Weeknotes 52 — One Year On (28th Oct — Nov 1st)

Today is my one year anniversary at The National Lottery Community Fund and so rather than the usual Weeknotes, I thought I’d do a reflection on my past year — on what I’ve learnt about myself, what I’m learning about my role as the wider context I’m working in changes, and what I’m looking forward to.

Some things that have shifted since I started the role

  • When my role was first conceived, it was to be for a limited time (12 months, which has now been extended to 18 months), and with two main areas of focus — one to actually run the fund, make grant awards and design new rounds of funding, the second was to embed good digital grant making practices (confidence and understanding) across the fund. The reason for its short term was to do such a good job of the latter, that good digital grant making would become the norm across all of our funding programmes — it doesn’t really make sense to have a separate ‘Digital Fund’ after all. A year in, with the wider context always in flux, I now believe that even when we’ve tried to embed good digital grant making practice into all the other funding programmes, an organisation the size of The National Lottery Community Fund, and with such a focus on public interest, will continue to need expertise in technology and digital. Given that questions of tech power is one of society’s largest challenges, alongside the climate and ecological crisis, I think many civil society organisations will need to invest in a Tech Policy person who can ensure that the organisation’s strategy, and wider sector support and funding, is being informed by developments in technology.
  • Linked to this, Rachel Coldicutt’s latest talk, which uses the term “Just enough Internet” is a really good example of why Tech Policy work in Foundations and wider civil society will become ever more important. I love the message, but there is potential that a message like Rachel’s might give civil society a reason *not* to become more technically aware and digitally enabled. I’d say it’s still important that a lot of civil society is “on the Internet” but this shows that any decision about tech, digital and data needs to be considered using informed, critical thinking (which is not as simplistic as user needs and service design = right for everything!). Some of this links back to the film I published a few weeks ago, and I think a part of the Digital Fund’s role will also need to be the horizon scanning and tech policy work.
  • Something else that links to the above and that has changed in the 12 months since I’ve been doing the role, is the recognition of the impacts of technology on climate. Work like this from the AI Now Institute is looking to make more connection between the growth of technology systems and the ecological and climate consequences. Communities like Climate Action Tech are trying to bring awareness of both the applications and implications of tech in relation to climate. When I started my role a year ago, there was no mention of the relationship between tech and climate in the organisation’s strategy, but the next round of the Digital Fund hopes to run one strand that directly addresses this.
  • Due to the extraordinary amount of applications we received for the first round of the Digital Fund (1200), with a finite and fluctuating number of team members to deliver the work, it kept the focus of my role quite limited for a while. The pace and focus has now shifted, and with a new team in place I can really deliver on other aspects of my role, beyond grant making. I’m also being asked or finding ways to connect in to other things within the organisation, which feels important in terms of avoiding duplication, to help link up ambitions with concrete ways of making change, and to bring more coherence across programmes and capability building. Even though I’m running the Digital Fund, obviously I have a huge amount of experience in strategic design, service design and systemic practices — I’m half-way through a post about the role of Strategic Design in a Foundation — and one of the things strategic design does well, is stewarding intent and using a “Trojan horse/mouse” to influence wider change.

