Getting started with a Big Lottery Fund Organisational Strength Review

If you’re thinking about applying for, or have already won funding from, the Big Lottery Fund (BLF) Building Capabilities programme, you might be wondering about how to get started with your organisational strength review.

Why does the BLF offer this funding?

There are certain funders that simply get what it’s like to run a charity, and the BLF is clearly one of them.

Recognising the pressing need for organisational capacity building funding throughout the sector, the BLF offers those who have passed stage one in a Reaching Communities bid to apply for additional funding to build organisational capacity. This funding pays for an organisational strength review as well as the costs of implementing some of the key recommendations, up to a maximum of £15,000 (depending on the size of the overall Reaching Communities grant).

In its own words: “Community groups are so busy doing their day-to-day work that they have little time or money left for their staff and trustees to learn new skills or focus on long-term goals”.

Working with small-to-medium charities throughout the UK, I could not agree more. The passion and drive for the cause evident at small-to-medium charities can sometimes lead to areas such as good governance, robust organisational effectiveness, strategic planning or training being overlooked. Boards and staff are often worried about spending money on activities that are not directly related to beneficiaries, so policies get out of date, training gets overlooked and governance starts to get messy and problematic.

Good practices in these areas have an enormous impact on service delivery – enabling charities to improve, increase and expand the work they do. Conversely, poor practices in these areas can hold charities back and, eventually, can cause significant problems.

This is such a widespread issue, and most grant funders are so project-focused that organisational capacity is never a priority.

But it should be. Strong and robust organisations are sustainable, reliable, professional and effective. They have a diverse financial base that is managed responsibly, they have trained and engaged Trustees, they meet best Charity Commission best practice and monitor and evaluate the work that they do.

What is an organisational strength review?

Once the funding is awarded, the first step in the process is to conduct an Organisational Strength Review. This involves bringing in a third party (usually a professional consultant) to gather information about how your charity works to identify what factors (whether inside or outside your control) are affecting your work, and what the key priorities are for building your capabilities to remain effective going forward.

The review should assess your charity’s history, understanding how you have reached your current situation, including both positive and negative behaviours evident along the way. It should include a situational analysis, looking at both internal and external factors to see where your charity is placed now and into the future.

Next, it should analyse in some detail a wide range of organisational effectiveness and charitable governance standards to see what new capabilities need to be developed. These may vary between charities and their individual needs but, at a minimum, areas such as Governance, Staffing, Finances and Planning should be included.

Finally, the review should make recommendations on the best way for the charity to acquire and embed the capabilities it needs to move ahead effectively.

As an end-goal, you should receive a report that clearly presents your charity’s situation, with specific recommendations on how to move forward and spend the remainder of the grant.

How does the consultant gather the information? 

The information gathering process will vary between different consultants and companies.

Most will involve a desktop review of available documents, including the constitution, annual reports, key policies, strategic plans and others. This enables the consultant to tailor questions to the particular charity’s situation, and to ensure that a good background understanding is held before consultations begin.

Consultation with the charity is vitally important, and should ideally be through face-to-face interviews or calls rather than only surveys or emails. Depending on how much of the funding you have won, your charity’s size, and how much you plan to allocate on the review, the consultation process can be quite basic, being limited to perhaps half a day to a day onsite with the Chair and key members of staff, or it can be more extensive, including a number of days of face-to-face interviews and focus groups with staff, beneficiaries, Trustees and stakeholders, supplemented by online surveys and other tools.

This decision needs to balance the need to retain the majority of the funding for your actual capabilities development with the need to ensure that your organisational strength review is accurate and focused on the specific and unique needs of your charity. Your consultant can help guide you through this decision, although it helps to have thought this through first.

The Consultant should spend time getting to know your organisation, and should discuss with you at the outset whether you would like them to include particular issues in their review. For example, I recently was asked to look specifically at data and information management and protection as part of one review.

How do I choose someone?

You can choose either a consulting firm or an independent consultant, but it is worthwhile ensuring that they have done organisational strength reviews before, and that they are sufficiently flexible to meet the unique needs of your charity.

Consulting firms will cost more but will have many more examples of previous reviews, while independent consultants are likely to be cheaper, and can potentially offer a more tailored and targeted approach. Don’t forget to consider whether VAT is applied when seeking quotes.

You can put a call for proposals out on LinkedIn, Charity Job or local networks, but also do some searching to see who is out there and what they offer.

Once you’ve found a few possible candidates, arrange a call to discuss your needs. If they’re not willing to spend a bit of time speaking with you and then sending you a proposal, move on. If they only offer one off-the-shelf approach, then look again. Feel free to seek their opinion about how they would recommend the review be approached, as it should give you an idea of their ability to focus on your specific needs.

I’ve done my review, now what?

Your review include a list of recommendations to take forward. Some of these may be able to be implemented internally, others may be possible with the free support of local voluntary charity support groups, but others still will require further consultancy support.

If you need additional consultancy support, despite some ambiguity around the wording of the guidance document, you must not use the same organisation you hired for the review. Your first consultant may provide some suggestions, but go back to LinkedIn and Google and find a few options before you decide who to engage.

How fast do I need to move?

Charities I have worked with on these reviews have told me that the BLF has indicated that they expect to see the organisational review being done in the first three months after funding has been granted, with the money spent on at least the top three recommendations within the year. In some cases, I’ve also heard that these deadlines aren’t strictly enforced, but speak to your BLF Grants Manager to be sure.

Is it all worth it?

This funding will make a difference to your charity. It’s not box ticking, it isn’t bureaucracy; it is about getting good organisational systems in place and ensuring you’re meeting charity governance best practice, which will have a significant impact on your service delivery and beneficiaries. So why wait? Get started as quickly as you can and you’ll reap the rewards all the sooner.

What we offer

Willow Charity Consulting offers what we believe is the most comprehensive and targeted BLF organisational strength review. We don’t take a tick-box approach, we come to your organisation and we properly evaluate your organisation’s strengths and weaknesses, providing guidance that helps you plan your short, medium and long term future. What’s more, we offer one of the cheapest packages on the market, as we don’t pay overheads, VAT or marketeers!


If you are looking for a Big Lottery Fund organisational strength review, get in touch to find out the depth and breadth of our offer, and how our service is – we believe – the best on the market! Never forget, there’s no fee for a chat.