Tending to and stewarding the seeds.

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Electromagnetic butterfly wings — Nigel Hutchings

I didn’t do an end of year blog for the first time in a long time. Partly because I felt a need for stillness and quiet , a time to go inward with my reflections on the year. And partly because I didn’t want to put anything out into the world at a time when there’s so many other things that need space for expression — loss, rage, pain, fear, mourning, and so much more.

I have felt more compelled to share where I am as I move forward into this new year, coming out of my mini hibernation, and arriving back at my work with The National Lottery Community Fund tomorrow after a month of mostly* not being there.

Last year, alongside being part of the Fund’s crisis response, I felt like I was seeding many things — and doing so at quite a pace because of the time pressures of changing leadership, amongst other things. This year, alongside ensuring I’m still available for any more responsive, hands-on crisis work that may be required of me, I expect a lot of my time will be spent cultivating the soil I planted the seeds in and tending to the seeds themselves.

I wanted to share more about these seeds, amongst the other areas of focus for me at The National Lottery Community Fund this year. I do this not as a hand-waving “look at all I’m doing!” but because I really believe that by signalling intent and sharing openly you create the conditions for connecting up with other things, attracting fellow travellers to the work, and people contributing other ideas, knowledge and experience to it.

So below I’m sharing what my team are (mostly) working on this year. If any of these programmes or initiatives are things you want to connect around, please do get in touch with me.

Digital Fund

  • We opened The New Infrastructure fund in November and will soon be letting people know if we will be funding them. We had so many brilliant applications, and this feels like an area for further investment. The pandemic has really highlighted how important infrastructure in communities is, and that includes the need for better, different and renewed infrastructure. This is a ‘prototype’ programme for us — a smaller fund that means we can learn about what works and then what needs to become more commonplace across the wider Fund.
  • Within the Digital Fund we are also exploring how ‘impacted communities’ can be in the lead when it comes to shaping how technologies impact on the lives of those in their communities. We’ve commissioned the brilliant trio of Tracey, Ade and Edafe to start this work — initially focussed on race — and through that we’ll learn where and how a funding programme can support that work. This was one of the last things I took to panel when I was running the Digital Fund, back in March 2020, but with the pandemic it hadn’t felt like an appropriate time to start the work.
  • Another funding programme that was put on hold due to the pandemic was an Evidence and Insights fund. This was designed by Tamsin and Ariana over a year ago, with the aim of supporting to community organisations to better access and utilise data, evidence and insights of all kinds. The intent of the programme is to improve understanding of their communities and the broader ecosystem, and how what they do is contributing. Over the last few months initiatives like the Data Collective (also funded by us through Catalyst) have launched, so we need to work out what is now the most useful focus of the fund in relation to the wider ecosystem. There’s no doubt though that building more capabilities around data (of all kinds) is important going forward.
  • We still have some budget left in the Digital Fund and we’ll be exploring whether to focus that on the ‘micro-organisations’ work , on developing more ‘community technology’ initiatives in place or looking further into a Community Tech Stack drawing on the Glimmers’ work that we commissioned.

Climate Action Fund

Another round of the Climate Action Fund will open soon, but this year we will be upping the activity in this area with other types of funding available. I’m especially excited by the investment we’re making alongside the grants programme into work that contributes to the wider movement. In the next month or so we will be publishing some tenders looking for expertise to work alongside the funding programmes in movement ecology building, systemic narratives, framing, creative content production, network weaving, public engagement, and then the more expected learning, evidence and insights.

Growing Great Ideas

We’re soon re-opening the ‘Growing Great Ideas’ funding programme, though it has been completely redesigned. It will now have a focus on supporting transformational and long-term change, that goes beyond individual organisations, and instead focuses on ecologies, platforms, ecosystems, assemblages, constellations and networks— initiatives that are generating an infrastructure through which many things are possible.

We will be looking to invest long-term, in work that demonstrates an ability to seed alternative systems, that can grow and deepen over time, extending its mission, refreshing its soil, and attracting more to the ecology as it grows. This is all about supporting the deep transition of 21st century civil society and our communities.

