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Covid made us all into “learning organisations”

In the first blog of our learning in uncertainty series, Shoshana Boyd Gelfand reflects on what it means to be a learning organisation and how we might incorporate the new skills developed during the pandemic and embrace disequilibrium, to become lifelong learners.

 

Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is the Director of Leadership and Learning at the Pears Foundation.


The literature on “learning organisations” is vast. In a fast-paced world, those who are capable of continuous learning are clearly going to outpace those who aren’t. And yet we all know just how challenging it is to be one of those elusive “learning organisations”. Moving people from a place of comfort into a place of learning is never simple.

 

So, here’s the good news – if your organisation survived Covid, you are by definition a learning organisation. There is simply no way that anyone got through this period without adapting and learning new ways of working.

 

These new ways may have included new technical skills such as:

 

  • How to be part of a team when you can’t be in the same room together
  • How to fundraise when you can’t look someone in the eye
  • How to collaborate using online tools
  • How to work when your child/dog/neighbour is distracting you in the background

 

Just as important as these technical skills, we all had to learn new attitudes and dispositions:

 

  • How to function in a situation of great uncertainty
  • How to motivate ourselves and others following major disappointments
  • How to manage serious levels of loss (of life, of health, or just of normalcy)

 

Both the technical and attitudinal learning that we have achieved have been hard won. This learning has made us more resilient, more flexible, and – crucially – better at learning (which is fundamentally about encountering and engaging with something new). We have learned how to learn: a huge achievement and one not to be squandered.

 

The big question now is not how do we learn –hardship is often an effective teacher, and surviving a pandemic has effectively made us all into successful learners. Our challenge is now twofold: 

 

1) How do we incorporate our hard-won Covid learning into our organisations?

 

As eager as we may be to spring forward into a “new normal”, it’s crucial that organisations pause and reflect on the changes we have made over the past year and a half. Many of those changes are worth holding onto! Organisations can ask themselves questions such as:

 

  • Under what circumstances should we continue to offer flexible work schedules?
  • Should we maintain a “paperless” office?
  • How can we continue to make conferences/meetings accessible and climate-friendly?

     

Leaders have an obligation to capture this learning, reflect on it, and consciously choose which practices to continue, and which ones to leave behind.

 

2) How do we continue to learn without the harsh teacher of Covid breathing down our necks?

 

So much of what we learned wouldn’t have happened without the pressure of closed offices and the simple necessity to somehow carry on with our vital work. If you had asked me two years ago whether I could do leadership training and team-building workshops online, I would have said no. I wouldn’t have even tried. And yet . . . what I learned during the pandemic is that this kind of virtual training is indeed possible. Some of the techniques that I discovered (by painful trial and error) are ones that I will carry on doing. But I never would have discovered them had I not been pressured into that. So, the question for me personally is how do I motivate myself to continue to be open to those things that I would have once dismissed as “impossible”?

 

The big question moving ahead is:

 

Can we not only incorporate the new skills we’ve developed during the pandemic, but can we also consciously embrace the disequilibrium that comes from being placed in new situations?

 

My personal conviction is that we have no choice. Our organisations have survived (at least thus far) perhaps the worst year that many of us could have imagined. We’ve lost so much during that time. The only way to make up for that loss is to learn from it – and to let it transform us into confident ongoing learners.

The Evaluation Roundtable

If you would like more information on the Evaluation Roundtable, please visit our page.

If you are interested in attending sessions, please email houda@ivar.org.uk.

Attendance is by invitation only, but we warmly encourage you to get in touch.

Four ways now can be a moment for transformational learning

Since March 2020, funders and charities alike have learnt to work in a new way: remotely, and in extreme uncertainty. Many of us are wondering how we can avoid snapping back into inflexible structures that can’t easily accommodate complexity or, indeed, crisis.

We tackled this head-on at the Evaluation Roundtable convening in December 2020 – a space for learning staff in trusts and foundations to reflect on the design, development and use of different approaches to evaluation and learning, drawing out implications for practice in their organisations and networks.

