Being a funder
On Wednesday Vicki Sellick, Executive Director of Programmes at Nesta, asked me to come and give a talk to her team of 40 about my journey into grant making and some of the things I’ve been considering so far. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on the last 6 months at The National Lottery Community Fund. My Weeknotes tend to be about the Digital Fund, whereas this required me to think more about my role.
I started my talk listing the things I hoped to do as someone new to grant-making — things that went beyond just delivering the Digital Fund. When I went into the role I wanted to try and emphasise in every interaction or at every touch point, the following.
- I wanted to demystify and humanise what funders do and who they are. So much of the funding world is opaque, happening behind closed doors and through hushed conversation.
- I wanted to keep front of mind an awareness of power — especially in not wanting to make the already powerful more powerful.
- I wanted to make sure that everything I did tried to both raise the ambition of the team (thinking about quality of experience for our grantees, being more aware of how to make judgements etc), as well as the ambition of the wider sector.
And I then described a few of the ways I’m trying to enact and embody these things.
Demystify and humanise
Writing Weeknotes has been really important for this. I’ve tried to write candidly about what is going on each week and importantly, not just about the activity we are doing and what we’re learning, but about how it feels too, and the trade-offs we’ve needed to make.
Doing the learning events in seven different cities around the UK was another attempt to connect with people in a human way — trying to take some responsibility for the demand we’d created for the Digital Fund. Showing up in person to hear people’s concerns, interests, frustrations and ideas not only helped demystify what the Digital Fund was looking for, but also who was running it.
Power and accountability
The transparency of the Weeknotes have also been a way to bring a different kind of accountability to what we’re doing. I love that there is a real movement now of foundations publishing their funding data, but I don’t think it’s enough in terms of shifting the culture and behaviours of funders around accountability and awareness of power.
Offering a mechanism for ongoing feedback has been another way of doing this. I have a live Typeform questionnaire that is left open, that I share in most Weeknotes and that I check each week.
Using the privilege and diversity questionnaires with my team when I first started was a way of initially bringing those important topics into the room and giving them prominence in conversation. All the templates for the different activities are in this folder here.
Something I’ve seen happen a lot when I worked on the “other side” is how much funders (and likely many other orgs) use the same people and organisations to do pieces of work with them — I can’t tell you how often I am asked to take part in research for funders and I always wonder how the research partners got the work when it’s never been advertised. Whether it’s learning partner work, or research, or providing support to grantees, now I’m on the inside I’ve now seen how easy it is to work with the usual suspects. We are using some of the usual suspects to provide support to Digital Fund grantees but I’ve actively ensured the consortia includes some less established providers too. This isn’t just about distributing the power base, it’s also about ensuring the sector is more resilient by not being overly reliant on a few organisations.
A core success criteria for the organisations we are funding in Strand 1 of the Digital Fund is that they make a commitment to creating value beyond their own organisations. We will be working with them to design ways that the work we fund benefits the wider ecosystems in which they are a part.
Raising the bar
This is perhaps an obvious one, but then again not everyone you work with cares about the quality of what they’re doing, or about the wider social sector and how it shifts and evolves to exist (resilient and thriving) in the future.
At a micro level raising the bar happens through the time made for reflexive practice. When we got slammed with 1200 applications this was hard to uphold, but we are back in a rhythm of weekly sessions devoted entirely to discussing the proposals we’re supporting — reflecting as a group and articulating out loud about how we’re forming judgements.
At an organisational level I try to think about the experience our applicants and grantees are having. This is straightforward service and experience design. I would say right now as a team we’re not doing this as well as we need to. A lot of this is down to how stretched we are, but some of it is that we haven’t designed it enough. On our away day at the end of May it will be our main focus.
At a sector level I try to keep lifting the thinking of what we are doing beyond just the individual survival and success of our grantees, and connect our sense of purpose as a team to hopes about the sector as a whole too. When we’re making funding decisions are we also looking across what we’re funding too? — Are enough different themes covered? Is there enough difference in the types and sizes of organisation we’re funding? Are we stretching the ambitions of people applying to the fund, and of our grantees? For me this includes encouraging them to revisit their purpose. And lastly, are we encouraging an ecosystem mindset in our grantees, as per the post I wrote here?
Thank you Vicki and team for inviting me. One of the most exciting ideas I left with was there being a general consensus in the room that we need some better and broader training and professional development for funders. That may be another project to add to the list!