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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

Calling all funders! Help us test a new risk framework

Our recent studies The possible, not the perfect and Duty to Care? 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.’

Today we launch a Risk Framework (created with a pilot group of five funders) to help funders to think about their appetite for and approaches to risk. As part of our ongoing work on Thinking about … risk, we are now looking for funders to help to test the new framework.

 

A framework for thinking about risk

 

The framework aims to help funders achieve 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 their appetite for and approaches to risk.

The framework outlines seven attitudes and aspirations – plotted on a spectrum – that tend to influence appetite for risk and associated practices:

 

  1. Attitude to innovation
  2. Expertise
  3. Certainty and clarity of outcome
  4. Data
  5. Capacity and capability
  6. Financial risk
  7. Public opinion

 

The framework provides a structure for interrogating the balance to be achieved between ‘the things we care about’ (positive risk) and ‘the things that we worry about’ (risk mitigation). This enables challenges and inconsistencies to be ironed out before going on to the practical question about how risk is to be identified and managed day-to-day.

 

Read Thinking about … risk and try out the framework here.

We need your help

IVAR and the funder pilot group want to widen the conversation and encourage more funders to test the framework and bring a range of opinion to bear on the critical challenge of making the practical connection between intended risk profiles and day-to-day grant-making practice.

Is your organisation taking ‘enough risk’? Would you like support to achieve more clarity about your appetite for risk? Get in touch to join a group of funders collaborating with us to take the process through to its next stage. Participation will involve:

 

  • Using the framework (with the support and guidance of IVAR facilitators) to assess the risk profile of a grant programme

  • Attending a ‘share and build’ workshop with other funders

  • Consenting to share the findings more widely to help shape the future of thinking about risk in grant-making.

Closing well: Ending the work of a ‘spend-out’ trust

From the outset, the Trust was designed as a spend-out organisation. From day one, we have been planning for closure. Working as a time-limited organisation creates opportunities, but can also present challenges. Closing an organisation, and ending partnerships with grantees, can be complex and time-consuming. Honest, open dialogue combined with a clear plan and willingness to be flexible can help ensure that grant partners, and the programmes they deliver, are left in a strong position.

Sustainability has always been at the core of the Trust’s programmes, ensuring that the work we deliver with our partners will continue long after we close – as a lasting legacy in honour of The Queen. As such, our approach has focused on integrating our programmes into government policies and supporting work that will be able to continue into the future. We worked with established partners to deliver a number of programmes. Concluding these partnerships, efficiently and effectively, was one of our priorities as we approached closure.

We found it important to state, clearly and unequivocally, that we intended to spend all of our funds and close. We wanted to avoid any level of uncertainty of behalf of our partners. It was most helpful to talk through all the details of our closure plans with partners from an early stage. The more fully partners were able to understand the logistical and legal intricacies of closure the more they were able to prepare. Each step was discussed several months in advance to allow each partners’ financial and legal teams to feed into the process. Although we had a standard process, each relationship was unique and required a bespoke approach.

We chose to close all the Trust’s programmes six months before the Trust’s public closure. This provided us sufficient time to address any challenges and complete the grant closure process. Our experience has shown that we needed the full six months in order to complete closure responsibly. The Trust had a comparatively small portfolio of 28 grants, although several of these involved a significant number of organisations working in consortia in multiple countries.

We maintained frequent contact with all our grant partners throughout the grant period to track spending and ensure that all funds would be responsibly spent by the time the Trust had closed. In the months running up to the planned closure date we needed to be flexible to allow partners to reallocate small amounts of funding. This ensured that all funds could be spent effectively on programme priorities within the Trust’s lifetime.

Our lawyers helped us to put together grant closure letters that summarised various legal, reporting, communications and data issues into one document. We then shared a draft with each grant partner to allow time for their own legal teams to suggest and edits. This process helped both sides to understand their rights and responsibilities. It also highlighted any outstanding issues, such as ownership of intellectual property, which were still to be resolved.

The overall process of closing all of our grants was intended to be comprehensive but straightforward to implement. Final reports from partners would be reviewed at the Trust, followed by a meeting or call to discuss the overall impact and if any issues remained. Once all parties were satisfied that the programme had been completed a letter would be signed by both parties, whereupon the grants would be considered officially closed.

Operating as a spend-out organisation has provided us with a clear focus on what we wanted to achieve. This approach has guided our strategic and operational decisions throughout our lifetime. We have remained focused on our mission and we have been forced to make sometimes difficult decisions about how we can create the greatest impact with the time and resources available to us. Having sufficient time and resource dedicated to closing our programmes, and concluding our relationships with our partners, has enabled us to leave the stage confident in the legacy of work and hopeful for the future of the Commonwealth.