We’re also using language to be explicit about how this is different from what we’ve done before.

Bringing People Together

Similarly we are re-opening our Bringing People Together funding programme but with some distinct new areas of focus. This will include the following —

  • Activity that supports and explores the community infrastructure needed to bring people to together and keep people together; i.e. the conditions needed to bring people together in a more sustained and/or equitable way
  • Initiatives that explore what best practice and new approaches to bringing people together in this new reality look like.
  • Initiatives that have brought people together during COVID-19 based on shared common experience.
  • Initiatives that bring people together around climate action in communities.
  • Projects with a clear equity, diversity and inclusion focus that bridges across communities, not just within existing communities.
  • Initiatives that build collective efficacy and collective action within communities.

It’s been useful reading things like “The Future is Ours” from Local trust, “How we ‘pulled apart’ and how we can ‘come together’ again” by Anthony Painter and listening to the conversation between Hilary Cottam, Marc Stears and Anthony Painter the other day. This all supports some of the thinking that underpins this funding programme and reinforces the need for it.

And the excellent piece of social psychology research by More In Common will also underpin some of our decision-making.

As part of our ‘Bringing People Together’ programme we’ve also formed a new partnership with an international brand — the Fund’s first ever funding partnership with a corporate and one I’m personally really excited about. More on that soon, but cultivating that for the last 6 months has been full of lessons I’ll get to share at some point.

Global Partnerships

In the next few months we’re also opening a new international funding programme called Global Partnerships.

Some aims for the new programme include —

  • To learn from other funders and civil society organisations and then use that to inform and influence work across the Fund.
  • To share our work and learning with other funders and civil society organisations.
  • To build our international networks and better coordinate the Fund’s existing memberships of international networks.

This will primarily give us, and the communities we serve, an opportunity to learn from work internationally that is directly relevant to some of our areas of focus, like climate, equity, digital, stronger communities and shaping civil society’s future.

Policy and practice

We’ll be doing a lot more work this year using funding practice for policy and strategy development. Prototyping policy through funding practice gives confidence about the likely benefits and implications of a proposed direction, so that it can then be trialled on a larger scale in a more rigorous way. This isn’t new, you could say that the Digital Fund was a prototype, and the focus of Melissa’s role has been to develop our funding practice in this area, which is being turned into funding policy. Hannah’s team will be doing more Participatory Grantmaking experiments (prototypes) across the Fund this year, some of which will likely translate into funding policy, and Conor will focus on how the Leaders with Lived Experience work can translate into fund-wide policy and practice this year.

We even have a new webpages up for this, where we’ll soon (hopefully!) have lots of the resources up that we’ve been developing in relation to these practices.

Civil Society Approach (strategy)

There’s a whole programme of work being developed by multiple teams across the Fund in relation to this, and some of my role is to organise, align and create spaces for collective sensemaking. We’re also testing whether we can practice more ‘emergent strategy’ creation. Some concrete things that we already know we are doing are the following —

Open Enquiries

A series of Open Enquiries, which I write about here, and for which you can sign up.

Future-fit Infrastructure

The pandemic itself has highlighted where there are gaps in civil society infrastructure. In our position as the Fund, we are well-placed and have a responsibility to seed and invest in new infrastructure. 360 Giving and Catalyst are good examples of where we’ve done this — and both continue to grow and prove their value. There are obvious gaps in the infrastructure communities and the organisations that support them need — evidenced by our research during the pandemic. In the next month we will be commissioning external organisations to scope out the following infrastructure —

Narrative Institute

One of these gaps is infrastructure that supports communities to build stronger narratives and tell better collective stories to evidence the value of what they do and move more people into collective solidarity. There has been an over-reliance on case studies, simplistic stories and individual voices but these complex times require new skills that draw on practices from culture, social science, framing, data, and systemic narrative practice. The US is ahead of us in this with a Narrative Initiative, a Narrative Observatory and a Pop Collab — all funded through philanthropy. We imagine it will initially do the following (all heavily influenced by the organisations listed above) —

