It was just over two years ago that I left my role as Strategic Design Director at Doteveryone and started my role at The National Lottery Community Fund, to run the Digital Fund on what was initially a 1 year contract. That was extended to a 2 year contract but 18 months in I started a new role running the UK Portfolio.
So what have I learned? It felt like a good time to step back and reflect.
I never imagined I’d be talking about foresight and futures so much
When Roland interviewed me for the On The Edge podcast last year, he asked me about my ‘futures practice’ and I remember looking at him blankly. I was barely aware that I had one. I realise now that was because I had spent years taking for granted that it was common place in the practice of those I was working with, and embedded in everything I was doing.
As I learnt when training as a systems coach — the system often determines who you become within it — we adopt the role or express what is most needed in the system. When you’re working somewhere that is primarily responsive and reactive, it’s not surprising that I find myself making longer-term thinking and strategic foresight practice more explicit. Alongside launching the Emerging Futures Fund, and ensuring that “communities are able to anticipate and shape the future” is written into our Civil Society Approach, I’ve also initiated the Scanning + Sensing Network using the Three Horizons framework, a Futures Club, a Futures Digest newsletter (both now skill-fully being delivered by Phoebe Tickell and Ariana Ntziadima in my team) and a ‘Futures Practice’ events series across the Fund.
And I believe this kind of thinking and practice is needed much more widely across civil society — building that capacity in communities. If you ask communities what they want or what they need, they know what they can need — and they will draw on what they can see and understand in the present. But like all of us, communities don’t know what they don’t know. That’s a huge design flaw in many Theories of Change right now.
I often consider who has access to me
I’ve mentioned this before, but it wasn’t until I was on the ‘funder’ side of the fence that I became aware of who has access to funders and who doesn’t. There is a distinct lack of awareness from those that get in touch with funders to ‘have a chat’ about just how privileged and unusual that is — lets call them the 1%! I had no idea that it was commonplace for this certain group of people to have regular catchups and chats with those working in trusts and foundations — how naive was I? Maybe that is why I had never had a single successful grant application, ever — or it might have just been my ideas were crap!
But also, as a funder, what are you doing? I pay a lot of attention to who does — but more importantly, who doesn’t get in touch, asking to tell me about their work. And I’m constantly frustrated by how the status quo stays entrenched because funders aren’t doing anywhere near enough work to broaden their networks, make themselves available to beyond the usual suspects, open doors to others, and most importantly stop commissioning the same people year on year to do your learning, your evaluations, speak at your events, be on your boards etc.
I’m not really working in philanthropy
I’ve come to realise that working at The National Lottery Community Fund is not really working in philanthropy. We are a Non-departmental Public Body — so in many ways we are more public service, than philanthropy. The differences between the two play out in numerous ways. I’m very clear who I am accountable to — the general public, and in particular National Lottery players. Private philanthropy doesn’t really have to be accountable to anyone — which can be pretty problematic.
If you work in a private trust or foundation you can also approach anyone you might choose and are able to fund them. We can’t do that at The National Lottery Community Fund — it’s called solicitation. As a Public Body we have to adhere to all of the public procurement rules that public services are required to. We also get audited.
In fact, many private trusts and foundations don’t even have open doors — you literally get invited to apply. At The National Lottery Community Fund all of our funding programmes have to be open, and ‘for everyone.’
We have to consider if what we say publicly follows the Civil Service Code.
I’ve said this before too, but will say it again — as a private trust or foundation, if you’re not doing work that is bolder and more uncomfortable than us at The National Lottery Community Fund then I wonder why? You have all the freedom in the world. And a *lot* of power to either shift the status quo, or keep entrenching it. Please be more transparent not only with your grantmaking practices, but your consultancy contracts too.
It’s been hard to find my tribe of practice
Perhaps linked to the above, I have found it hard to find a tribe to connect with in the philanthropy community. It’s not just that things can feel cliquey, they often feel quite binary too. There’s the establishment, the traditional trusts and foundations, and then at the other end of the spectrum those that only want to talk about power, participation, relationships and lived experience. Or there are those that believe in evidence-based everything and then at the other end of the spectrum those that scowl at the idea of measuring anything.
Beyond a few individuals, I’ve found it very difficult, even amongst some of the membership networks in philanthropy, to have conversations that are more plural, that hold double binds, that want to move beyond those binaries I mention above.
I long for cultures in grantmaking that alongside valuing equity, also value creativity and invention, plurality, pragmatism, and those that want to take responsibility for their power rather than just analyse it or ‘give it away.’
