A new funding ecology requires team players, not managers

There’s been a recent surge in interest around how well the world of grant makers and independent foundations work with others around them to achieve really meaningful social change. Third Sector has even written an analysis piece on this subject.

As part of the wider ongoing debate, we jointly commissioned Collaborate to produce the Supporting Social Change: A New Funding Ecology report, alongside Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. As Andrew Barnett, director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation UK Branch, writes, our shared interest was in ‘clarifying where we (as funders) sit in the ecology…defining our personality – our identity…who we are and what is unique about us.’ But actually, the report takes us beyond that – inasmuch as it’s really about recognising that funders cannot achieve change alone, and that we may need to adapt some of our approach to really deliver on our ambitions.

The report lays down some clear challenges to funders to get better at focusing on qualities such as humility, transparency, and active network-building. Money (‘privilege’) is only one of the social conditions required for positive change to happen; knowledge, experience, and connections (which others often have) are just as important. Sara Llewellin, chief executive of the Barrow Cadbury Trust, puts it well. She says it is about ‘contribution not attribution…no foundation could possibly attribute change just to their own contribution – they’d have to be potty.’

Culturally, this is pretty fundamental stuff for funders; it’s the difference between being in the team and on the pitch, rather than the manager trying to ‘strategise’ from the sidelines or the fan on the terrace hoping for the best. These are not new observations; Jake Hayman’s recent blog  is the latest frustrated cry for change. Some of his points – the turning of ‘innovators into operators’ and ‘social leaders into perpetual beggars’ – carry some resonance.

There are also limited examples of cross-sector, multi-funder/commissioner collaborations. Initiatives like the Early Action Neighbourhood Fund and the Child Sexual Exploitation Funders Alliance are recent examples of funders working together, the Corston Independent Funders Coalition was another (formed to support vulnerable women in the criminal justice system).

At the Big Lottery Fund, we have tried to adopt a ‘fellow citizen’ rather than ‘primus inter pares’ role. It is a learned behaviour which doesn’t always come naturally. Thinking beyond purely funder collaborations, our Talent Match programme aims to take a system-wide approach to youth unemployment, address problems at an earlier stage, and most importantly, is delivered through a set of multi-agency partnerships across England. In Cornwall and Isles of Scilly, for example, the partnership is led by a local social enterprise, Real Ideas Organisation, working with Cornwall Voluntary Sector Forum, Cornwall Neighbourhoods for Change, Cornwall Youth Work Partnership, Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant, United Response , and Cornwall Council. This enables people to come together and mesh their respective contributions into something that can really work for the individual. It’s a step in the right direction, an example of funder-led collaboration with a wide range of fellow partners – and developed in response to young people’s views, with an ongoing expert panel of young people to keep us on our toes.

But perhaps now, our ambition now should be to sometimes be participant rather than orchestrator, cultivating the art of listening. Working together as equal partners, founded on mutual listening and learning, is no mean feat. This will be a journey for us all.

I’d welcome your views either on this blog or on twitter @dawnjaustwick.

Dawn Austwick is the chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund

  • Andy Hamflett

    Thanks for the thoughtful piece, Dawn.

    This does of course point to the huge importance of sharing funding data so that there is sounder footing for analysis across systems rather than with individual funders on their own. Congrats to you, 360 Giving and others for making good headway on that.

    With the Cabinet Office, ODI and others working hard to release more and more data sets that can be combined with funder data to explore impact, this is only going to be a more fruitful avenue for investigation. Look forward to seeing next steps.


  • Tom

    Thanks Dawn. There’s a huge amount of power in harnessing the input of funders across multiple sectors within a single project…. so how can voluntary funding dovetail with investment and have corporate support levered into it as well…and configuring this from the start so the different forms of funding and support are responsive to one another and additive rather than forcing the delivery body to hop from one to another.