Four ideas surfaced about how to make now a moment for transformational learning:

1. Build a clear line of sight

Shared organisational purposes and values, that are rigorously worked through into day-to-day practice, provide ‘the foundation for agile action – there are no disconnects’. This organisational alignment creates a pathway for action ‘when need is huge, and the options are endless’. For learning staff, it ‘enables us to actively embrace uncertainty. To accept the limitations on what we can know – and act anyway’. So that you’re always learning towards something specific, and your system is sufficiently aligned so you have, in effect, some guardrails and parameters for action.

2. Retain a sense of urgency and collective effort

What happens to partnership working, or working collaboratively, under the context of extreme pressure? The answer is that all the junk that usually gets in the way – like ego and territory – disappears, because the work becomes the thing that matters most. The idea that we have to make something happen stays front of mind.

3. Make thinking visible

If we think out loud with each other – if we ‘make our thinking visible’ – it provides an opportunity for people to offer alternative perspectives or identify the powerful questions we should be asking that would enable action. It stops us getting caught in the paralysis of constantly trying to get it perfect or right. In a crisis, in uncertainty, what matters is: are we focused on the right thing, given our position in the ecosystem? And does what we are asking enable us to act?

4. Return learning to the system

We need to be looking hard at the mechanisms that are set up in our institutions to enable learning – both formal and informal – to flow back to the system, so that it’s not stuck in one head and everybody can benefit. One of the key questions is how much freedom the system enables people to have. How much agency are they given to experiment with solutions that work in their own contexts? More specifically, to what extent do the constraints built into the system – for example, your reporting arrangements for grantees, or how staff are expected to perform, or the structure of board meetings – get in the way of that?


Read more about these four ideas in our short report Learning in uncertaintyor join our Community of Practice for learning staff in UK trusts and foundations.


About the Community of Practice 


The February sessions will build on one of the key themes that came out of the recent Evaluation Roundtable convening in December: Returning learning to the system. During 2020 everyone has been dealing with large quantities of rapidly changing information and intelligence – both formal and informal. Finding the right mechanisms to capture this data and keep learning flowing through to the system has been challenging. How can we learn from this experience to develop learning systems that are both robust and agile? Systems that, for example, enable us to be more light-touch and flexible and grantees to experiment with solutions that work in their own context
while still drawing learning back into the system so that everybody can benefit. You can sign-up for the event here (spaces subject to availability): https://calendly.com/ivar-social-change-/community-of-practice 

Making learning visible

What we have learned this year is that our Partners – those grantees with whom we have long-term, core funding relationships  – are our greatest resource. When Covid restrictions hit and our ability to relate was limited to a computer screen, that presented an incredible challenge. While some people can learn by introspection, at Pears we need others in order to learn. So, in 2021 we will lean into our trusted relationships to explore the following questions:

  1. Relationships require resources and input from both sides. As much as Pears Foundation values relational funding, let’s not kid ourselves that it is any less resource intensive for our grantees than other kinds of funding that require written applications and reports. How do we make sure that the grantees and the field benefit sufficiently from the relationships to justify the “cost”? In what way can we hold ourselves accountable for doing this?
  2. Learning requires some level of disequilibrium; something needs to push us out of complacency and into a space where we realise that new ideas or skills are needed. Covid pushed the entire world into that space. We had no choice but to adapt. And many of our partners are finding themselves stuck there involuntarily for far longer than they first anticipated. As we come out of the crisis, there will be an overwhelming urge to “return to normal” instead of staying in the uncomfortable space of uncertainty and complexity. How can we utilise our peer and grantee relationships to overcome that urge and maintain our ability to sit with uncertainty? How can we stretch this “uncertainty muscle” to stay curious and not draw to premature resolution? How can we keep ourselves in a state of disequilibrium that allows for ongoing learning?
  3. Crises can be challenging but they can also be opportunities to shed behaviours, values and assumptions that are no longer helpful. We often experience the period of shedding as a loss but it’s only by letting go of the known that we are able to grow. How can we utilise our relationships to support one another to name our losses, mourn them, and then not rush to fill the space where they were but allow new behaviours to grow in that space?

 
Crises bring into focus what our true values are. Pears Foundation has always held relationships to be at our core, but Covid has helped us discover that our commitment to relationships relies on deeper unspoken values of loyalty, humility and trust. Those lie at the core of many of our funding behaviours and they are what has helped us to learn.
 
