The Foundation Design Lab

Designing better practice so that Trust and Foundations work together to use their resources more wisely, equitably and to have the greatest impact.

Cassie Robinson.
6 min readApr 9, 2020


The Foundation Design Lab has been set up by Cassie Robinson and Nick Stanhope, with ideas and support from a wide network of individuals working in Trusts and Foundations, charities, design, research and much more. It iis collaboration, supported by the Association of Charitable Foundations and Ariadne, as a trusted, open network. We’ve added some more info at the bottom on some recent changes to Cassie’s role at the The National Lottery Community Fund and the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is the Foundation Design Lab?

The Foundation Design Lab sets out to provide dedicated design capacity for the UK funding community to test new approaches and build better practice, systematically and collectively.

The Lab sets out to collaborate closely with Trusts & Foundations to accelerate change within grant funding, by bringing the highest standards of learning, design and evidence building. The Lab has 3 main functions:

  1. Sensing — the Lab listens to a diverse network, convenes partners, maps the landscape, scans the horizon and undertakes original user research to make sense of existing and forthcoming challenges and generate hypotheses for change within funding practice.
  2. Testing — collaborating closely with Trust and Foundations, charities and other partners, the Lab uses a mix of research and design methods to test and refine new ideas or build more evidence for existing innovation.
  3. Building — the Lab contributes to shared funding practice, through principles, standards, tools and services available to all Trusts and Foundations, and fosters collective action amongst funders to build new funds and programmes.

There are two things we think are particularly unique about this approach —

  1. It’s supported by existing infrastructure. The Association of Charitable Foundations and Ariadne are both currently supporters of the work and will sit on the Advisory Group. They will play a key role in sharing insights and content from the Lab across their membership. In the longer term the ambition is that it will sit more intentionally within one of these infrastructure organisations. A common practice across Trust and Foundations is to outsource research and experimentation work, which means there is a huge amount of duplication, little opportunity to coordinate efforts, high consultancy fees to pay, and most problematic is an opaqueness about who gets hired to do that work. It’s often the same people, and 360Giving can never shine a light on that kind of practice. The Foundation Design Lab is not a consultancy or an agency, but an effort to be embedded into existing infrastructure.
  2. It’s bringing design practice into the heart of how foundations work. Even in the United States, where they have a much more well resourced infrastructure for Trust and Foundations, the centering of design in foundation strategy and practice is not common, and few foundations have design expertise in them. Design brings a mindset and a set of methods that, when brought together with collective ways of working, can play a powerful role in pushing forward funding practice in the UK.

Why is it needed?

To make more of existing innovation in funding. There are new approaches being tried and tested across the landscape of UK Trusts and Foundations all the time. These have included significant changes, with grant givers handing over control of decision making or simply handing over cash, and more gradual shifts in practice such as relational funding and putting people in the lead. But we’re missing opportunities to learn, systematically and collectively, about the value and impact of these approaches and where and how they can be applied. We need to build more shared evidence and practice from what is already going on to improve funding across dozens of institutions.

To bring more new, disruptive ideas. Despite bright spots, change has been too slow and too modest. The funding system is still too opaque, disconnected and idiosyncratic, too littered with barriers for under-represented groups and too defined by independence amongst institutions. Much of the system needs more than optimising, it needs radically rethinking and reinventing. We need to draw on a wider range of influences to inform enquiries and experiments. We need to look internationally, into different sectors, fields and communities and out at the horizon. And, if we’re going to embark on experiments that aim to disrupt long held norms, we’ve got to apply the highest standards of design, testing and evidence building to that work.

What kind of things will it do?

The first two Design Enquiries the Lab will undertake are:

How can Trust and Foundations support organisations and programmes to end well?

This is funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and is actually an Ideas & Pioneers award given for Cassie’s idea of a Farewell Fund. With their permission, it made sense to include it in the Foundation Design Lab because we believed it to be a question that more foundations need to ask. Now, in the context of Covid-19 and its impact on civil society, whilst in need of a different framing, it feels like a very important space to hold and to design for. Parts of the sector no longer existing are now a stark reality, but how that happens may still be able to be determined.

How can foresight be better used and distributed across Trusts and Foundations, and to the wider sector?

This Design Enquiry is funded by the Catalyst and in the first instance is asking the following questions:

  • How can a sensing + foresight team inform Trusts and Foundations so that they can support charities to anticipate and shape the future, like an early warning and early opportunity function?
  • Using the theme/lens of technology, how can we test out the best approach for such a foresight function?

Over 6 months the team will design the most effective ways to do the following -

  • Horizon scanning and sensing work about technology. What are the weak signals? The trends? The first and second order consequences? The policy implications?
  • Work out what is a useful process for doing sensing work and gathering data from this kind of sensing and horizon scanning. Are there particular themes that Trusts, Foundations and wider civil society needs to hear about?
  • Translation of what is found in the horizon scanning into useful and meaningful insights for Trusts, Foundations and civil society more widely.
  • The most effective ways to design and distribute the foresight content to the intended audiences.
  • The most effective ways to gather feedback on how the content is influencing people’s work. How do we know it is useful? Can we test different ways of translating the insights to influence Trusts and Foundations practice and iterate how best to influence Trusts and Foundation practice?

Obviously we will be testing this approach so that it can be used and adopted for different thematic areas besides technology, e.g for the longer-term impacts of Covid-19.

How you can get involved.

For more information about Foundation Design Lab, see the website, and do get in touch.

** A bit more context from Cassie…

This a blog post that has had to be adapted several times due to changing circumstances. My original contract with The National Lottery Community Fund was not a permanent one, and although it had been extended and there was talk it might be extended again, in the last few months of 2019 I had started to plan what else I might do. That was when Nick and I came up with the idea for a Foundation Design Lab. I’d become a pretty regular writer about the ways in which I hoped foundation practice might be developed and even setting up a website (still a work in progress) about better grantmaking. Nick had initiated a piece of work on a Funding Utopia.

Obviously now I am a newly permanent member of staff at The National Lottery Community Fund my relationship to the Foundation Design Lab will be a different one.

We had also been due to go live with Design Enquiries and announce the Lab at the end of March but because of the Covid-19 pandemic we’d paused things. However, in the last few weeks it has become clear that maybe this is the time that foundations and philanthropy need more support than ever to try and do things in new ways. The nature of the Covid-19 pandemic requires foundations and philanthropists to work with agility, to be both strategic and responsive, to make use of data and most of all, to be coordinated.



Cassie Robinson.

Working with Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, P4NE, Arising Quo & Stewarding Loss -