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Digital Fund Weeknotes 19 (25th — 29th March)

It’s been a very busy week. A few quick links:

Don’t forget to fill in our survey if you applied to the Digital Fund.

It’s great to see Nick, Tayo and team launch this enquiry about the future of funders and grant making. I went to the initial scoping workshop and it’s always nice to see something come alive in the real world. Linked to this initiative, I’m still waiting for Indy Johar to publish a manifesto I contributed to that’s an important call to action for funders, (dramatically) called Code Red.

Lastly, this is a brilliant open letter from the Frameworks Institute on how society gives us little exposure to stories that encourage us to think about how the world works, and the implications this has for social change.

What we are doing

Alongside working with different applicants to make sure we create the best possible proposals to go to the April 29th UK Panel, we’ve been out of the office a lot this week.

On Tuesday and Wednesday we had the UK Portfolio team away days in Leeds— the Digital Fund sits within this part of the National Lottery Community Fund.

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The UK Portfolio team in full swing.

It was an important few days for the team because there are some changes happening. Derek Bardowell, our amazing leader, is off on sabbatical for 6 months as he has a really important book coming out. He’ll be doing all kinds of publicising and speaking up over the coming months that will need his full attention.

John Knights is stepping up into Derek’s role (Yay, John!) and so we spent time as a team working out how we want to be together during this transition and how we can support John, and also each play a role in continuing the vision that Derek set out for the UK Portfolio — and building on it.

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One of the teams showing their narrative for how we respond to change and act on a collective vision.

We had our first learning event about the Digital Fund in Cardiff. A great team effort, with Livia and Laura from the team sorting all the logistics etc, and Cath and I doing the delivery, in partnership with the Wales Office (who kindly lent us Joe), plus a translator, and Janet from Reach Volunteering. Thank you all!

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Janet on the right doing her session on recruiting a “digital trustee.”

What we are learning

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My slides after translation — it brings a whole other level of challenge to content design!

When doing anything in Wales we need to make sure that all the materials we use are also translated in to welsh. This takes time and we were very lucky to have a translator to sort the (many) slides in advance. As someone used to working in Google Slides so I can add to and iterate my presentations right up to the last minute (so that they are as relevant as possible to the specific content / an audience you find yourself with), this was definitely not possible!

We collected lots of feedback on the day and also documented the questions people had. I’ll write these up when we’ve done all 7 as a longer and separate learning post — it will also be interesting to see how the questions change in different parts of the UK. However, my main take away from this first event was how important it is to show up in person and be there to answer questions, even if it can feel difficult ( of course 80% of the 40 people who came, were people we’d turned down for funding). Organisations want to learn and understand more about how technology is changing society, and changing people’s needs and expectations and therefore how to respond to that, but they can only do so if we support them to.

I’ve been looking at the responses so far to the Digital Fund survey and wanted to share a few reflections.

There was quite a bit of feedback about things not being as clear as people would’ve liked. We definitely could have published more before we launched the fund about what good looked like and ensured people had seen the “success factors” (and Strand 2’s) not just the “eligibility criteria.”

“Love the process of open discussion and collaboration but it would be really helpful to have a bit more information of what outcomes or even outputs you’d like to see from this fund as funders.”

“Refreshing, and sometimes confusing.”

There’s also something to be said though for people who might read the success factors and still put something in anyway. We heard from someone at the Cardiff event that “it was such a quick process to do the initial application that even though we thought it probably wasn’t a great fit, we tried anyway.”

This was always going to be a trade-off — do you make things simple to apply (as we chose to do) and which people appreciated in the feedback — whilst knowing that will mean more people are likely to apply “taking a chance” and not investing time in really reading or understanding the “success factors.”

“The open and relatively un-burdensome application of an EOI stage, pre-full application, is welcome. It was very broad and open, which has its benefits, but there is always a bit of internal questioning about “what fits” the programme.”

And whilst Tom wrote this great post about why the Digital Fund had been designed in the way it had, people would still have liked to see more of the thinking behind its design. I’m going to find out if we can publish all the user research that Tom and John did with the wider sector in advance of designing the Digital Fund.

“The process was relatively simple. The criteria seemed somewhat arbitrary e.g. you can’t apply for this strand if your organisation is over twenty years old.”

“Did they consult outside of London and Manchester when designing the Fund?”

I think it’s good for those of us in the Digital Fund working with organisations through this next phase of their applications to realise we’re asking them to work very differently to how they’re used to with some other funders.

“I feel like we need to learn how to apply well for this kind of application — we’ve spent years learning how to tick boxes, now how do we undo that and be brave about sharing problems and ideas rather than project plans.”