Some things I’m looking forward to

  • In December the Digital Fund team are going to be hosting a one day workshop with a range of suppliers and intermediaries that we saw mentioned across the 1200 applications we received for the Digital Fund. We’re bringing everyone together because we could see how different suppliers and intermediaries were being described in applications as providing X or Y, yet it was clear there were real inconsistencies in language and expertise. The different ways that suppliers and intermediaries market themselves to civil society is a huge challenge, and until there is more coherence across these organisations, we will have patchy and inconsistent sector support. During the one day workshop we will be asking people to share and define what it is they offer and see if we can better categorise what’s on offer to the sector.
  • Over the next month we will be publishing some of the content we’ve been developing about what “good digital grant making” looks like, beautifully designed by Sonia, and primarily for The National Lottery Fund internally. However, I’m also looking forward to seeing how this work can be useful in the wider sector too and help shape the way Foundations and philanthropy do better work around tech, digital and data — including policy and learning work. Emily Bazalgette did some desk research for us which showed a real gap in anything being available openly on the web, so look out for — www.teachingfoundations.digital
  • Now that Phoebe has joined the Digital Fund team with a responsibility for stewarding the learning from the 27 grants we’ve made, I hope there will be lots of insights to share over the next few years. I think we’re asking some important questions and testing some big assumptions that were made in the design of the fund, which I listed in this post — the one I’m currently most interested in gathering evidence of, is whether digital as a “trojan horse/mouse” is the more effective way to enable greater change. There are many reasons why organisations might look to become more resilient, adaptive and evolve, but is digital a more effective starting point than any other?
  • The Climate Action Fund launches this coming week, which I’m looking forward to in and of itself, but when the new Head of the Climate Action Fund starts (soon to be announced), I’ve been paired up with them as a “buddy.” I also heard from one of my colleagues working in the CAF team, that the question I’d suggested they add in to the initial Expression of Interest had elicited the most useful content so far — “Who do you think is doing the most interest climate action work?” — hopefully we’ll be able to share the 170 responses we got to this question soon, as a way of inspiring others.
  • I’m looking forward to working with my new team and to designing better role names, descriptions and responsibilities for them. If we are to become better grant makers, this feels important — and generally I think the kind of skills and capabilities needed in Foundations and philanthropy would benefit from being critiqued and made more explicit. When introducing Phoebe and Melissa to their roles last week, I spoke of stewardship, sense making, evidence and learning, instead of grant management and evaluation.
  • Of course I am also looking forward to launching the new funding programmes we are designing and experimenting with at the moment — some combination of Infrastructure (and making this cool again!), Race + Tech and investing in communities to lead this work, and Climate + Tech.

Some things I’m learning about myself

Some of which I didn’t know, and some of which are just being reinforced.

  • Moving in to a role working as a funder was definitely the right choice for me. I’ve been an entrepreneur, I’ve set up a networked organisation, I’ve worked in central government, I’ve worked with local government and the NHS, I’ve worked in a think tank, am affiliated with an academic institution, have made interactive, creative experiences, done lots of consulting, and worked for a big corporate, but what I’d never done was worked within a role that distributes money. This felt like an important part to learn more about to be a better systemic practitioner, who wants to always keep understanding where the greater levers for change come from. I’m loving learning more about this, having opinions about it, still think funding has such an important role to play, and given the heightened critiques of philanthropy over the last few years, it feels like a particularly interesting time to be working in the funding and foundation world. It feels like there’s lots of opportunity to influence and shape it.
  • When I first started speaking to friends and peers about doing the role at The National Lottery Community Fund, some of them raised an eyebrow, wondering how I would find working in an 850 person organisation (I think some of them probably forgot I had worked at the Co-op and at Government Digital Service, and I am an adult, but still) — what would I make of all the perceived bureaucracy, the pace, the culture, and so forth. What I’ve learnt is that I can work really well in an organisation like TNLCF, in fact working in a huge organisation, or in a peer network like the Point People is where I thrive. Going into the same office every day, with the same 12 people and needing to be chatty and “team-y” all the time, is something I’m terrible at, and it makes me really miserable. You can feel much more invisible amongst 850 people! I’m lucky that TNLCF is so well set up for remote and distributed working, with teams spread across the whole of the UK, and people used to working in a really autonomous way.
  • One of the ways I can be difficult to work with is that I care so (too?)much about the quality, integrity and purpose of the work (and stewarding its strategic intent) — more than I do about bringing in everyone’s views. It means at times it also takes precedence over spending time and attention on how people are feeling.
  • Linked to the above, I’m definitely someone that persists with doing the best and right thing, not the easy thing. I’ve seen how working in a large organisation can lead to an acceptance of “that’s how things are done” rather than perhaps questioning whether it is the only way that something can be done and investing time, energy and belief in a better way being possible. There are some things we’ve really improved in the Digital Fund by holding on to this.
  • Two of my values, and therefore what I most care about, are justice and fairness — and not entrenching power. In the organisation this means I’m interested in whether we are giving credit where its due, about who’s voice isn’t getting heard, or who’s work isn’t being recognised enough. I’m always looking at ways I can try to use the privilege of my position to offer allyship, and to wisely support and challenge others, as appropriate.
  • If you feed me intelligence about questions you are asking or work you are doing, I can make things happen — what I mean by this is that intelligence is like a material to me, something to weave together, see patterns within and make sense of — and to then be generative and useful with it. Indy Johar really gets this about me, I often feel like he is planting things with me and knows that they will travel and find new and unexpected connections. It’s interesting to think how to explicitly make use of this in a large organisational context too.

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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