In the third session of Reconsidering the Dark Matter of Funding, we continued exploring questions of impact, accountability, measurement and evidence. What do they mean? Are these framings still fit for purpose in a world where we are increasingly aware of the centrality of complexity and entanglement? What if, asked chair Indy Johar (Co-Founder and Executive Director of Dark Matter Labs), we saw uncertainty as a source of freedom rather than a problem in need of control? And how can we construct mechanisms and build organisations for change within this context?
We were joined to explore these questions and beyond by Dawn Plimmer (Senior Head of Practice, Collaborate) and Toby Lowe (Senior Lecturer, Northumbria University and Visiting Professor, Centre for Public Impact).
Toby began with a challenge to the fundamental premise of the impact economy: that if you take complexity — and its concomitant dynamism and nonlinearity — seriously, it is impossible for an organisation to demonstrate their impact. Given this fact, he posited that “the only viable strategy at a management level is a learning strategy.” Not only that, but it’s important to approach this learning with an appropriate degree of specificity; that is, whether or not any given intervention helps to achieve or further an organisation’s purpose.
Dawn built on Toby’s provocations, arguing that “the way we measure impact distracts us from creating the impact we want to see.” The solution is to move beyond an organisation-focused view of the world that sees impact as something achieved by a single organisation in competition with others, to a more collaborative approach where ecosystems work together towards a shared purpose. Within this framing, impact can be understood in terms of the signs of a healthy system — things like changing relationships and power dynamics. How can we notice, value and learn from and about these impacts and changes within a system?
Fundamentally, then, it is right to care about impact. Toby said. But what is important to understand is that all impact is a consequence of relationships between people and things. Therefore, to understand how we can impact the world, we need to construct an understanding of systems and relationships that enables us to learn about and achieve that impact.
While these changes to how we think about impact are no less than revolutionary for the sector, they can be challenging for organisations to implement, because they are so contrary to the status quo, and because they have such significant flow-on effects for so many other aspects of the work, from theories of change to contracting practices.
One major theme of discussion was the idea of a paradigm shift. This is a term Toby favours because it captures the interconnected nature of our fundamental beliefs, our frameworks for understanding, and our processes and practices for enacting those — and thus the scale and interconnectedness of the changes required. To demonstrate the utility of the term, he discussed the current ‘paradigm’ for public management, New Public Management (NPM), which was “deliberately created” in the 1980s. This approach has a basis in a particular fundamental belief (that people are selfish), a series of frameworks for understanding (people need to be coerced, through rewards and punishment, to behave for the public good), and a set of practices to implement those (measurement and impact assessments as they currently exist are required to understand who to reward and who to punish). Therefore, we cannot change how we measure impact without shifting the rest of the paradigm.
Where, though, to begin to enable or enact such a shift? For Dawn, it matters less what intervention point you choose than the approach you take to change. She suggested that what is required is humility — we don’t know what better looks like, and we can’t do it alone. Not only that, but we cannot understand the full impacts of our choices and interventions, both good and bad, unless we think systemically.
Another significant theme that arose during the discussion was the idea of care — is this the remedy for the transactional focus at the heart of the current approach to impact? Or is learning enough? For Dawn and Toby, the ‘human learning systems’ approach that they advocate for public services begins with the human — and with relationships of compassion, care and trust, wherein people can intentionally work together in the service of human freedom and flourishing.
Of course, care itself as a concept can be misused, misapplied, and instrumentalised. Care itself might be too limited, depending on who care is extended to. Cassie questioned whether care and relationships, collaboration and learning go sufficiently beyond the present and beyond the human? Can this approach be sufficiently radical within the funding world?
Other topics addressed as part of the session included:
- The challenge for leadership raised by the centralisation of power, responsibility and resources — how to rebuild trust, and a sense of relationship in order to de-weaponise the landscape of governance?
- The importance of thinking about sharing learning across countries on this theme
- The risks of centralisation of funding — both in the financial and public investment systems. Decentralisation may be needed to deal with the complex, emergent reality of the world in order to evenly distribute innovative capacity.
A number of helpful links were shared in the chat:
- The inner development goals — perhaps as a tool for paradigm shift
- The Finnish Innovation Centre — an example from Toby of Horizon 3 as set out by Cassie in a previous blog here
- Carol Sandford’s work, particularly this blog and this podcast
- This piece on humble government and this piece on humble government as an approach to public management
- Give Directly — have they been a disrupter to international charities with their focus on impact and empowerment?
- The Care Manifesto by the Care Collective
- The Trampoline Effect by Gord Tulloch and Sarah Schulmann — which speaks to the ideas discussed in the session about shifting and stretching our thinking in critical ways about care, compassion, etc.
Questions in the chat:
- Frederik: Being a public servant (locally and regionally) I often wonder — do we have a lost New Public Management Leadership generation so our hope is to build the emerging leaders?
o Which examples of shifting paradigms have we seen? What can we learn?
o Can we understand the resourcing landscape by some organic metaphorical framing?
- LHines: What does the panel think of Giving Directly, and the way they have been a disrupter to international charities with their focus on impact and empowerment.
- Sarah Dubreil: what do you think of initiatives such as Inner development goals for paradigm shift (https://www.innerdevelopmentgoals.org/)?
- LHines: Cassie — Wondering what you think does bring about paradigm shifting work (assuming it’s not relational work)?
- Alex Brink: Very interesting — so what would you see the alternative Cassie for radical funding?
- Cassie — I don’t think I know Alex… which is why I am very annoying to work with. I tend to know what something isn’t before I know what it is… and I guess in the funding world I am trying to experiment beyond the the frame of PGM and ‘shifting power’ as I just don’t think that is enough
- Neil Slabbert: The movement of Impact Investing has evolved during the past 10 and more years to quite specific practices and frameworks. But it all still seems past of a Newtonian paradigm. Does the panel agree?
- Frederik: Which are the possible horizon 2 tests that people do in this area?
- Toby: A question would be: how do those principles apply in a funding landscape?
- LHines: Wondering if impact could be better understood as ‘something that generates possibilities’, and we assess work on that basis
- Building on systems/objectives discussion and specifically what this means for funding, could one question be ‘how do you fund to encourage the characteristics of emergence?’ set within intentions/values/principles this could also shift evaluation/measurement from imagined isolated impact to the health of emergent ecosystems by identifying examples of emergence/practice etc