One person in the survey said their experience hadn’t been positive in applying to the fund because they hadn’t received relevant feedback. Whilst we can’t give personalised feedback to all 1200 applicants, with the 270 phone calls we did, we have endeavoured to give each of those more feedback. I’d encourage anyone who feels they didn’t get this to reach out to me — cassie.robinson@tnlcommunity.org.uk — I am very busy right now with the learning events but I *will* come back to you.

“Haven’t received relevant feedback so somewhat negative.”

Lastly, there has been a bit of mixed feedback about these Weeknotes. Most people have found them really useful and appreciated the transparency and additional information, but one organisation felt frustrated that this level of information wasn’t available *before* we launched the fund.

“Really impressed so far. I thought given the size of the fund that it would be quite faceless and impersonal. However, Cassie’s blogs are so informative and are really helping me to understand what the fund is seeking to achieve. Was very grateful to have been given the questions upfront too.”

“Made the guidelines clearer, not posted advice on Medium that was not available in the guidelines.”

All I can say in relation to this is that the Digital Fund was an experiment in and of itself. We didn’t know what kind of demand we would have. We didn’t know the levels of understanding we’d find in the sector and in relation to that we didn’t know what content would be useful to publish before we launched. The Digital Fund was only open for 4 weeks because it was a prototype, and we always thought we would use the learning, data and insights from this first round to inform us about how to design the second round.

What we’re celebrating

I’ll miss Derek — in my first week he said to me “We hired you because you’re Cassie Robinson, make sure you keep 10–15% of your time here to think and be like Cassie Robinson.”

For someone that barely knew me, that was such an insightful thing for him to say at exactly the right time I needed to hear it. And unlike other people I’ve worked with in the past who may have proffered similar sentiments, Derek and his team have supported me to do this with actions, not just words, with structure, and with resource. And I have John and Yvonne to thank a lot for this too. I’m really looking forward to working with John in his new role.

And I’m grateful for Derek showing me what really good leadership looks like – I can celebrate that I’ve had such a role model to learn from!

I’m also celebrating feeling much more a part of the wider UK Portfolio team — they are a brilliant group. I loved hearing from the team about some of the other work we’re supporting. A particular stand out is the programme Hannah and Connor have been running — Leaders with Lived Experience. We got to hear the list of awardees, I know a few of them and I love their work, and there were many others who sound amazing. Most of them are networks not projects, which I think is an important shift for funders, and whilst the programme doesn’t tick all these boxes, it starts to address some of the points in this brilliant post about 10 things progressive funders must learn.

Last, but by no means least, we are saying goodbye to Livia from the Digital Fund team who was on a 3 month contract with us to support us during a very busy time. There’s a short interview with her below about what she learnt. Thank you Livia!

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I started working at the Fund in January mostly with the Digital Team but also did some stakeholder research for the International Team.

My work with the Digital Team included research on the hospice sector in the UK as we are looking at how we can design a collective funding approach to that, and organising the Digital Learning events that are due to happen in the next few weeks in the UK.

Working with the International Team I have conducted research with some of our stakeholders to better understand the position of the Fund in the wider International Development sector.

It has been a privilege to be able to read applications from so many varied organisations across the country and see how the social sector tries to use (and adapt to) digital technologies. This in itself has been an education.

I have never worked in a grant making organisation before but I have learned a lot about what makes an application or programme successful and I really admire TNLCF’s commitment to putting the needs of communities at the forefront of their ethos.

On a personal level, working across two teams made me better at prioritising my work and keeping in touch with my colleagues.

I think the social sector is greatly enhanced by digital innovation but this does not seem to be even across the board. While some parts of the sector seem to make big strides towards a digitisation of their services, others are quite behind.

I think the social sector holds significant knowledge about the communities they serve and maybe we need a discussion at societal level of what we want to become digital and what we’d prefer not to. I think civil society can tell us a lot about that and in turn can influence rather than follow digital innovation.

I am going to work at the National Audit Office as an Analyst from April. I am hoping to look at how digital programmes alter the interactions between citizens and governmental organisations and look forward to the variety of the role.

P.s.. After my tweet on Friday saying I’d had a very difficult week, I had quite a few people getting in touch and checking in (thank you). It wasn’t a work thing, but some personal news that knocked me for six and just reminded me how important it is to make sure all those you love, know how much you love them ❤️

Written by

Senior Head, UK Portfolio at The National Lottery Community Fund & Co-founder of the Point People. Previously Strategic Design Director at Doteveryone.

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