Our Civil Society Approach — strengthening communities and the organisations that support them.

Cassie Robinson.
11 min readNov 13, 2020


This is a copy of a blog post I wrote as part of our CEO’s latest announcement, which you can read here.

As the largest grant funder of community activity in the UK, the National Lottery Community Fund has a clear role and responsibility to equip and support civil society to navigate, adapt to and thrive in the future. A civil society that is fit for the future requires us to be a holistic grant-maker — offering our funding products and support through grantmaking, but also the ability to share, learn and generate thinking.. And the Fund is in a unique position of being able to draw perspectives at different scales of organisation, and of the whole ecology.

Back in August 2018 the UK Government published its Civil Society Strategy and we published our strategy on how we thought we could best support civil society. The world looks very different now, and while aspects of our strategy are still relevant, we think it is timely to begin to reconsider how we support communities and the organisations that support them.

For the past 8 months, we have focused on providing emergency support to people and communities in response to the pandemic, while recognising we also need to keep an eye on the future. We might have hoped that by now we would be in a position to look back and draw conclusions. In reality we are all continuing to make sense of things as they unfold.

At the National Lottery Community Fund our overarching strategy sets out our vision to support thriving communities. Our corporate framework and our commitment to civil society within it has helped to guide how we support the sector. However, in the same way that we adapted our funding approach to be more responsive and flexible during the first phases of the crisis, we know how we continue to support communities beyond our funding requires a regular sense-check so we’re continually adapting and evolving our support.

Over the coming months, we will be doing a combination of things to reflect that this is both a marathon and a sprint for all of us: we will offer immediate, practical support when we are clear about what is needed; and we will host open enquiries where with communities and wider civil society, we can sense, feel and iterate our way towards the future together. These open enquiries will explore where there is less certainty or more to discover, and help hold the space for the in-betweenness.

“For a renewal strategy to respond to the immediate crisis with a view to reducing future liabilities, it must consider three crisis horizons: those that are known, those that are knowable and predictable, and those that are unknowable.“ — International Futures Forum

How we are approaching it and why that is important

The longer time horizon and complex nature of this pandemic means that we will be in a state of uncertainty and unpredictability for some time. We don’t know what this means for the timing and focus of our support. Therefore, it’s important to look, listen and pay attention, and to avoid rushing to simple solutions too quickly. There is also no one story to how people and communities will continue to experience the crisis, or a linear or singular narrative about what future is ahead of us.

In this context, organisations will need to be able to respond and flex to emerging needs and opportunities — continually re-prioritising and adapting to a changing context. We need to approach our Civil Society Strategy in the same way — tuning into what is emerging, noticing that the patterns unfolding around us might point to the bigger challenges to come and recognising that there is incomplete data. We need to rethink, as much as rebuild.

At the Fund we are drawing on many kinds of data to inform this emergent strategy. The extensive insight that our Knowledge and Learning Team are creating, the data intelligence from our new Grant Management System, the customer insights from our survey and phone lines, the evidence our evaluation team are building, in partnership with IPSOS Mori and the Tavistock Institute, from the 12,000 emergency grants we’ve made in response to the crisis so far, the horizon scanning from our policy team’s research and events, and the future facing insights and ideas generated by the Scanning + Sensemaking Network and Emerging Futures Fund.

Our approach will be:

  • Emergent and dynamic. Our approach to supporting civil society and the people and organisations that contribute to it needs to continually adapt and respond to the changing context. We will work with hypotheses and assumptions, enquire around them, test them, then act on them, in a continuous learning loop.
  • Useful. Whilst our approach will continually adapt, there will always be insight that can be actionable and useful — both for TNLCF and the wider sector.
  • Diverse and pluralistic. The people and data that inform the strategy will be from diverse backgrounds, cultures, sectors and geographies, and we will actively address gaps in voices, data & foresight.
  • Generous and generative. We’ll work in the open, listen, invite feedback and participation, share what we learn and give time to others.
  • Imaginative. Opening up spaces of possibility so that it’s both practical and aspirational
  • Experimental. Communities and wider civil society need transformative change. We also need to share the kinds of dilemmas we see and are faced with.
  • Connected to other initiatives to build collective intelligence and identify opportunities for collective action and asset building.
  • To embrace the complexity. As Zeynep Tufeki said in this brilliant article“we will still need all the systemic thinking we can muster to anticipate the second- and third-order effects that will follow this crisis. And if we hope to blunt the impact of others like it, let’s not forget, again, that all of our lives are, together, embedded in highly complex systems.”