We are deeply grateful for our relationship with IVAR and the community of learning it has created and we look forward to continuing to grapple with these questions together with our peers and partners.


The UK Evaluation Roundtable 2020 ‘teaching case’ told two stories – of the Pears Foundation and Corra Foundation. You can read reflections from Elaine Wilson of Corra Foundation here

How you make grants is as important as what you fund

At a recent Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice session we asked what working practices people are hoping to retain from lockdown; and what they are looking to improve or introduce as they approach autumn and winter. In the  fourth of our blog series addressing these questions, we ask Kate Peters (Community Foundation for Surrey) to share her reflections.

 

Remember March? The world turned upside down, and we all had to come to terms with living a totally different kind of life, separated from loved ones and our normal routines. Meanwhile, the voluntary sector was not only stepping up to be a lifeline to thousands of our vulnerable neighbours but facing a disaster in terms of lost income. Community fundraising was cancelled and contracts and grant funding were put into question as projects became undeliverable.

 

The Community Foundation for Surrey launched a Coronavirus Response Fund on 26th March. We made our first awards after only 6 days on 1st April. Six months and £3million of grants awarded later, what have we learned from the experience?

 

It’s not just the money

 

Although the money was obviously critical, what we heard from our grantees back in April was how important it had been to groups to know someone was going to help. A number of key funds closed to applications at that time–just knowing we were there for them was really valuable.

 

It was not a big job to send a message to all our grantees, stating that whilst we understood that projects might pause or even fail, we would be flexible with reporting and changed delivery. That was one less thing for grantees to worry about and an element of funding that could stay in the budget. It is a message I still need to reiterate to grantees as their grant reports come due and I always sense their relief.

 

So, what did we learn? – How you make grants is as important as what you fund. Our impact as a Foundation can be seen in the invisible, intangible support we give to our groups.

 

Keep it simple

 

Keeping the criteria for the Response Fund simple and flexible made it much easier for us to be inclusive and responsive. As a Community Foundation we have a large range of funds with sometimes very targeted aims. Working with one Fund was refreshing and made it a lot easier to make quick decisions.

 

So, what did we learn? –  We need to look at the criteria for our programmes and ask: can we simplify for the benefit of our applicants – and for us?

 

Relationships, not process

 

The biggest factor enabling us to make quick decisions was our knowledge of our applicants and grantees that has built up over years. We could cut down the length of our application forms and take a lighter touch approach to due diligence because we know these groups; we know they can deliver good work. 

 

But what about the groups we don’t know so well? And the pop-ups and small un-constituted groups? We worked with the support groups, including the CVS network, which agreed to act as fund holders for small or new groups. These local support bodies knew what was happening in their areas and their advice and intelligence allowed us to be confident in our grant-making.

 

So, what did we learn? – Investing our time in getting to know our grantees pays off. Being part of the local sector and networked with the key players is invaluable. We must make time to get beyond the forms and reports and build relationships.

 

Even more relationship building

 

Those groups, who we already knew struggle with accessing our funds, were left behind in the initial stages of the Response Fund. While experienced applicants can quickly jump on a new funding stream, those groups for whom grant funding is an unfamiliar world could not take advantage of our support in the same way.

 

So, what did we learn? – There is an opportunity to take something good out of the crisis; more and better relationships with groups which don’t traditionally look to Foundations for funding.  We must take time to promote and offer support to inexperienced groups when launching any programme to ensure everyone gets a fair chance. We have made a commitment to do better and we will.

 

What Next?

 

We focused our Covid-19 grant-making on being there for our community; a rapid response, enabling groups supporting vulnerable people to just keep going. Response to a crisis is not the same as long term grant making, but there are good lessons we can take from the experience to inform how we make better grants for the long game.


Next Thursday (12th November), in the fifth in our new series of blogs about learning from funding during Covid, Andre Clarke describes how Comic Relief is driving forward an approach to funding that is rooted in trust: ‘we recognised timelines, expenditure and goals set out in existing grant agreements might need to shift to reflect the changing context, and we made that easy to do’.


If you are interested in joining our Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice for learning and evaluation staff in UK trusts and foundations, please email vanessa@ivar.org.uk.

Old dogs, new tricks?

