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6 reflections on collaboration during Covid-19

Since April, over 70 leaders from healthcare, VCSE and local authorities have joined IVAR and SEUK-run peer support groups, sharing experiences and thoughts on cross-sector partnership working in healthcare settings during the pandemic. Last week, we hosted the fourth meeting in this series. Here we discuss the current challenges and pressures highlighted by those attending.

1. Identifying priorities for the next six months

The participants listed a focus on recovery as top of the list. Many said that the response to the pandemic has improved relationships across sectors and meant that planning is now a more collaborative process than it was before.

We’ve worked more in partnership with our counterparts than before.’


‘These last three months have been about relationships and communications and we’d like to keep it this way and focus on making this our new normal for the next 6 to 12 months.’


A social prescribing professional was concerned that their services might be used in the wrong way, or be seen as a solution to a different problem if they weren’t very clear ‘who they are for but also trying to increase the referrals and to make it possible for community groups to refer to social prescribing’.


2. Addressing health inequalities and the digital challenge


The switch to digital and virtual healthcare support has made stark the impact for those without access to digital access. One participant spoke about how they have been contacting local community networks and the voluntary sector to reach those left behind by the digital divide. This has led to good relationships being built: ‘It is important to join up with these networks and have conversations and partnerships with them, when you are trying to respond to a crisis like Covid-19’.

 

Secondly with the amount of support being provided in this way, many organisations and services had introduced new, more frequent ways of engaging with users. Whilst this has been welcomed by users, it has become overwhelming and exhausting for providers. Organisations are assessing how to continue to work this way and how to balance this with face-to-face support.  

 

3. Supporting not squashing local community action

Many were keen to support the new micro/hyper local groups and mutual aid systems that have emerged as a huge source of community strength and cohesion over the last few months. At the same time, they are aware of the potentially negative impact on drive and reach that can be caused by over control of local voluntary service councils or ‘professionalisation’.

 

Wirral CVS was able to share some excellent examples of the approach they had taken to supporting local mutual aid groups. Including connecting with groups, but standing back and only offering advice and support when needed. 

 

4. Finding time and space to assess impact

 

Working at pace and re-designing services at speed to support users has meant evaluation and assessing impact hasn’t been at the forefront of many people’s minds. Many commissioners and funders had responded to the emergency by reducing reporting requirements for funded services and organisations. One participant explained they are not thinking about impact yet, being still in the response phase, but are starting to look at recovery and realise that it’s going to be tough.

We are having to fight fires while watching our house burning down.’

At the moment it seems like local charities are just making an impact with the hope that they can assess it at a later stage. However, there is increasing demand from NHS England and NHS Improvement and others to understand what has worked and what systems and new ways of working would be helpful to adopt and retained in a recovery phase.

5. Recording impact with qualitative data and stories

A social prescriber described how she had been encouraging her colleagues to write up the case studies and stories of people they have been supporting during Covid-19 as a way of keeping the individuals at the centre of thinking, both for them and their commissioners. This approach struck a chord with the webinar group, along with the impact of simply documenting what has, and is, taking place. What is ‘normal’ is changing on a daily basis. It was noted how important it is to document this, to capture the new ways of working and support arguments for not slipping back into previous less successful approaches, systems and relationships. Furthermore, some commissioner’s mindsets are changing and becoming more open to hearing individual case studies and patient’s experiences.

 

‘Our commissioners have actually said that they want to hear more case studies than statistics! So, our quarterly reports now have a reasonable amount of case studies and I think commissioners are seeing this as the way forward.’

 

One CCG has a slot for ‘patient voice/experience’ at board meetings and sees the current digital transformation as a valuable as a way of engaging more people with the meetings in order to hear more directly from those experiencing care.

 

It feels like progress is being made if these reflective practices are being adopted more widely and those with lived experience of conditions and care are being put at the centre of decisions and planning. 

 

6. The challenges on the horizon

 

It is worth noting that these conversations and discussions are taking place against a backdrop of uncertainty particularly in statutory sector funding. Many local authorities are nearing bankruptcy making it difficult for them to support anything other than essential services and the NHS will not be able to ‘reset’ back to pre-Covid-19 levels of service and care quickly. It is increasingly important that local areas and their communities are able to leverage the full extent of their local assets, knowledge and experience through collaboration across the sectors.

If you would like to access support for cross-sector partnership in health and care: 

 

  • The next and final peer support session will take place in September 2020. Email nancy.towers@socialenterprise.org.uk to register your interest. 
  • The Building Health Partnership’s programme will host a virtual national conference, sharing best practice and developing relationships in the late Autumn, email vanessa@ivar.org.uk to register your interest.
  • You can register for a 1-2-1 coaching session with Mark Doughty from The King’s Fund here

Seeing with an applicant’s eye

15 weeks ago, we proposed five principles to guide funders in rising to the challenge of the unfolding Covid-19 crisis: be bold, be generous, be genuinely flexible, be available, be reassuring

 

Since then, we have seen genuinely progressive practice. Some have transformed their relationship with grantees, dismantling onerous reporting structures and proactively offering a range of financial and technical support. Others have overhauled their application processes, streamlining application forms, and radically speeding up decision making. More are testing the waters of unrestricted funding. Some have even publicised their willingness to meet fundraising costs in support of the effort to keep going. This new mood of agility, trust and common endeavour points the way to a healthier and more collaborative relationship between funders and the VCSE sector. We have seen what is possible in an emergency.

