’s being exchanged and due diligence has to be done. But there have been suggestions that we don’t complete that circle by helping organisations achieve all the things we ask them. I’d like to see in the next strategy that we make it very clear how we do try, or at least attempt to complete that circle and use the assets that we have beyond just our funding in terms of supporting that.
How do you plan to use City Bridge Trust’s unique position between civil society, business, and the public sector to your advantage?
SA: It’s the first funder I’ve come across that is genuinely at that locus of three sectors, and the corporation does have a function to work with business partners to support them to be the most responsible businesses they can be. We have great connections and links in our 21-year history to well over 4,000 civil society organisations that we’ve supported in that time, and we have links to every single borough through the local authority piece as well as through our own funding. City Bridge Trust has funded in every single London borough. It’s a unique position to be in, it is one of our biggest assets and how we harness that for the betterment of communities is absolutely what this strategy will try and unpack.
DF: We’re also aiming for better linking between some of the skills-based volunteering efforts of corporates and the needs of the charities. That brokerage is actually really difficult. There are some good people doing it, there are some good examples, such as Islington Giving, and Macquarie Bank working with local citizens, the local authority, and local funder Cripplegate in a model that has spawned the London’s Giving place-based giving initiative.
The landscape has shifted significantly since the review started, in particular with the result of the referendum and the impact that is likely to have on the nation and London specifically. How does the strategy deal with that, do you build in more flexibility?
DF: We wouldn’t want some Stalin style five-year plan because it absolutely won’t work; now more than ever. That would be true of our previous strategies, but it’s that squared now.
SA: People want a very clearly articulated vision, something that ensures we are accountable through this strategy about what difference we want our funding and our assets to make for Londoners. Something that will be really clear in the strategy is we will absolutely hold ourselves to account. This strategy will be adaptive in that it will be formally reviewed on a regular ongoing basis, so we’re able to make some course correcting small shifts or big shifts if we need to.
People want us to be ambitious about the vision we want to achieve, but at the same time, recognise that we don’t hold all of the expertise.
So let’s give ourselves enough flexibility so we can empower those that do have more expertise than us because they’re closer to it, they’re working on the ground. Let’s enable them to come to us with great ideas about what Londoners need at this point in time.
That aside, race and identity and what it means to be a Londoner have been some of the themes that have come out of the conversations that I’ve been having, be it small or larger group discussions or even on a one-to-one basis. London is an incredibly diverse city and that’s what makes it such a great place to live and I think it’s about how we continue to champion that.
What are the key points you took out of the way the last strategy operated, in terms of things you will now do differently?
DF: Last time, I wish we had embedded evaluation of ourselves and how we delivered the strategy from the start. That wasn’t a lack of will, it was a lack of resource at the time. In hindsight I wish we had because that would have given us another layer of analysis and data which could have fed into this strategy. But we’ll make good on that this time because it’s so helpful and important. I’ve experienced it at the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund where I worked a couple of jobs ago. We had formative evaluation for our programme and it was so helpful.
By that we mean critical friends riding alongside us prepared to challenge us. Looking at some of the engagement of data and input from grantees and need and saying ‘why on earth are you still ploughing that furrow when actually everyone is crying out for you to be in that direction there?’ Having that real candour.
SA: The important thing with any strategy, because the products or toolkits will always ebb and flow as required, is to always keep that weather eye on how it links back to the ultimate vision and strategy and how all the parts stay connected to one another.
DF: During the course of this strategy we took a decision, it was two years ago I think, to shift the balance between what we call our reactive funding and our proactive funding. The reactive funding is against the published criteria, but we have the ability to think about or respond to context and work up a proactive grant with a potential key partner to deliver. We had a balance of 95 per cent reactive to 5 per cent proactive, and we now have a balance of up to 20 per cent proactive. That was in response to recognising the importance of every pound we have being heightened due to our positioning within the funding ecology and there being less money around.
That’s just one example during the current strategy of something we’ll be mindful of when we actually settle on this new strategy. At the same time, it’s not two conversations that run discretely, they run in parallel. Then one has to actually set up one’s own operation to have the best possibility of delivering on that strategy, in all of those collaborative ways that we talk about.