At a recent Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice session we asked what working practices people are hoping to retain from lockdown; and what they are looking to improve or introduce as they approach autumn and winter. In the second of our blog series addressing these questions, we ask Oliver French (Lankelly Chase) to share his reflections.

 

 

The pandemic has given fresh energy to some long-held frustrations with foundation practice. It’s not the first time that demand for trust-based relationships, core funding, flexibility, responsiveness, light-touch monitoring and shared reporting frameworks have come up, and there have been many stalled attempts to evolve funder practice. Whatever the radical fringes and self-image of the philanthropic world look like, foundations have generally proved themselves conservative and resilient institutions, in that our processes and practices (and personnel?) change at a glacial pace, and power is rarely shared or distributed.

But a national medical and social emergency, coupled with a summer of direct action and debate about racial justice, has put foundations’ structures and practices under more acute stress than before. It remains to be seen which orthodoxies will spring back and which we might have lost forever – willingly or otherwise. Could we be in the middle of an evolutionary leap, where before we’ve only managed small steps? What stopped us changing before, and are those structures still in place?

To figure this out, at Lankelly Chase we’ve been trying to tune into change at the level of ‘how’ and ‘who’, rather than just ‘what’. A new emergency fund here, or the suspension of an outcomes evaluation there, will have quite a low ceiling. But the remaking of a trustee board, the redistribution of decision-making rights in local places, and the creation of new centres of power have much greater transformative potential. As individuals, as organisations and as a sector, we should not just be looking to ‘build back better’ on the outside, but from within too: rather than seeing change as something that we create, support, resource or manage, it’s something that we seek to model and embody in the ways that we behave.

 

As individuals, as organisations and as a sector, we should not just be looking to ‘build back better’ on the outside, but from within too: rather than seeing change as something that we create, support, resource or manage, it’s something that we seek to model and embody in the ways that we behave.

Complexity and adaptation

 

It’s a normal human tendency to see the things which confirm our worldview and minimise those which challenge it. For our part at Lankelly Chase, we’ve long held that social change work isn’t characterised by simplicity or linearity, but by complexity and unpredictability. Covid didn’t introduce uncertainty to our world, but it has certainly increased our sensitivity to it. It’s also given us and our partners more freedom to sit with ‘not knowing’ and lack of control, and released some of the usual pressure to reach for comforting but spurious measures of performance or effectiveness.

For us, coronavirus has been further evidence that we’re living and working in a complex environment, and we’ve been trying to deploy our resources and attention accordingly. This means pivoting away from a focus on things like planning, delivery and assessment; and looking instead towards sensemaking, responding, and adapting to continuous change. We’ve sought to do this collectively, alongside networks in the places and partnerships we’ve invested in – not trying to ‘manage’ or to ‘assess’ but to inquire; and finding that “what have you noticed?” is a much deeper question than “what have you done?”. Instead of meticulous planning and retrospective evaluation, we’ve been able to act (and fund) with fewer conditions and more trust, and focus on putting the architecture in place to learn as we go. We’ve been trying to do this continuously and ‘in the moment’ (about which we’ve published a series of blogs), rather than waiting for the benefit of hindsight.

 

Instead of meticulous planning and retrospective evaluation, we’ve been able to act (and fund) with fewer conditions and more trust, and focus on putting the architecture in place to learn as we go.

 

Back to the future(s)

As the pandemic has unfolded, it’s become increasingly difficult to separate conversations about crisis response from those about a post-Covid future. After an initial flurry of activity, the demand for quickfire cashflow support has died down (for now…) amongst Lankelly Chase’s funded partners (more on our approach here), and our hastily convened ‘emergency’ team has found itself inexorably drawn into deeper questions like “when is an emergency no longer an emergency?”. We’ve been forced to consider what kind of future we’re (re)building towards, what kind of environment we’ll be operating in, how our new context will be shaped, and who gets to decide.

At times the number of flatpack futures being offered has felt overwhelming, as thinkers of all stripes offer different visions of what society should look like. We’ve felt very aware of who has a platform, whose voices are loudest and whether they’re the same ones we usually hear, which is why initiatives like the Lottery’s ‘Emerging Futures Fund’ are so important – not just for centring different voices, but also for unashamedly investing in enquiry and imagination.

