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Insights on core funding from UK foundation

When it comes to granting core funding, the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation stands out from the pack. Analysis of grantmaking data captured by the platform 360Giving found that in 2013-2018 the foundation distributed more money for core funding than any other organisation in the UK.

One of the largest independent grantmakers in the UK, the foundation granted AU$74.2 million in 2018 towards a wide range of work in the areas of the arts, children and young people, the environment and social change. It also has an allocation of AU$82.5 million for social investments in organisations that aim to create social impact.

Given the growing number of calls for Australian grantmakers to follow suit on core funding, we thought we'd look to the UK for inspiration.

What follows is an edited extract from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation's 17-page report Insights on Core Funding, reproduced with the permission of the foundation.

From the chief executive, Caroline Mason

At Esmée Fairbairn Foundation we believe that our job is to back remarkable organisations and people who are passionate and professional.

We want to provide them with the right resources and we believe that they know what that means. That is why we have offered core funding since our start in 1961, and today 64% of our active grants (£92.7million/AU$169.8 million) give core or unrestricted support.

There have been many excellent reports written about the need for core funding, so why are we writing another one? Because, as Suraj Vadgama's analysis of grant data published to 360Giving in 2013-18 shows, the overall amount of core funding has "remained reasonably consistent" over the past five years - it is not going up.

Caroline Mason
Caroline Mason

Since the report identifies Esmée Fairbairn Foundation as giving out the most core funding, we think it's important to share our learning.

We also want to examine our core funding critically - does it have more impact? What impact does it have on outcomes and organisations? What more could we do? This report is for funders who care not just about the impact of what they fund, but the impact of how they fund.

It shares insights from the hundreds of organisations we have supported in recent years with core funding.

We also hope it will help provide the organisations out there doing the work the ammunition to continue to make the case for what they need to thrive.


Ian Fairbairn Ian Fairbairn created a generous charitable fund in memory of his wife Esmée, who died in an air raid during World War II. He had built his wealth as a pioneer of the unit trust industry in the UK.

What is core funding?

Core funding is money for central running costs which enables organisations to meet their needs and priorities on their own terms. Core funding can include:

  • staff salaries, training, expenses, rent and other overheads
  • fundraising costs
  • monitoring and evaluation
  • communications and digital innovation
  • Core grants can be restricted (e.g. to UK-based work, or the CEO's salary), or unrestricted (used freely for anything within the organisation's charitable objects, including for reserves).

    Project grants are restricted to the aims and delivery of a specific piece of work, usually time-limited, and may be shared with more than one organisation.

    Esmée's approach to core funding

    At Esmée we offer unrestricted, core, and project grants, in addition to social investments. We aim to let organisations choose the type of grant or investment they need for their work. We've gradually increased core funding over the past decade. Today 64% of our active grants provide core or unrestricted support.

    Our approach to learning

    This is our fourth Insight Report into what we are learning from our grants and social investments.

    This report is based on 628 learning conversations held by our grants managers with each organisation we fund at the end of our grant. During the conversation we can feed back on what worked well, and what didn't, about our funding and the work it supported.

    Following the learning conversation, we use a four-point scale - Excellent, Good, Improvement Needed, or Poor [download the full report for details of the scale] - to rate how effective each grant was according to:

    • Outcomes - did grantees achieve what they planned to?
    • Organisation - how effective is the grantee organisation?
    • Esmée's own performance - should we have given more support, or acted differently?

    We use a "What? So what? Now what?" reflective model to plan and report on what we learn.

    Esmée Fairbairn Foundation's funding profile

    Active Grants
    Active Grants

    What Esmée Fairbairn learned about its core funding

    Core grants and project grants are similarly effective

    Looking at more than 600 closed grants, we rate the effectiveness of organisations we fund, and the outcomes the grants achieve, similarly for core costs grants and project grants.

    There are small differences in our ratings - we judge project grants to be 4% more likely to exceed their planned outcomes, and 2% more likely to miss them - but we were surprised not to see a bigger variance.

    For Esmée, project funding and core funding are similarly effective when it comes to achieving outcomes.

    Core grants lever in more money

    Grants for organisations' core costs, and in particular unrestricted grants, are more likely to help lever in other funding for organisations.

    14% of organisations which received an unrestricted grant, and 9% of those with a core costs grant, gave unsolicited feedback in end-of-grant learning conversations that our grant had unlocked further funding, compared to 2% of project-funded organisations.

    Core funding enables evolution, and evolution is key to impact

    Organisations consistently told us that core funding gave them the flexibility to develop and improve their work.