I’m not saying this doesn’t exist anywhere, it’s just not easy to find.
I also still believe that a lot of funder practice needs an overhaul, as I set out in this post here — so that a broader base of skills and knowledge able to respond to the challenges of a new era are better reflected in the make up of staff in Trusts and Foundations.
Language has taken on even greater meaning in my work
I’ve never needed to pay so much attention to words as I’ve been doing in these last 2 years. Without holding tight to a particular turn of phrase, too much room is left open for misinterpretation. This misinterpretation can end up re-patterning the things we might be trying to move away from, that we are trying to be distinct from. Worse still, without better discernment about the language we use, we’re letting things stay stuck and stagnate, and doing the opposite of supporting communities to be fit for the future. It’s why designing in friction can be important — we don’t only want convenience or a ‘delightful’ customer experience, in some digital services, especially automated ones, we want citizens to be paying more attention to what’s being extracted from them. Similarly with language, we need it to be unfamiliar enough so that communities don’t fall asleep, and are able to see new ways to live.
Dark Matter Labs describes it well in this blog post.
“Part of this work involves painting the picture of how we see the world working differently, and being able to select language that describes this with precision. This means that we may reach for language and terms that are loaded as a way to stretch and build upon ideas and even define new topics where language is far from established.”
“It needs simplifying” are the most dispiriting words to hear when you’re trying to do transformative work in complex systems and use language as a discovery and sense-making tool. Whilst an awareness of using exclusionary language is important, I don’t believe the answer is to simplify it so that anyone and everyone can understand it — watering something down to a palatable “for everyone.” It’s about how you have multiple ways of communicating and engaging across different audiences, so that everyone can see themselves as belonging somewhere in the whole.
“Simplification can become challenging — in this context — when it then takes context or meaning away from the ideas we want to express. At times, over-simplification — as a default — may actually take colour away from the painting rather than adding to its clarity. Indeed, this simplification of complexity into small bite sized slogans and digestible summaries is at the heart of some of the challenges that we find ourselves when it comes to democracy and the quality of our social discourse. In general we advocate for more styles of communication, more people expressing themselves authentically in the language that paints their pictures, and more conversations held in spaces of care, where ideas can be challenged and explored.”
This is also why systemic narrative work is important at this time — this is a brilliant article that explains why our unhelpful desire to oversimplify everything in civil society story telling and default to the overused “case study” does a huge disservice to the complexity, to the multiple contexts that stories exist within, and to the histories that they grew from.
Trying to stay connected to the edge
I spent 14 or so years at the edges of things — of different communities, networks, disciplines, sectors, traversing and translating between different contexts. I really don’t want to lose the possibility of seeing the edges. It keeps me slightly disorientated, alert to and able to discover my blind spots.
I don’t have a sense of deep belonging to any one place or organisation — that’s perhaps why I have spent a lot of time moving around in the pandemic — and maybe that’s important for the work I’m trying to do. If my work is about how we get outside of the status quo then I feel I need to keep re-finding edges, to be reminded of the imperceptiblity, the vastness, and how deep and wide the world goes — rather than seeking comfort. It reminds me of the name of an old project of mine — Uncomfortably Alive. I recognise this way of being comes from having privilege, but for me it’s always what you do with your privilege that matters.
There were 3 reasons I wanted to work as a Funder, and I wonder how I’m doing in relation to them.
Designing for and resourcing collective approaches to change
Through my experience of trying to raise funding when at Doteveryone, and my 10 years of working as a ‘systemic practitioner’ I believed funders had a particular role to play in imagining and incentivising more coordinated or collective approaches. This might be about resourcing the interdependencies between initiatives — nourishing the roots — or about investing in the soil, the conditions so that greater alignment and cooperation is possible. And I still believe this is a role funders should step further into, making use of design (the rendering of intent) and the allocation of their resources as an act of curation. I’ve loved being part of the team that brought the Funders’ Collaborative Hub into the world this year and it’s a great initiative with a lot of potential. However, I’m even more interested in how to grow and resource ecologies over time (where funders may be a part but it’s about whole territories and landscapes), where money is used to orchestrate and design flows in ways that bind things together, assemble more into the ecosystem and attract other resources over time. In January we are opening a funding programme in the UK Portfolio that I hope will bring this more to life.
