The temptation of cherry-picking

The definition of cherry-picking is “to select the best or most desirable people or things in a group”.

It can sound like a good thing, but with charities it is referred to most often as a negative consequence of contracts. If you are only rewarded for your positive results, then there is a real incentive to work with clients who are the ‘easiest’. So in employment projects you work with those who are most likely to get a job rather than those who are furthest from the labour market with the most complex needs. Charities avoid this temptation by adhering to their values and ethos but in doing so may well lose out in a competitive bid process, and will need to raise other funds to continue to support those in the greatest need.

Does the same temptation to cherry-pick apply to funders?

One of the consequences of cuts in statutory funding has been increased competition for grants from trusts and foundations.  This means that funders can chose to only fund the best: the charities that can already demonstrate a successful track record, prove their impact, are financially sound with robust management in place. Funding the highest quality is a good thing but it can also mean adopting a safe strategy.

How do funders still take risks when they are spoiled for choice?

One way is to have a separate strand of funding where there is a greater tolerance of risk. Another growing trend is to fund the organisational development of charities who are doing good work but need to improve their functioning or sustainability in order to survive and thrive. There are lots of examples of this e.g. the Foyle Foundation has a funding strand for supporting young and emerging artists and another which helps arts organisations to reduce their overheads or generate new income. One local example is the Harpur Trust which focuses its grants on:

  1. Keeping good services going
  2. Bringing new ideas and services to Bedford
  3. Helping to create better functioning organisations

One of the strengths of independent funders is that they can back things that are risky or take a long time to prove. So they need to resist the temptation of picking only the best cherries and take active steps against playing it too safe.