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Funding the food and farming CSO sector – challenges and solutions

By Liz Barling, Food Ethics Council, 12th April 2017

Those of us interested in protecting the environment can’t afford to ignore the effects our food system has on it. How we produce and grow our food have enormous environmental impacts, from biodiversity loss to water pollution to climate change.

Many people, including those of us at the Food Ethics Council, believe our current food system is broken, causing not just environmental damage, but epidemics in obesity and diabetes, poverty amongst food and farm workers, and the mistreatment of animals.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of civil society organisations (CSOs) across the UK working for a better food system. They range from small local initiatives growing food in community plots to international charities lobbying government on food poverty. Almost all rely on grant funding from trusts and foundations and the public sector.

Last year the Food Ethics Council was commissioned by a group of funders, and convened by the Environmental Funders Network, to conduct a census of CSOs in order to develop a picture of the voluntary sector on food, farming and fishing in the UK. This was the second such survey we have undertaken – the first was in 2011 – and it provided us with a unique opportunity to take the ‘temperature’ of food and farming related civil society and assess how the landscape has changed.

The census indicates that the challenges faced by the food system are getting worse. And despite the best efforts of CSOs, the sector’s response is not commensurate with the scale and urgency of the challenges.

The census is designed to help the sector’s organisations – big and small – step up to that challenge, supporting their strategic planning and grant funding applications. Crucially, it will also help current and potential grant funders make better sense of the sector, and make strategic funding decisions that will support it more effectively.

Reliance on trust and foundation grants
The data made it clear that philanthropic grants are the funding lifeblood for many CSOs, particularly small organisations. We found that in terms of the number of grants, the most common source of income is grants from UK trusts and foundations, followed by individual donations, bequests or membership fees. The challenge of an increasingly competitive funding landscape is that CSOs spend a lot of time and effort on fundraising, which may not always pay back if it is mostly smaller philanthropic grants that they are chasing.

EU funding was another important source of finance. Almost one in five of respondents received EU funding for the previous financial year. For these organisations, an average of 21 per cent of their funding came from the EU. This means there will be an important shift in the funding landscape for food and farming CSOs during the coming months and years as the UK leaves the EU. This potential loss of funding will have an impact on the sector.

And while trust and foundation grants are the most numerous, in monetary terms the public sector is the biggest source of funding for respondent organisations. However, in the current economic climate, public sector funding is likely to continue to be squeezed.

Is this a perfect storm for CSOs working in food and farming? And what can funders do to plug the gaps and support this vital work? These are crucial questions, especially as many trusts and foundations that already fund food and farming work are experiencing an upsurge in applications, and in some cases, a reduction in their own funds due to turbulence in the markets.

We hope that the census will encourage funders not currently operating in food and farming to get involved. The case studies in the report and on the website are fantastic examples of how the sector impacts on a huge range of other issues, from public health to inequality.

What can funders do?
The census asked CSOs how they could be better supported by grant funders. Here are three key ways:

Core funding: giving CSOs time and space to do internal ‘foundational activities’ to deliver a positive, sustained impact into the future.

Communicating: supporting CSOs to conduct campaigning, advocacy and policy development, as well as awareness-raising and communications.

Collaborating: CSOs are already convinced of the value of collaboration, and the majority are already working together in partnerships. But more funding is needed to nurture these collaborations, and ensure they are effective at delivering change.

A positive vision
It isn’t all doom and gloom. The census reveals that the sector is teeming with staff and volunteers who are passionate about the work they do, and committed to working towards a sustainable food system. The role of funders in supporting their work is vital, and we hope that the census findings can support funders as they work to help the sector become more effective.

That might be by doing things differently: focusing on fostering partnerships for instance, rather than funding individual organisations; or funding an organisation to continue doing what it’s already doing well rather than asking it to innovate.

What is clear is that a little money goes a long way in this sector. The data gathered by this census give funders the ammunition to think even more strategically about how to support sustainable food and farming in the UK.

The survey was conducted by the Food Ethics Council on behalf of charitable funders Big Lottery Fund, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, JMG Foundation and The A Team Foundation, with support from the Environmental Funders Network and Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming. The report can be downloaded from where you can also interrogate the data in more detail.

Liz Barling is Head of Communications at the Food Ethics Council. Liz’s responsibilities include magazine production and editing, internal and external communications, and media relations. Liz’s background is in news journalism and government PR, having previously worked for BBC and Sky News, the Home Office and other government departments.

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