Making use of my networks and experiences
I realise in some ways I’m a pretty consistent person — despite having a very messy, non-tick-box, non-linear journey — taking a stand for justice has always been at the centre of what I do, and my questions about the how haven’t really changed. You can see in my years of blog posts questions about narrative approaches, the role of design, what it means to work at the edges, what it means to work systemically and to do field-building, what role or position to take in different contexts when trying to influence change.
When I said I wanted to work in funding a part of it was I wondered what could become possible through combining —
- 16 years of cultivating networks of trust and complex exchanges.
- A vast and plural perspective on the landscape having worked in so many different parts of it — especially an understanding of the liminal spaces between things, and a view on how things connect together.
- Alongside a skill in being able to see the potential and possibility in things — you have that in spades if you’ve been exposed to such a multitude of different people and projects. And an ability to imagine different combinations of things and entirely new alternatives.
- With resource — money, and a different kind of platform.
I’m seeing how these things combined can be quite powerful — powerful in the sense of money activating what was in some ways a latent system of potential — of mycelium threads. Partnerships that can spring into action because they’ve been nurtured in the soil for some time.
Putting forward alternatives to the status quo
Of course the last reason I wanted to be a funder (for a while at least) was to see how it compared to other positions I’ve taken in wanting to go beyond and outside of the status quo. Using the positionality to question and challenge the status quo, to profile and proposition alternatives, and invest in the transitions, the dismantling and the healing. That work is never ‘done’ but I feel like I’m making some progress in my tiny bubble of the world.
Putting out the Uncertain Times tools this week reminded me of why creative acts are so important for me to keep doing alongside my ‘job.’ Putting something out that I’ve created feels very different to putting funding out into the world. Of course that can and should be a creative act too, but it’s not quite the same as making something, crafting it, designing it, and then sharing it. How I find more ways to do this in my role, or ensure I have more space again to do side projects and creative endeavours will determine how long I can keep working in a large bureaucracy.
Related to that, nobody imagined I could ever work in a large organisation. In fact one person said to me “a person like you could never work in an organisation like this” about The National Lottery Community Fund, and here I am two years later. I think there are a lot of myths about what experience is relevant or needed for working in a large bureaucracy.
From my perspective I think those that have only ever worked in large organisations, or in secure jobs, are a bit deluded if they think they have a unique set of skills that can’t be found from being a polymath. I think my 16 years of not being on PAYE, working across multiple contexts, gave me far more useful experience and initiative than I’d ever have gained from being on PAYE my whole working life. Organisations are also full of things that need improving, rethinking and redesigning, and that’s a stimulating place for a creative problem-solver.
What is hard is running a team. I’m guessing that’s hard in or outside an organisation, but somehow being inside an organisation feels very different from when I used to lead project teams that would form and then disperse over the length of a project. Some of this is probably because I still find expectations of a workplace quite bizarre. Given that for 16 years I never had holiday pay or sick pay, I never had any employer to rely on or feel entitled to demand things from. To draw on Megan Rapinoe, my style of leadership is “there’s going to be ladders on every side, all over the place” and I think my team would support that I am very enabling and supportive of anything that they want to do. What I am rubbish at is helping people on to the ladder in the first place. I’m working on it, but I am not sure that will ever be the type of leader I can be — hopefully I will find others to work with who are complimentary!
I also worry about becoming de-skilled — when you work in what is primarily a generalist funder, but were hired for your expertise, how to ensure it’s drawn on and can flourish really needs considering in organisational strategy and design.
Lastly of course, we are about to have a change in leadership. By the middle of 2021 we will have a new Chief Exec and a new Chair. I wouldn’t have been able to do the work I’ve done at The National Lottery Community Fund without Dawn’s leadership, and of course I am sad she’s leaving and concerned by who will come in her place. I’m not good at falling in line behind leaders whom I don’t respect.
When I was 11, and moved up from primary school to secondary school I was labelled as ‘special needs’ — in that (much to the dismay of my 11 year old self) I had to have the Head of Special Needs come and sit with me in every lesson. The reason given was that I “had a problem with authority.” I really wasn’t throwing chairs around classrooms by the way, I was just quietly going against the grain if the grain made no sense to me. I wasn’t accepting of people asserting their arbitrary authority like the teacher in that last year at primary school who demanded our respect and yet clearly hated children and teaching — you could sense it in everything she did. I wanted better for us as a class, I expected more.
That’s how I feel now about communities — and what they should be able to expect from us as we distribute public money. Are we doing the very best we can by them? Will we under new leadership? If we are not, I will need to move on to a place where we are.