Spotlight on the Start Fund
Why does the Start Fund work so well for Christian Aid?
From April to December, 2015, the Start Fund was alerted 20 times, leading to 13 allocations of funds. Christian Aid sent four of those alerts and applied for funds seven times – in South Sudan, Myanmar, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, DRC, Somalia and Colombia. Two of the emergencies alerted were also the most localised, small-scale and off-the-radar emergencies to which the Fund has responded to date – Myanmar and Colombia. All seven applications were granted funding, and the organisation has so far channelled GBP 614,282 to national partners for emergency response – over a quarter of all Start-funds disbursed during this period. Why does the Start Fund work so well for Christian Aid?
Occam’s Razor: Selection bias?
Christian Aid serves on the UK project selection committee, and its staff also took part in three in-country project selection processes – Sierra Leone, Bangladesh and Somalia. In two others, the organisation submitted the only applications received – Myanmar and Colombia. Interrogating this trend, no evidence of selection bias was found. On the contrary, the peer-review process provided ample evidence of transparency, impartiality and rigour. In addition, no allegations of selection bias have been raised by any member of the Network. Occam’s razor didn’t cut the cake this time.
A More Complex Reflection
Complex questions require complex answers. This successful engagement with the Fund prompted a reflection by the Start Team and the Learning and Evaluation Committee, and led to a number of discussions with key staff. As expected, a variety of factors, from organisational set-up to working model and individual engagement, contributed to this success.
1. Size and reach of the organization
Christian Aid has offices in 40 countries with ongoing partnerships with national and local organisations. In many of those, crises are common or recurring and partners have experience in responding. While Christian Aid is also able to respond in additional countries through collaboration with other ACT Alliance members, in the initial phase of the Start Fund the focus has been in countries with direct presence. For a medium-sized organisation like Christian Aid, the Start Fund also provides a very relevant new income source to complement core emergency funding, which in a difficult fundraising context, cannot be overlooked.
2. Ways of working
First responders to emergencies are mostly local actors. Christian Aid’s partners benefit from their immediate and long-term presence in the areas affected, which allows them to have settled relationship not only with communities but also with suppliers, local authorities and local leaders. This makes it easier to start a project within the 7 days of funding confirmation as required by the Start Fund.
The focus on smaller and medium emergencies also align well with both the capacity of most of Christian Aid’s local partners as well as their actual experience of emergencies – smaller ones during which they want to support their communities but that do not necessarily get attention from larger INGOs or institutional donors.
3. Flexibility and cross-organisation collaboration
Christian Aid is a single organisation with country teams directly connected to the UK office and in constant conversations with other supporting teams, such as the Humanitarian Division, the Programme Funding teams or the Finance staff. All teams work through the same systems and align to the same strategy and priorities. Those teams are used to working together quickly – involving different colleagues based on needs. Information flows are not connected to hierarchical, fixed channels.
Crises are often flagged by local partners to the country team or the regional emergency manager. This triggers a conversation on needs for responding and capacity locally before being brought up to the Humanitarian Division in London for initial conversations about potential relevant funding.
Fast-paced proposals benefit from this collegial work and decision-making, which often happens with several staff, managers and partner staff together and which allows for conversations to be ongoing until only shortly before a deadline – maximising the limited time for project design. Over the 24-hour period for Start Fund project proposals, this means that a 30 minute window at the end for final review and sign-off from a humanitarian manager is sufficient.
This flexibility exists for the rest of the processes, as well. When alerted of a funding award for an emergency, the Finance team are committed to processing the transfer of funds to partners on the same day. Throughout the project period, partner staff and Christian Aid staff review progress and agree on potential changes. Financial reporting is supported by Finance staff, but data is accessible from the accounting system by all teams and project staff work with partners on their own accounts.
4. Corporate engagement
It is unlikely that the overall engagement with the Start Fund would have been so widespread if senior management had not modelled and pushed it constantly. The Head of Humanitarian has been an Assembly (and then Board) member for several years. The Senior Management Team is aware of the different projects within the Start Network. The CEO was a speaker at the June 2014 Annual Assembly. In addition, one of the Start Fund secondees was hosted by Christian Aid.
Perhaps even more relevant, the Start Fund is a regular agenda item in the Humanitarian Division team meetings. Country teams were also encouraged to engage strongly during the first six months to capitalise on the design and build phase. Practice, experimentation and iteration allowed the organisation to introduce the Fund to staff and partners without needing to perfect preparation before engaging.
The original involvement with the CBHA also contributed to staff familiarity with the Start Fund. Some key staff had already been engaged with the pilot and this provided institutional knowledge and experience. There was a feeling of reassurance as the Start Fund launched in April that if the organisation was able to access funds successfully and deliver projects during the pilot, then there would be no reason this could not be repeated.
In this brief reflection, it is impossible to answer the question fully. Yet, size and reach, ways of working, flexibility and collaboration and corporate engagement are certainly some of the most significant factors in Christian Aid’s success. Besides this, the Start Network’s Declaration of Intent aligns strongly with Christian Aid’s mission, allowing the engagement to prove fairly natural.
Main picture: Returning home after receiving materials during the Bangladesh flood response. Photo: Christian Aid