11 Things on my mind as a funder.

Cassie Robinson.
10 min readApr 11, 2020


(Source: assets.manualcreative.com, via thisiscommonground)

I write to reflect and I have barely had time to reflect these last three weeks, but I do want to try and do a fleeting job of it today. Just a few of the things on my mind as a funder.

1 — Interdependence

That word interdependence is appearing in many places at the moment, which is a good thing, but I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone articulate what it means if you translate it into funding practice. The crisis has made visible the way we are interconnected and in turn interdependent, at an individual level but also in terms of our social fabric. We need to be able to depend on so much more than just ourselves and those that we know.

If Trusts and Foundations want to play a role in emphasising and strengthening what is interdependent then that means not simply rushing to fund lots of individual organisations however desperate they may be. Now is a time when funders could focus resources on building collective resilience rather than on the protection of individual organisations. Or at the very least resourcing organisations, as they rethink what they do and who they are, to work out their different roles in relation to one another. I developed this blueprint for foundations to use, but it can also be used with an ecosystem of civil society organisations.

Now is the time to demonstrate how multiple organisations and groups, of all shapes, sizes and identities, can work interdependently, systematically, creatively and compassionately through shared challenges.

2 — Plurality and sequencing.

This period of time doesn’t have a singular beginning and a singular end like a novel. As Trusts and Foundations you need to be thinking about plural approaches and you need to be doing all of them simultaneously — like the lanes in a running track. One for sprinting, one for long distance, one that is for a consistent, steady pace. One that requires a zigzagging — the holding of space between what is and what is next — a process that helps people sense, see and name what lies ahead, and one that is perhaps for wandering, where you are not even sure of a destination but able to notice entirely new things. We should remember we’ll also need a track that is for rest — and rest that will need resourcing.

There is also a necessary sequencing of where to place attention and effort — the re-imagination of what is possible cannot happen without also facing and accepting loss. Whilst current urgencies need urgent attention “In addition, we need to cultivate wiser, more farsighted and systemically-literate habits of mind, as individuals, as organisations, and yes, as whole societies.” *

3 — Who’s rebuilding and what is being centred?

“If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”

Albert Einstein

As I said in my Keynote talk recently, “This is a window of time where there’s opportunity and need to understand intersectionality more, to link up the different struggles.” That was before Covid-19, but now in the recovery and rebuild of civil society, who we fund — and by extension, who gets centred, is vitally important.

Whilst many are living the crisis, or responding to it in the immediate present, the noise around what comes next is growing. So many people and organisations are setting themselves up to help imagine the future and determine the new normal. We all have a role to play in shaping the future, and as funders we should be particularly aware of who is, and more importantly who isn’t, centre stage here.

As we start to look for the weak and the strong signals of transformation, we need to look very carefully. Who are the people that have the time at the moment to do the thinking and imagining? In the last few weeks I’ve seen a clear line between those able to do ‘thought leadership’ and share that with funders, and those on the frontlines. We need some of the work that informs the recovery and rebuild to come from a more distant view, where a step back has been taken, and wider lens applied, but we should be checking in on who’s predominantly doing that work, and what that will mean for our futures.

Some of this also comes down to the specifics of who Trusts, Foundations and philanthropists look to for strategic advice about where to put their money — and I’ve heard of many stories in the last few weeks that would suggest to me we need better (more diverse and closer to the ground) sources of intelligence to inform those kinds of decisions.

Personally, I am listening out for who I am not hearing from at all.

4 — Building sensemaking capability

In relation to the above, I’m interested in how we, as funders, invest in building a wider group of people and communities to be sensemakers of their own experiences. After all, if we want to fund through an equity lens, the knowledge we are privileging, and who that knowledge gets attributed too, really matters.

That’s why this initiative from the Open University and the Young Foundation is so brilliant, and a similar one from the Mass Observation initiative. Wisdom from the Lived Experience Movement will also be vital to listen to.

5 — What existing ideas can we build on?

“Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.” ― Milton Friedman

Funders need to be ready to put forward the seeds of initiatives that they were already investing in, as well as go back through what they weren’t comfortable taking a risk on before. If we are looking for the building blocks of a new normal, what didn’t seem plausible before is likely to be just what we need going forward. The net that funders should cast now needs not only to be about what is centred in that net, but also rethinking what the entire shape and function of the net is.

Cast it wider, deeper and in to entirely new places where people know of things that have just been waiting to happen.

6 — Making sense of what’s on offer

As new alternatives emerge, or ideas and projects that have been bubbling away for some time finally find they are given oxygen, funders will need to make sense of what to fund in an ecology. What are all the parts that need assembling to create a Community Interest Infrastructure?

I’ve heard some funders this week talk about keeping things simple — and simplicity is important in terms of getting money out the door and not adding extra labour for grantees, but this crisis is complex, it has many moving parts, and it’s likely to continue with further consequences. We can’t flatten and simplify and expect to be properly equipped to deal with the crisis.

As Zeynep Tufekci writes “We will still need all the systemic thinking we can muster to anticipate the second- and third-order effects that will follow this crisis. And if we hope to blunt the impact of others like it, let’s not forget, again, that all of our lives are, together, embedded in highly complex systems.”

