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Learning in Uncertainty

In December 2020 IVAR and the Center for Evaluation Innovation convened for the fifth UK Evaluation Roundtable, following on our discussions from making learning everyday, we focused on how we can learn in uncertainty. 

This session was framed around a growing appetite for learning within trusts and foundations to ensure the Covid-19 crisis acts as a transformational moment, taking valuable lessons from their flexibility, born from an emergency response, into future practice. The challenge to the learning function, however, is how best to inform, support and underpin this agile and collaborative approach, resisting the ‘snap back into calcified, inflexible systems’

Our reflections are anchored by four key insights, which you can read by downloading our latest report. 

We would like to thank to our longstanding sponsors of the Evaluation Roundtable, CCLA. 

During 2021, IVAR will support further exploration of these themes through the Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice. For more information on how to join these sessions, please contact us by email: 

UK Evaluation Roundtable Teaching Cases 2020

People and systems are under stress in unprecedented ways. Facing a volatile and uncertain future, more than ever foundations need good learning to support tough decisions about maximising their contribution. In our two new cases, Corra Foundation and Pears Foundation share how their approach to learning has performed under pressure in response to Covid-19, and their initial thoughts on how this will influence the way they learn for the longer term.


The cases should be read in conjunction with the Learning through uncertainty blog series  (produced by the Evaluation Roundtable Network of staff from over 60 Foundations) which links to our ongoing work on sustaining progressive practice into the future. Central to the work of the Roundtable Network is a recognition that, to be the best that they can be, foundations need to be thoughtful and reflective. Which is why learning is critical: balancing data with intuition; combining evidence with instinct. It is not an add on, it’s integral and essential.

Note: These cases were produced for the 2020 convening of the Evaluation Roundtable. The lines are numbered to support detailed discussion.

Thinking about… Merger, during Covid-19

Thinking about… Merger, during Covid-19 is primarily for senior staff and trustees of small and medium-sized voluntary organisations. It is not a guide to financial aspects of merger, nor is it a step-by-step ‘toolkit’. Instead, it brings together the experiences of a wide variety of voluntary organisations and advisers that have contemplated or carried out merger to highlight different dimensions of ‘thinking about merger’.

Some people may be able to consider merger carefully and patiently with their boards, staff and partners; others may be in more of a hurry and feel they have little choice – whatever your circumstances, we recommend fully exploring the feasibility of merger with your prospective partner(s)
before you commit.

We cover:
  • Reasons for thinking about merger
  • Stages in the merger process
  • What makes a successful merger?
  • A collaboration spectrum


We are planning a webinar for those thinking about merger – with Bates Wells – in July. Sign up to our newsletter to be the first to hear when the date is set. 


Find quick insights on charity merger and practitioner perspectives here

Against Violence and Abuse

Download the two case studies of Against Violence and Abuse (AVA)’s approach to social change.

Executive summary

Advocacy, lobbying, campaigning and influencing are essential tools in the effort to tackle inequality and injustice. 


Small charities have a distinctive role to play in promoting and informing social change, with an agility and a direct relationship with the people at the sharp end of poverty, violence and discrimination that can be harder to achieve in larger organisations. 


We explored how and why small charities are challenging, shaping and changing policy, practice and attitudes. 


Download the summary of our findings. 

Thinking about… risk: Developing a framework

In ‘Thinking about… risk’, we set out our initial findings from a study carried out in partnership with a pilot group of five foundations into perceptions of risk and how these are managed and mitigated. This work builds on The possible not the perfect and Duty to Care? where we observed that ‘too much caution can narrow the range of people and organisations funded and what that funding can achieve’, and encouraged funders to consider if they ‘are taking enough risk rather than too much’. 

As part of the study we created a framework with our pilot group to help foundations think about their approaches to risk. The purpose of this framework is to help trusts and foundations
to achieve greater clarity about the different aspects of opportunity and risk inherent in their strategies and aspirations. And to ensure that their application, assessment and decision-making practices accurately reflect this appetite, both across their portfolio and in individual programmes.

We will be inviting others to test the framework and help us to improve it.

Evaluation Roundtable: Follow up report from 2019 convening

In January 2019 IVAR and the Center for Evaluation Innovation convened the fourth UK Evaluation Roundtable with the theme: ‘Making Learning Everyday’. This report summarises key points from discussions.

The Roundtable began with an exploration of a ‘teaching case’ which told two stories – of how Corra Foundation and Pears Foundation conceive of, organise and carry out ‘learning’. Participants unpicked decisions in the teaching case to understand their implications for learning and practice.

Together we designed a set of principles which distinguish the practice of high quality learning organisations and help us think about how we can support learning by building a set of habits. Focusing on habits ensures that learning is not a separate activity or just another step in a process. It makes learning an integral part of the way we work. And it helps to make concrete and visible what specific practices we’re looking for and how the work might look if those were actually embedded.

Summary: Driving continuous learning as a grant maker – Evidence review

A shift is taking place in the UK funding world. Learning is emerging as a key element of contemporary grant-making. In 2019, we were commissioned by Comic Relief to review a range of evidence and engage with funders and infrastructure organisations to explore this.  


This document includes the foreword from Comic Relief and the summary. 

Our assets, our future

The research, commissioned by Power to Change and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, is the first full analysis of the economic contribution and financial health of England’s much-loved community-owned assets in over a decade. The project sought to address evidence gaps identified in earlier work commissioned by Power to Change. It was authored by a team of researchers from the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) at Sheffield Hallam University and the Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR).

The report reveals a community ownership sector that is growing fast and making an increasingly significant contribution to the UK economy. The research finds good financial health across community-owned assets, but highlights vulnerabilities and areas where support is needed to further stabilise and grow this important sector.

You can download the report from the Power to Change website.

UK Evaluation Roundtable Teaching Cases 2019

Interested in how other UK trusts and foundations think about, organise and practise learning? We have published two detailed case studies – of Pears Foundation and Corra Foundation – on their approaches to ‘making learning everyday’, along with notes for how to use these teaching cases to support reflection and learning in your own organisation. 

These cases were produced for the January 2019 convening of the UK Evaluation Roundtable, which Pears Foundation and Corra Foundation attended. They have also kindly agreed for us to publish their thoughtful closing reflections from the convening, shared after a day of hearing the others’ perspectives on their approaches to learning. 

Note: the lines are numbered in the teaching cases (page 9 onwards), to support detailed discussion.