We are undertaking a series of open enquiries, whilst continuing with our other data gathering activities, and will use what emerges to inform many aspects of our work. We will also share as we learn so that our intelligence can be available to others.. Insights will be used to guide our funding priorities and Fund-wide policies, and the different ways we can support communities and orient the sector. Listening to multiple perspectives, we want to understand the role we should play in the wider ecosystem, and where and how we can add value, adapting as needed to change.

Our initial areas of focus — open enquiries

For each of these open enquiries, we want to build a shared, evolving view with communities, civil society and the wider sector.

Thriving and Strong Communities

In 2018, we spoke of how powerful communities are those built and renewed by the people who live in them and are enabled to make the change they want to see. The need for this approach — and one where communities are actively creating power as opposed to being the passive recipients of it — has come to the forefront of public consciousness over the summer, driven by the inequalities exposed through coronavirus, and Black Lives Matter, prompting a deep and soul searching examination of the inequality this reproduces.

We’ve advanced a lot of this work, with the Leaders with Lived Experience programme in its second year, and 8 different experiments in Participatory Grantmaking underway across the Fund. We have also learnt from long term strategic investments supporting particular communities such as early years, young people, older people — helping us to see across the spectrum, but we want to explore further questions too. See the questions we are exploring

Active adaptation and resilience

At the National Lottery Community Fund we are often in the position of a first responder, able to adapt and respond to the changing needs of our grant recipients as they adapt and respond to the communities they serve. This will need to be done through a mix of sense making capability, agile and responsive strategic planning and as part of a wider ecosystem. We should not underestimate the scale of the change that may be required: many organisations are finding that the size and shape of services are already needing to change dramatically, and in some cases entire missions may no longer be relevant.

Our role will be to support communities and wider civil society to rethink these services imaginatively and help our grantees rethink themselves — to distinguish between reproduction and reinvention. See the questions we are exploring

Coping in a long crisis

It is increasingly clear that this is not a crisis that will be overcome quickly. There are multiple layers of direct and indirect impact, many of which have yet to become clear. Nor is this just one crisis. The global pandemic provokes many crises lived in different ways by different people, sometimes with several being experienced at once. There isn’t a beginning, middle or end. If we are lucky we will start to see deep adaptation and responses appropriate to the level of change required.

Continuous uncertainty is very likely the ongoing reality for a growing number of people across the UK. We know from our work with communities experiencing poverty that this has a deep psychological toll, and one that will be experienced both as individuals and whole communities.

We will have to learn to cope with uncertainty ourselves. Being open to uncertainty isn’t something we’ve been trained to do. As grant makers we will need to learn to hold multiple worldviews in our minds at once.. Only then we will be able to properly support the communities we work with. See the questions we are exploring

The everyday infrastructure we need now

Our social infrastructure — the institutions, the connections, the common materials, the assets we share and draw on — can feel hard to grasp. It can come down to individuals or small teams burning themselves out by working to a system that is struggling to support them. We have the opportunity to renew and modernise the social infrastructure of the UK and we should grasp that with both hands.

This is the connective tissue of the country: the institutions and gathering places, and the people — from youth workers to librarians, and all those working on informal and ‘below the radar’ social projects — who bring people together and enable the common life of a community.

What is missing from our current social infrastructure? And what infrastructure can we reimagine for a better future? This means thinking about not only places, amenities and resources, but technologies, cultures of decision making and social action too. The role of social action is to complement this expertise and infrastructure with a more spontaneous, ‘organic’ and adaptive resource, which now needs to be more deliberately organised to level up the communities of the UK.

