Dark Matter of Funding — Session 2

Session 2 with Indy Johar, Alex Sutton and Rowan Conway

In last week’s second instalment in the Dark Matter of Funding series, we were joined by Alex Sutton (Head of Programme, Migration at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation) and Rowan Conway (Head of MOIN network at IIPP and Lecturer in Transformation by Design, among other things). Chaired once again by Indy Johar (Co-Founder and Executive Director of Dark Matter Labs), the session explored impact more deeply, investigating its relationship with theories of change and with the idea of the ‘mission’.

Alex discussed the way his understanding of impact has been influenced by the work of critical pedagogical theorist Paulo Freiere, particularly with regard to his focus on the praxis of learning. Freire’s work posits that our experiences, our analysis of those experiences, and our process of reflection upon that analysis leads to new actions and interactions with the world. This approach to combining theory and action, and rejecting the power dynamics inherent in the notion of teacher and learner in favour of mutual knowledge creation, informs Alex’s work at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

For instance, Alex and his team have developed a theory of change to give a structure to the learning process — forcing them to outline clearly what they are trying to change with regard to the immigration system, and why. This clarifies the team’s thinking on how they can contribute to change, or rather the conditions within which change can occur — it allows them to “name the world” in order to be able to change it. Alongside that vital function, it also provides a degree of transparency and accountability by setting out the assumptions that underpin their approach.

Furthermore, the theory of change has enabled Alex to identify new potential partners by clarifying the complex way the immigration system interacts with a whole host of other systems. He argued that system complexity can sometimes be an intentional feature, designed to make people feel powerless and unable to create change. But by naming the world — describing that complexity and laying it out clearly — people are thereby enabled to begin the journey towards creating change.

Rowan spoke at length about how she understands impact — particularly in terms of how individual impact can be understood within an institutional context. Many of us are “tempered radicals”, she said, quoting Debra Meyerson, wherein the ability to have an impact, as well as our approach to measuring and understanding impact, is shaped or constrained by the institutions we work within.

She discussed the relationship between value and impact, and the need to move beyond an understanding of value which reduces it to mere pecuniary or financial value. Relatedly, she emphasised the need to understand who that value is produced for or on behalf of.

Later, Rowan delved into the idea of the mission, explaining that for her, missions are often obstructed by infrastructure which is designed to achieve goals that are directly oppositional to that mission.

Other topics which were addressed during the session included:

  • The way outsourcing the work of achieving a mission can lead to it being obscured or diluted
  • The space between mission as an emergent function arising from engagement with citizens, and a top-down theory of allocation of responsibilities.
  • Data saturation, and the need for space for dialogue in order to mitigate the consequences of that saturation, but also to develop and deepen relationships.
  • The need to develop deep relationships over the longer term, in order to enable organisations to best implement system-changing behaviour.
  • If and how to measure learning — without succumbing to the tyranny of metrics

Thank you to Olivia for pulling a lot of these strands together for this blog post.

Deputy Director at National Lottery Community Fund, Co-founder of the Point People, Policy Fellow IIPP, Founder Stewarding Loss, International Futures Forum.