 

The challenge now – to both funders and the sector – is to nurture and grow these new behaviours into the future. A future that, as far as the eye can see, is likely to be characterised by uncertainty and unpredictability. A future that will require, therefore, sustained commitment to flexibility and creative adaptation. So, it is worrying that some VCSE organisations report signs of wobble and strain, even in the most open and agile of funders. Many of these concerns sit in the detail of application processes, not in the big strategic questions around ‘who we want to fund and why’.

 

Too much risk is still being delegated: VCSE organisations are dealing with very short application windows for emergency funds, undeclared opening and closing dates, and funds closing early: ‘It’s incredibly undermining. It’s like they think we don’t have to plan because we have nothing else to do’; ‘Honestly, it would be as helpful to ask us to write poem or a short story at the moment as it is to ask us to give a three-year projection’.

 

Application processes do not reflect the times we are facing: Application forms are losing their internal coherence and slipping out of proportion to the sums of money or the duration of grant:

‘I’ve just finished an application to a major national funder for 18 months funding. There were 18 substantive questions on top of all the usual organisational stuff. That’s a lot in itself. But most questions contained two or three sub-questions. I think I had to answer more than 50 questions in all’.

Many grants remain at least semi-restricted: Many short-term grant offers do look and feel more ‘general’. But not enough funders are offering complete flexibility to adjust in response to changing circumstances without coming back for permission:

 

‘Everything is changing so fast, the only way to survive and keep our services running is to be flexible. If funders believe we are ethical and competent, why wouldn’t they trust us to spend the money well?’.

Some grants staff are struggling: Even the best of published policies rely on how they are interpreted and implemented by grants staff:

‘All over their website, they talked about trust and flexibility – but the grants officer behaved just like they always do, asking for loads of addition information and insisting that we justify every detail, then not getting back to us when they said they would’.

Criteria don’t seem to be changing and continue not to be shared: Especially in the context of longer-term funding bids, VCSE organisations don’t know how they will be judged. What will be done with their answers to questions about their Covid-19 response: ‘Whatever we write now will be out of date long before any decision is made’. What do funders think a ‘good reserves level’ or ‘sound financial management’ is, in the wake of Covid-19? What are they expecting in terms of forward plans and projections?

 

Application processes are unwittingly restrictive and unhelpful. Application information is unwieldy or dispersed: ‘I often have to sign up for an account, copy and paste all the application questions into a Word document, then copy in information from several different guidance documents before I can start thinking about whether we can make a strong application’. Online forms are full of fiddly detail that is slow to complete: ‘I get it – funders need to be able to analyse application data. But are they really using all these individual boxes we’re filling in?’  And word limits are too tight: ‘Funders can’t realise how much time is wasted shaving words – we don’t have that time right now’.

Perfection is impossible right now. Like everyone, funders are learning how to live with uncertainty and working hard to adjust day-to-day practices to make the best contribution they can. But, for the foreseeable future, responding better doesn’t call for major strategic reviews or complex analysis and consultation. All it takes is a commitment to see with an applicant’s eye and a willingness to shoulder more of the burden of responding to the current crisis and getting funds out to those who need them most and can use them best. Even the trail blazers amongst foundations can hone their practice. And for those who have struggled to adapt, a few simple changes could make all the difference.

 

We would suggest five simple and practical ways to help lighten the burden. These actions can help to ensure that the progress made at a moment of crisis is sustained, and that practice doesn’t slip back as we enter an extended period of recovery and renewal.

 

  1. Drill down into your funding offer so that it is crystal clear. Ask only the questions you need to ask – and test them rigorously for clarity and overlap.
  2. Set achievable timetables – and stick to them. VCSE organisations need to plan too. And speed up your response time. Take the pressure off hard-pressed organisations by taking more on your own shoulders – by, for example, convening additional committee meetings, bringing in more assessment capacity, giving proper feedback to those you turn down.
  3. Think about how to ease the application process – corral your guidance, prune out rarely used data fields from your online forms, test and build in 20% leeway on your word limits, and introduce new, easier ways of hearing from applicants who are already under pressure.
  4. Be open about how applications will be judged. Show your workings and explain why. Invite challenge and consider new ways of making hard choices.
  5. Support your staff well. New behaviours will not take root unless they are properly encouraged and rewarded.

 

While it may be too soon for definitive answers on longer-term strategy, there is a real opportunity for a more collaborative approach to rethinking the future and, in particular, funding practices, many of which may no longer be fit for purpose. Over the coming months, we’ll be working on a new project with London Funders, a group of eight foundations, and VCSE organisations across the UK to identify opportunities for sustainable adaptations and innovations to funding processes and practices.

 

We’ve been producing regular briefings on the challenges faced by VCSE leaders, and the questions and opportunities this presents for funders. Read more at www.ivar.org.uk/covid-19-briefings

What would enable a sustained transformation in cross-sector working in the long term?