At a very simple level, the Covid-19 pandemic has unlocked charitable resources that might otherwise have remained in bank accounts or questionable investment funds. It’s given us both the opportunity and the cover to do more, more quickly, than we had originally planned, including undertaking bigger experiments with devolved power and participatory grant making. The test now will be how we can respond to our tendencies to slip back into the old habits we’ve professed to dislike, and ensure that what’s been proved possible becomes normal – even essential.

 

The test now will be how we can respond to our tendencies to slip back into the old habits we’ve professed to dislike, and ensure that what’s been proved possible becomes normal – even essential.


Next Thursday (5th November), in the fourth in our new series of blogs about learning from funding during Covid, Kate Peters describes how the Community Foundation for Surrey has begun to embrace a different philosophy of grant-making: ‘How you make grants is as important as what you fund’


If you are interested in joining our Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice for learning and evaluation staff in UK trusts and foundations, please email vanessa@ivar.org.uk.

Promoting equitable, inclusive and transparent grant making

At a recent Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice session we asked what working practices people are hoping to retain from lockdown; and what they are looking to improve or introduce as they approach autumn and winter. In the second of our blog series addressing these questions, we ask Himali Dave (Urban Movement Innovation Fund) to share her reflections.

 

Despite the stark social, political and economic moments of the past year, we have seen incredible resilience and drive from our grantees. This has prompted us to reflect on our role as a funder and convener, and how best we can support organisations – not only to continue to meet their own strategic objectives during this period, but also to create a collective impact that is greater than the sum of its parts. Reflecting on what we have seen emerge with and through our partners, below are 3 key practices we are looking to retain and grow.

1. Agile and responsive grant making

 

We have realised that our collaborative grant making philosophy itself has been key to enabling UMIF to respond quickly, from supporting grantees to adapt and pivot projects through to responding to the field’s resource and capacity needs to operate in their new respective realities. By consciously minimising the associated layers of bureaucracy that often comes with grant making, we have seen more trust built with the field, as well as increased scope for creativity.

 

By consciously minimising the associated layers of bureaucracy that often comes with grant making, we have seen more trust built with the field, as well as increased scope for creativity.

 

Examples of this can be seen in global response grants which went from proposal to approval process within two months, including grants enabling organisations across India, South Africa and Mexico to virtually connect grassroots allies under lockdown. We need to hold onto this as a guiding principle and strive for high levels of collaboration and continued dialogue with grantees, and in doing so promote equitable, inclusive and transparent grant making.

2. Building shared ownership of learning agendas

 

Whilst the pandemic has overhauled ‘business as usual’, it has also sharpened the focus on key questions which often preoccupy funders and NGOs alike: “What are we learning? And how are we putting that learning into practice?”

In light of the fact that we are a relatively new fund, with most grants not yet having reached the one year mark, we have used this opportunity to embed a learning approach into new projects early on in their development. Through this process we have had some incredibly transparent conversations with grantees around their measurement-related anxieties – a common concern within movement building work, which is often hard to measure and attribute to individual projects. A key outcome from these conversations has been shifting the focus from ‘success’ to ‘learning’, which has really encouraged our grantees to consider metrics as a positive and experimental tool to accompany key learning questions, rather than donor-pleasing exercise.

 

A key outcome from these conversations has been shifting the focus from ‘success’ to ‘learning’, which has really encouraged our grantees to consider metrics as a positive and experimental tool to accompany key learning questions, rather than donor-pleasing exercise

3. Fostering virtual communities

 

Transitioning to a virtual operating space has not only fundamentally shifted how we interact with each other, but it has posed an additional challenge for UMIF as a funder that seeks to convene the field and foster collaboration and networking.

In order to maintain and grow the momentum within the community, we have hosted virtual convening sessions through the year, bringing together 55 participants from civil society and philanthropy. Despite the successes we have had in developing various strategies and collaborative projects remotely and across multiple geographies, ‘Zoom-fatigue’ is a real challenge and something that we have had to be mindful of. We have tried to apply the same principles as we would do for in-person sessions, with a unique offering for each convening: we bring in external facilitators, regularly check in and gather feedback, and encourage dialogue and interaction through breakout sessions. Building on grantee feedback, we have also tried to support regular points of contact in between these moments through newsletters examining best practices.