    They made changes to the way their work was carried out, communicated and understood. They tested and tried new things. They took risks, made mistakes, failed and learned as a result. We think that this ability to evolve and change is key for both funded organisations and funders.

    Time matters

    The most negative feedback we have received about our funding has not been about the type of grant (project or core), but how long it is for. One- or two-year grants can make it hard to recruit and keep staff. Even a three-year core costs grant only gives organisations an 18-month respite from fundraising. Five years of support could genuinely free organisations up to concentrate on impact.

    We could give more unrestricted funding

    Despite making a policy decision to do it, we haven't increased the number of unrestricted grants we make. Unrestricted grants are more likely to lever in other money, and are considered by our Twitter followers to be the "holy grail" of funding, over earned income or unrestricted donations. The reasons we give for putting restrictions around our core costs funding are mostly of our own choosing.

    Our funding is only as good as an organisation's other funding lets it be

    Many organisations we fund told us that Esmée's core funding helped them piece together the complex jigsaw of grants and restrictions from others. We are rarely a charity or social enterprise's only funder. Where a grant achieves its outcomes, or a project is successful, that is because of the work of a whole organisation, and by extension the whole funding model of the organisation, and cannot be attributed to the single grant of a donor. Even an unrestricted grant is only as effective as an organisation's other funding allows it to be.

    Recommendations for funders (including Esmée)

    Invest in the "what", and let organisations you fund determine the "how"

    Most funders are not experts. We are confident that the organisations we fund know best how to plan and carry out their work. So why, as well-resourced charities ourselves, would we imply we know better what resources those organisations need to do that work? Why not let organisations choose the type of support that best fits?

    Acknowledge your place in the complex jigsaw of funding

    Consider whether you can really attribute the effect of your grant. How much does the impact of your grant depend on the contributions of others? What about the unintended negative effects of the way you fund - what is the transaction cost of your grant? How much time are the organisations you fund spending in re-applying, reporting and recruiting as a consequence of the way you fund?

    Consider what barriers are real and what you've built for yourself

    If you made more of your grants unrestricted, what might the consequences be? What are the reasons you are not doing this, and do they conflict with your strategy? Are you a high-trust funder with low-trust systems?

    Make longer grants

    The duration of a grant you make could be more important than the type of support you provide. For the organisations we fund, the restrictions around the grant could be less important than the security of multiple years of funding.


    Ian Fairbairn ShareAction's shareholder activism - such addressing child obesity by campaigning against the marketing of sugary foods to kids - has had the long-term support of the Foundation.

    Case study: ShareAction

    Esmée Fairbairn has funded ShareAction since 2005 with £588,000 (AU$1.07 million) for core or unrestricted support.

    By Deborah Ball, head of communications and fundraising, and Harriet Rimbault, fundraising manager

    ShareAction exists to unleash the positive potential of the investment system, to truly serve savers and communities, and protect our environment for the long term. We give investors the tools and knowledge they need to become responsible investors, and to use their power to improve corporate behaviour on issues that affect society, such as climate change, workforce practices and public health and nutrition.

    How can core funding help your organisation to achieve its outcomes?

    Core funding is vital as it enables us to maintain our independence - ShareAction takes no money from the corporate sector or the investment industry in order that we can continue to challenge the system and influence the policies that govern it. Independence means we can work alongside our funders to contribute together towards strategic goals.

    Core funding also enables us to think longer term and be responsive to opportunities for increasing our impact in a rapidly changing context.

    When would an unrestricted grant be more appropriate?

    There's a growing understanding that this is more useful for long-term operations and working towards solutions to complex environmental and social challenges. We see core funding and unrestricted funding as synonymous - there's no difference in our case.

    What does core funding allow you to achieve that you might struggle with if you received project-based funding?

    Core and unrestricted funding allows for growth and exploring different directions. It means we can invest in the infrastructure needed to run an effective, efficient organisation and to have greater autonomy over where our work is going.

    If you could provide one key piece of advice to funders, what would it be?

    It's about having an open dialogue with funding recipients; a close relationship that is ongoing, a continuous discussion that builds trust. Small organisations can learn from the knowledge held in foundations, helping funding to contribute to greater impact.

    If you could provide one key piece of advice to grant applicants, what would it be?

    Don't assume that funders are not interested in providing core support! There's nothing dull about core funding; it really does help an organisation achieve its long-term objectives and react to changing circumstances around them. Don't be scared to approach for core funding, and have an open conversation about the need for it.

    MORE INFORMATION

    Full report: Insights on Core Funding
    Download the 17-page Esmée Fairbairn Foundation study for more detail about the foundation's methodology, findings and case studies.

    Who is Esmée? About the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation

    Capacity building: Why you should fund core costs (AIGM site)

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