7 — The narrative of civil society

Now more than ever, Trusts and Foundations should be investing in how to assemble and build a more visible narrative about what civil society has been doing during this crisis. It feels like civil society is barely being seen by some people, yet alongside our NHS, it is civil society that has its arms around people right now, catching people as they fall — what’s happening in response to Covid-19 goes way beyond what is happening in hospitals, and spills out into our communities.

We should be investing in building shared recognition and story telling of the energy in communities and the role that civil society is so crucially playing right now. And if we want to make alternative futures easier to envision and get feedback on, in part to show where resources need directing, then we need to invest in narrative work for that purpose too.

8 — How we are having to work differently

It’s been interesting to see how we‘ve needed to work differently. Certainly at The National Lottery Community Fund many of the ways of working we’d been laying foundations for over the last few years now have a chance of becoming the norm. This is not simply because of the technology we have in place (though that has made remote working amazingly straightforward), or a much easier to use and more intelligent grant management system. It’s because our behaviours and ways of doing things have been propelled towards pace, greater candour, getting comfortable with agile certainty, and navigating ways to honour our governance yet adapt it for this new context we find ourselves in.

Most of all, we are having to be honest that we don’t know.

“No one has the answers to these kinds of questions yet, because what so many disasters tell us is that the outcome is not foreordained. It depends on what we do, and that depends on how we read what’s happening and what we value and how that changes in a time of stunning upheaval.”

NYT article.

There is lots of great insights in this report by IVAR about how London Funders had to adapt their way of doing things in response to the Grenfell disaster — though I do think it’s unhelpful to Trusts and Foundations to think Covid-19 requires the same kind of response. There are similarities, but that response was much more specific and focussed, a response to the current crisis requires many more moving parts and a lot more interdependent roles, over a much greater period of time.

I should add, I’ve absolutely loved working with my colleagues at The National Lottery Community Fund these last weeks – there has been so much pulling together as a team 🙏🏼

9 — Technology

At the moment one of the most common topics we are hearing our grantees request support for is technology. I think it would help if Trusts and Foundations applied different time horizons to how they approach their support in this area.

Immediate (the present) — In the immediate term most organisations need help with the basics — getting their own organisations set up to work remotely, advice on the basic digital tools available, and the confidence and capabilities to use them. This applies to the people who access their services or need their support too — finding ways to get them set up, in some instances with hardware too.

Short term (the next few weeks) — Some organisations are also thinking about how to adapt their services to be delivered online, or needing to design entirely new services in response to the crisis.

Medium term (the next few months) — Some organisations, like Catalyst, with a whole network of partners, are supporting organisations to do all of the above, and simultaneously, through the doing, learning and iterating (an important distinction from those just doing the thinking) are starting to build a new infrastructure for civil society.

Alongside this, I’m grateful that some people are paying attention to what technology is being done to us, and to the ways in which technology is changing our real-world interactions, and how that might play out over time. What might the consequences be of civil society going through a digital transformation so hastily? And what kind of civil liberties are being compromised through adoption of technologies being used to track Covid-19? It’s worth following this work if you are interested in these questions.

10 — New kinds of problems to understand

Many of the challenges I’m hearing right now from civil society organisations, though disastrous and heartbreaking, are not surprising. Increases in demand, unable to meet those demands, ill-equipped to adapt their organisations, unsure how to survive themselves, and so on. What I’m only just beginning to get a picture of is some of the less obvious consequences.

One organisation who works with people with complex needs spoke about the difficulties posed by no longer having in-person access to their clients. When you are able to visit someone regularly you can pick up all kinds of cues based on their environment, their body language, even things like smell. That sphere of perception, that field of information has been so greatly reduced, and what help people really need is masked and an appropriate response hindered.

Food is another huge concern — but not just the immediate needs that people are likely already aware of. Food banks I’ve spoken to this week, whilst still in need of money and volunteers, are more worried about the longer-term supply of food. It seems like Trusts and Foundations should be investing in a more resilient food system — supporting local food producers and small scale farmers.

I’ve written about all the new kinds of grief we’ll need to process, hold and heal here.

11 - Spaces to discuss trade-offs

Lastly, if it isn’t obvious from all of the above, what is really needed for Trusts and Foundations is a space and a way to candidly talk about the trade-offs we’re likely to be making. I feel quite lonely in my concerns around this and would welcome ways to discuss those trade-offs in community.

Some of the trade-offs I am holding just now include —

  • To scale an emergency response things need standardising but in doing so you can erase different needs and contexts.
  • There is pressure to act with speed, but speed can mean you default to what is known and available, not necessarily what is best — and that kind of consideration can take more time.
  • The local and the national, the established and the new, the infrastructure and the organisers, the formal and the informal.
  • I’ve already mentioned above about the pressure for simplicity, but that can be reductionist and flattening, removing the chance of a more appropriate and longer-term response.
  • As a funder, who are we more accountable to? All the people who are regularly posting their opinions about funders? Or the people the civil society organisations we fund exist for? ( I know these two groups are not always distinct!)

There are many more trade-offs that need talking about, I was thinking of hosting some online spaces to talk more about these.

That’s it from me for now. ❤️

*Stuart Candy talks about social foresight — https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/when-reality-outruns-imagination-stuart-candy/



Cassie Robinson.

Working with Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, P4NE, Arising Quo & Stewarding Loss - www.cassierobinson.work