As we approach 2021, and with lockdowns most likely to remain a regular feature in our lives, we need to hold onto and smarten our utilisation of these technologies and techniques to ultimately strengthen and deepen the connectivity amongst our field of grantees.


Next Thursday (29th October), in the third in our new series of blogs about learning from funding during Covid, Oliver French, from Lankelly Chase, will reflect on what he and colleagues have been learning about what’s been made visible, possible and necessary as the covid-19 pandemic has unfolded.

If you are interested in joining our Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice for learning and evaluation staff in UK trusts and foundations, please email vanessa@ivar.org.uk.

Making ‘relational’ real: Our experience of funding during Covid

They say moving to a new house is one of the most stressful things you can do. For others it’s starting a new job. And as everyone knows now, living through a pandemic has been a new extreme of stress. But imagine all those things at once.

 

We were told to work from home after I spent less than 2 weeks at The Robertson Trust. I barely had time to learn everyone’s name (sorry colleagues). I had just moved myself up from London to Glasgow. All my stuff (plus partner) was in a mountain of boxes in our tiny Greenwich flat, ready for us to move into our new house on the 24th of March. That’s right – the day after lockdown.

 

I’m glad to say that we did manage the move – but not without a huge amount of stress, panic and surviving for more than a month with no furniture.  

At the same time, The Robertson Trust was experiencing its own stresses: a change in organisational structure, a new strategy to work out and staff adjusting to working from home.

 

Reflecting on the last six months, one thing I know now is the antidote to stress is being kind to yourself and asking for support when needed. I have certainly leaned on friends and family for support and given into a lot of creature comforts during lockdown. But, can we, as a Trust extend a sort of organisational kindness?

 

A new (kinder) approach?

 

We know that many Third Sector organisations have struggled to raise funds or generate income throughout lockdown and that many have had to radically change the way they operate. At the same time, they are seeing more demand from the communities they serve. In short, the charities we support, and the people who work or volunteer in them, are having a tough time.

 

We already knew that one of the ideas we wanted to employ in our new way of working was being ‘relational’. While principles on paper can be often be meaningless, the need for a relational approach has really come alive over the last six months. Although developing and implementing a new strategy during lockdown hasn’t been easy, I don’t believe we would have lived this principle so fully if it had been at any other time.

 

I see ‘relational’ as being supportive or kind – values that continue to be present in abundance across communities in Scotland. And just like going the extra mile for friends and family during lockdown; the same is true of the charities we work with.

I see ‘relational’ as being supportive or kind … just like going the extra mile for friends and family during lockdown; the same is true of the charities we work with.

As part of developing our new strategy, we have reviewed our communication. The way we communicate externally is now friendlier, supportive and more straightforward. We’ve also thought about accessibility and given options for people to highlight additional support needs.

 

A new strategy gave us time to assess our relationships and our role as a funder. We proactively build and maintain relationships in a wide range of sectors. We listen to how areas that we are interested in supporting have been impacted by Covid and how, using our assets as a funder and connector, we can help to make a difference.

 

Through the development of our funds, we reviewed the way we considered applications: We thought hard about the experience from an applicant’s point of view. We now have clearer and more transparent application and assessment processes that are proportional to the amount organisations receive.

 

Using Trust in Learning

 

Our approach to learning from our funds is based on relationships and trust. We will no longer ask our grant holders to tell us what outcomes they want to achieve. We will no longer ask them to measure those outcomes at the end of their grant period. We trust them to know the needs of their communities, to spend their grant wisely and to do a good job.

We trust our grant holders to know the needs of their communities, to spend their grant wisely and to do a good job.

We know that many people working in the third sector spend too much time writing funding applications and reporting on that funding. If a project or service has a melting pot of funders with different reporting requirements, that can mean a huge amount of time away from frontline work.

 

We still want to hear from grant holders at the end of their grant, but we want to check in on their experience: What were they able to do with their funding? What went well? What challenges did they face? How can we help them to overcome these in the future?

 

Organisations we fund can also choose to report to us in a way that’s meaningful for them. We’re happy to speak on the phone or they can send us a video or a report they’ve already made. 