  1. Build network infrastructure — Make connections between people and organisations working across narrative change disciplines. Provide infrastructure for an emerging field and create space for collaboration. In a UK context this would include bringing together Frameworks Institute, the Comms Lab, Reset Narratives Community, the Cultural Content Lab and other individual practitioners in the field.
  2. Improve narrative change practice — Bring together tools and methodologies from the narrative change field and make them available and accessible. Highlight good practice and build skills across civil society.
  3. Catalyse alignment in the field — Explore opportunities for greater alignment among communities and the organisations that support them in order to advance deep narrative shifts.
  4. Highlight technology’s role in narrative — The proliferation of technology to monitor, understand and intervene in public conversation has great potential to accelerate narrative change efforts. But the landscape is vast and specialised, and there is little transparency between the technology and narrative change fields. Organisations and practitioners are using new tools but rarely have the capacity to share access, invest in further development, and identify new opportunities.

The initial scoping work that we commission will be to test these assumptions. We’ve also been in conversations with other Funders about this since late 2019 and believe it needs to be a Funder collaboration too.

A Foresight Observatory

Another gap we’ve seen is an effective foresight function that can equip funders, civil society organisations and communities with the necessary intelligence in order to anticipate and shape their futures. From initial research we believe the Foresight Observatory should consist of a multi-disciplinary team of subject matter experts (economics, technology, social sciences, design, data science) working to create a knowledge base and share a continuous understanding of the future. This would:

  • Help foundations fund for the future (be able to shape not just respond, and to take greater risks)
  • Help civil society organisations to anticipate and adapt more quickly
  • Draw together weak signals from across civil society to show what is coming next

And:

  • Strengthen the decision-making and evidence base for civil society
  • Encourage more diverse and anticipatory funding decisions, so that funders feel more comfortable backing a more emergent world
  • Help civil society organisations to more actively shape the stories of the future
  • Co-ordinate and showcase the expertise and voice of civil society in long-term thinking and planning

We think this is different to what’s already in existence because —

  • It will centre different voices, experiences, perspectives
  • Futures tend to be related to capital; what do they look like from the perspective of social capital, or stronger communities
  • Ethical and responsible use of representative data; using atypical data sets to generate insight — a values-driven approach to data analysis
  • This would be a collective endeavour across multiple trusts and foundations — this kind of intelligence is normally used for competitive advantage. We will be exploring whether it makes sense in the longer-term to sit as part of the Funders’ Collaborative Hub
  • It’s focus would be on building a foresight commons — a public infrastructure

Emerging Futures — an Imagination Infrastructure

I’ve already written about my hopes for this work over the coming months in this post. If you don’t know what the programme is, this is a good overview. And if you want to read more about the grantees, this is a micro-site with all that info. Over the next year we will be looking at how this can grow as ‘Imagination Infrastructure’ — standing by the initial framing of the fund. Who gets to shape the future matters and communities need to be better resourced to engage in rigorous social imagination practices. How can ‘community-led foresight’ work in practice? What are the spaces that are needed? The resources that are needed? The support and skill that is needed? The relationships that are needed? And the conditions that are needed for these dreams to not just slip away?

Funders’ Collaborative Hub

We will continue to invest in and support the Funders’ Collaborative Hub, seeing it as another vital piece of civil society infrastructure.

Events

Events are important for public and open conversations and a few events we have coming up which we’re confirming dates for include —

I should add, that all of that work is made possible because of National Lottery players. And if you’re wondering “What about homelessness? What about all the very immediate crisis needs?” please remember that we’re an organisation with 850 people, and a whole range of funding programmes that are there to meet different needs, work for different local, regional, country contexts, and work with different time horizons. The work of the UK Portfolio (my team) is one part of a much bigger jigsaw!

This is my work this year at The National Lottery Community Fund — I’ll share more over the next few weeks about the work I will be doing with my Policy Fellowship at IIPP, at Leverhulme Centre for Future of Intelligence, with the Stewarding Loss work, the Community Tech Fellowship, and with the Point People.

Thank you for reading, and like I said, if there is anything here that you want to link up around, that you want to give feedback on, or just want to keep in touch about, please do reach out.

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

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