We need to broaden and modernise our view of what constitutes social infrastructure so that we are not missing valuable tools that will help us come through this crisis and respond to the next one. See the questions we are exploring

Equipping communities to anticipate, imagine and shape the future

‘The future’ is too often the preserve of the privileged. It is hard to access ideas of next month, let alone next year when you are living shift-to-shift and meal-to-meal. And yet, a failure to engage a broad enough spectrum of people in dreaming up new futures makes them less likely to be realised. Firstly, they will be wrong and secondly, they will not have the backing of people critical to bringing them to life.

Agency over one’s future is an equity issue. There have been leaps forward in recent years in efforts to engage in future scoping and shaping at a community level. An emergent field of participatory futures is helping facilitate discussions about community hopes, fears and dreams so that big decisions and trade-offs are made with the people they affect. These approaches can harness collective imagination towards futures that no single individual might have thought possible.

Whether as individuals, communities or organisations, when we hold assumptions about the future that are unquestioned, we amass blind spots. These not only limit our ability to react to negative changes, blind spots can lessen our ability to anticipate and exploit opportunities.

All of us need to realise our power and responsibility over the future. Our underlying structural capacities and incentives are deeply coded to advance short-term thinking and decision-making. This fundamental societal deficit in future-oriented thinking, permeates our psychological, cultural, technological, legal, financial and political infrastructures — amplifying a bias towards the present.

It takes effort to focus on the future, especially with the immediate demands of a crisis at the door, but the ability to do so, and do so as a diverse community or collective will dramatically improve the futures we are heading into. See the questions we are exploring

“Pandemic preparedness is not a one-shot proposition. Neither, for that matter, is community resilience. Nor is the capacity for foresight more broadly. These things require habit. Collectively, they are cultural. Society critically needs an ongoing, collective, plural, high quality forward view. To be clear: current urgencies need urgent attention. In addition: we need to cultivate wiser, more farsighted and systemically-literate habits of mind, as individuals, as organisations, and yes, as whole societies; a distributed capacity that some of us call #socialforesight.” — Stuart Candy

Ecologies, Constellations and Ecosystems

It could be said that the National Lottery Community Fund is engaged in the activity of world building. Through the £600 Million we distribute every year, we open up new opportunities and support communities to realise their ambitions and dreams. The global pandemic has shown that the grantees we fund are not atomised actors. They are entwined in the ecosystems and constellations of community support that criss-cross through the UK. The long crisis has also created shared interests that didn’t exist before, and put people and communities, previously unknown to each other, in relationship with each other. See the questions we are exploring

How to get involved

What questions would you like to explore? If you’d like to be involved in any of these enquiries, please register through this short form. We’d also be very grateful if you could share this blog post with anyone who might like to be part of this project.

Between now and the end of the year we will be hosting weekly “Living Room” sessions — a space for people to interact with the enquiries on an ongoing basis, contribute to our emerging strategy and get value back in the form of things to test & try in their communities and organisations. For each area of enquiry, we will also be setting up interviews, running workshops and hosting events and regularly publishing and sharing what we’re learning.

What else?

These are all big questions, and one’s that have been shaped by the communities and civil society organisations we’ve been in touch with during the last 6 months. We’ve also heard some very clear asks about more immediate needs which are also in development. These include working out the most effective ways for us to support organisations to adopt and use technology, offering grants that resource capacity to step back and work out what to do, and specific support towards recovering financial resilience. some clear asks and are addressing those in terms of our funding offers and existing support.

All 6 enquiries relate to and overlap with each other. They also sit alongside our open funding programmes, and our existing work on Equity, Diversity & Inclusion, Community-led Climate Action, Community-led technology, Data and Organisational Development. Underpinning everything we do are our Fund-wide principles and Strategic Framework.

We also have regular events for you to attend about particular themes and ideas being generated by our grantholders. To hear about these sign up to our newsletter here. Our Knowledge and Learning team also do regular interviews with people, share insights and learning from our wider work, if you’d like to share your thoughts or write a blog for us. You can read more about their work here. Lastly, based in the communities that we serve, our local funding teams are always keen to hear your stories and ideas, so do get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

Thank you to Laura Bunt and Bea Karol Burks for their help with this.



Cassie Robinson.

Working with Joseph Rowntree Foundation, EarthPercent, P4NE, Policy Fellow IIPP, Co-founder Point People, Founder Stewarding Loss, International Futures Forum.