 

Part of our approach to learning, and the shift away from formal reporting, is about seeing the benefit of informal data. What will tell us more about an organisation – a list of outcomes that they may or may not have achieved, or an informal chat where they have free-reign to tell us everything about their work? I’m excited to see informal conversations and peer learning events sitting alongside more traditional methods of evaluation like surveys.

After all, we’re not here to monitor and regulate funding – we’re here to support organisations and learn alongside them.  

We’re not here to monitor and regulate funding – we’re here to support organisations and learn alongside them.

What next?

 

The only thing about the immediate future is its uncertainty. We don’t know when or how new restrictions will end. We don’t know how badly the third sector will be affected. We don’t know the long-term impact on communities. We do know, however, that the pandemic isn’t over, and the foreseeable future will continue to be tough for everyone.

 

Despite this, I believe lockdown has made us a kinder funder who looks to build strong relationships with the organisations we work with. We’ve really brought to life the principle of being relational and we will continue to put this principle in action.


Hazel is a member of our Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice for learning and evaluation staff in UK trusts and foundations. If you are interested in joining, please email vanessa@ivar.org.uk.

Next Thursday (22nd October), in the second in our new series of blogs about learning from funding during Covid, Himali Dave, from the Urban Movement Innovation Fund, will reflect on what she and colleagues have been learning about how best to support organisations to create a collective impact.

Joined at the hip: Why you can’t make good grants without investing in learning

All the italicised quotes here are taken from members of the Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice – staff with lead responsibility for evaluation and learning within Trusts and Foundations.

 

At IVAR, we have long championed learning as a driving force for foundation strategy and practice. By ‘learning’, we mean ‘not monitoring, not impact assessment, not log frames, not descriptive reports, but proper focused consideration of truly mission-critical questions – about both strategy and practice – which lead to action’.

 

This discipline has never been more essential. In the face of rising need and existential threat to many sectors and services, the decision that each foundation makes about how best to use its relative financial stability has never felt more important. And 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.

 

So, when we hear of foundations talking about the ‘choice’ to be made between making a grant or investing in learning, the alarm bells ring. For, in our experience of working with evaluation and learning staff through the Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice, they are providing deep and important insights. Their voices are essential.

 

Here are four things they have shared, that help make sense of what we are all facing: ‘an ongoing event with no clear exit point’.

 

  1. ‘“This is what we know now” is the most we can claim’

The pressure to find the right answer to ‘What next?’ is acute, not least because of the funding cliff edge facing many grantees. Set alongside this, though, is complexity and a series of unknowns. Although this is an extreme situation, social change interventions of all kinds are characterised by uncertain pathways within constantly changing contexts. Now and for the future, decision makers need to respect the complexity – to look, listen and pay attention – and avoid rushing to simple solutions too quickly: ‘the time for plans will come’.

 

Foundation leaders can support this iterative approach through the offer of spaces for thinking, reflection and sense-making, and opportunities to share ideas and insights so that they can be used to inform the complex choices and decisions we all face: ‘This is far from over. We need to allow time to step back, be patient and reflect’.

 


  1. ‘This is what we are picking up so far, so this is what we can do – what do you think?’

In the current crisis, evaluation and learning staff will offer best value if they are able to be agile and opportunistic, working with decision makers in a dynamic pattern of review cycles, making adjustments and improvements as they go, on a much shorter timeframe than would be normal within a three to five year strategy. Many foundations struggle to achieve the right balance between performance and accountability requirements, and the tolerance for flexibility and uncertainty that enables organisations to learn and change. Therefore, learning staff need explicit permission, encouragement and support if they are to present the kind of ‘work in progress’ intelligence that will enable foundations to retain the agility and responsiveness so many have shown in this crisis, for the longer term. Not least because there is no straight recovery line out of the current situation: as far as the eye can see, there is uncertainty and unpredictability.

 

  1. ‘Monitoring and evaluation information and other sources of data can only take us so far: it’s folly to expect to fully comprehend everything that is happening right now’

Covid-19 has exposed the fallacy of certainty. Like never before, it is apparent that we live in a complex and uncertain world. Our knowledge of it and our ability to predict it can only ever be partial. Evaluation and learning staff have a critical role to play in helping to steer their foundations away from the risk of becoming passive observers, content to gather and evaluate more data, and endlessly strategise, in the expectation that they will commit funding only once they can knowingly, with enough certainty, make a difference. Gathering and analysing information may provide some assurance that strategic and grant-making decisions are judicious, but these efforts are inevitably imperfect set against real-world complexity: ‘The challenges before us are immense. And funders need to make decisions and contribute now’.

 

  1. ‘Let go of impact’

Evaluation and learning staff have begun to reflect that fretting less about measuring or judging the impact of a grant has liberated grant-making: ‘We’ve just got to let it go on the impact front and talk about the importance of the work. Our questions need to be forward looking: “What’s being revealed?”, “What do we want to keep?”. And not “Did it work?” or “Was it value for money?”.’

 

And they are leading the way with framing powerful questions about how to deliver most value, both now and for the longer term: ‘The question is “what can we do better”, not “what is the right answer”. Then we can try out multiple ‘better’ things quickly and back the ones that work.’

 

Just like the organisations they support, funders are staring at an uncertain and volatile future. Some of the tools they conventionally use to support priority setting and decision-making feel slow, cumbersome and a poor fit to purpose. Whereas some of the behaviours and insights of learning staff are highly relevant, useful and usable. Making good grants and investing in learning are not alternatives – they go hand in hand. Learning is not an add on, it’s integral and essential.

Our next Evaluation Roundtable convening will be online on 1 December, with the theme of learning through complexity and uncertainty. If you are interested in joining this, or our more informal Community of Practice meetings, please get in touch with vanessa@ivar.org.uk

What it’s like to be under the microscope

When Caroline Mason, our Chief Executive, proposed that Esmée Fairbairn Foundation should be the subject of the 2017 Evaluation Roundtable teaching case, I had some concerns.

 

What is the Evaluation Roundtable?

 

The Evaluation Roundtable is a fantastic opportunity to learn from other people’s mistakes. Focused on a ‘warts and all’ case study of a real evaluation, participants pick apart the motives and decisions of the funders, non-profits and evaluators involved and propose better ones.

 

The 2017 teaching case would not be about one specific piece of evaluation, but about Esmée’s whole approach to learning. An approach which I, as Esmée’s Communications and Learning Manager, was responsible for. This time, Evaluation Roundtable attendees would be learning from my mistakes – not other people’s.

 

Don’t worry, be happy

 

Was it the right time to share our approach? We had a framework for learning, but no real data yet. Would it be interesting enough for a case study? Our approach is intentionally basic, so that no-one is put off from participating. What if Roundtable participants said that we should throw out everything I’d been doing for the past two years?

 

When you are feeling worried, IVAR are good people to have around. Ben Cairns and Liz Firth – who did a huge amount of work to put together the teaching case – worked with us to put together a sensible timetable of interviews and review meetings. Liz handled interviewees with staff, Trustees and organisations we fund with great discretion and humour. The Teaching Case itself was balanced and fair and, as a historical document alone, is a valuable asset to us as a foundation.

 

Under the microscope

 

During the interview process, and particularly on the day of the Roundtable itself, my fears were replaced by gratitude. What an honour to have a record of our approach to learning and the changes we’ve made over the years. How useful! How brilliant to have all your cleverest colleagues critiquing your approach. What a great opportunity to make it better.

 

On the day, attending the Roundtable was surreal. The subject of the teaching case must sit quietly and listen for hours while it is discussed, resisting any urge to correct or comment. This was not too difficult. What was hard was to keep track of the discussion and keep my perspective. What is most relevant to respond to when every single comment or question is about your foundation?

 

It was an intense experience, and the questions about our approach kept coming after the main session, through drinks and into dinner that night. People had definitely found it interesting.

 

So what did we learn?

 

Being the subject of the Evaluation Roundtable was a great privilege. From the Teaching Case I learned about the gap between what we say we want to change and what we’ve actually changed. On the day itself I learned that we are all grappling with the same questions, and that colleagues thought we should keep going with our approach.

 

Above all, I learned that funders have all of the resources to learn from what they do in order to improve, but none of the outside pressure to do it. The organisations we fund have all of pressure but none of the resources.  Committing to learn and improve is the least we can do, and the Evaluation Roundtable is a key part of this.