Recognising the tremendous pressure that health, VCSE and local authority leaders are under as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, IVAR and SEUK are facilitating online peer support groups through their Practice Development Network[i] (PDN), which supports cross-sector partnership working in healthcare settings. The aim is to create a space for people to share experience thoughts and learning, during the pandemic at a time of pressure on the health system for those working navigating and delivering in partnership.

We find them a fascinating snapshot of hope and perseverance, and it is brilliant to see connections being made in real time that can help unblock a challenging situation, in another region.


We were joined by 20 cross-sector health and care leaders on 21st May for our two virtual peer support sessions. They were from different parts of England including: Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes; Dorset; Surrey Heartlands, Northamptonshire; Worcestershire; Liverpool; Leeds; Stoke-on-Trent; Nottinghamshire; Lancashire and South Cumbria; Northumberland; and London.

 

Please join us for the next peer support session on 24th June


Building trust rapidly

It was interesting to hear the positive stories that people shared about the speed and flexibility in their processes to re-designed or developed their services to cope with the new way of working for their varied service users. For example, a mental health support service is now being run digitally and is having more interaction with people than before when it was a drop-in, face-to-face service.  Not only had this made a huge difference to many people, in some cases preventing suicide, it also offers solutions to those in rural areas facing transport issues. ‘People tend to enjoy a bit more anonymity on the call, especially those we have less motivation to physically take themselves to the clinic.’


Key to this was a change in focus from box checking governance to pursuing relationships based on trust, and an assumption by all partners that people would do the ‘right thing’. This was something that all wanted to hold onto, to sustain as areas began to look at their priorities for starting up services that had been suspended to cope with Covid-19.


‘There is a massive desire amongst a few of us to keep pushing cross-sector working.’


‘We need to take time to pause and reflect, the good stuff that is going on and plan to continue this in the future.’


Long term versus short term


This is where discussion turned to barriers in cross-sector working and how to support systems’ need to see past immediate priorities –  of catching up with waiting lists – and not ignoring equally important projects that seek to address longer-term issues through community resilience. This is the paradox that for some areas the experience of the last two to three months have made this incredibly easy, and convinced leaders within their ICS or system that prioritising community resilience and supporting the VCSE to be an equal partner in this is key, while others have drawn up the metaphorical drawbridge and have even less time and money for approaches of this kind.


It is often about the art of the possible, and perhaps this is where sharing experiences and learning is even more important, if people can see others taking a different approach, it can lead to adopting different ways of working.  


Using data to embed social prescribing and tackle health inequalities


This was further emphasized by a case study in North Dorset, shared by Dr Simone Yule. She leads on Population Health Management (PHM)[ii] for the ICS. North Dorset previously received support from NHS England and Improvement to develop their PHM skills and data. Dr Yule shared how they were using this approach to managing data to ensure those most in need during the pandemic were getting the support that they needed. Being able to search their Practice data for people with a number of underlying health conditions that might make them more vulnerable to Covid-19, and were then able to link them up with appropriate support either via a health champion or social prescriber. See matrix below for intervention.  

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Data sharing


Many people on the call were keen to understand the approach to data sharing, since this has been a barrier for many to develop a comprehensive and embedded approach to social prescribing in primary healthcare. It had also hampered people’s ability to respond in the current pandemic, with CCGs being unwilling to share shielding data with the VCSE due to existing data sharing agreements. From Dr Yules’ perspective, their CCG had been very supportive, waiving some governance control to ensure the right people were supported in a timely manner, letting link workers know that they were trusted to do the right thing. Even though some patients had withdrawn consent to be contacted, the emergency situation allowed the Practice to override this request and all at risk patients had been contacted. There have been no complaints.

Enabling transformation 


Returning to the theme throughout the discussion, many were nervous that things would return to pre-pandemic ways, with a focus on governance and reporting outputs and counting interactions which would not support an ongoing transformation of care and support within the healthcare system. As the last few months have demonstrated, relaxing governance and trusting organisations and individuals to do the right thing has enormous benefits and can support radical and rapid change for the better. We need to ensure that this can be adopted in a sustainable way to drive forward the positive benefits seen in the collective response to Covid-19.

 

Please join us for the next peer support session on 24th June


Resources


Resources for building cross-sector relationships that improve community-based healthcare can be viewed and downloaded from here.



[i] Practice Development Network (PDN): The PDN is designed to support the sharing of learning, experiences and challenges of working in a collaborative way across sectors in health and social care. Its core members are people who have been involved in Building Health Partnerships and Transforming Healthcare Together, however it is open to all who are working or would like to work across sectors to deliver better health and social care outcomes. The network consists of an email group, allowing individuals to share helpful resources and make useful connections between each other as well as regular webinars. To join the email group email: Nancy.towers@socialenterprise.org.uk

[ii] Population Health Management is an emerging technique for local health and care partnerships to use data to design new models of proactive care and deliver improvements in health and wellbeing which make best use of the collective resources

A place-based approach

A group of Cumbria Funders supporting community-led emergency response work share their deliberations over what a sustained response to Covid-19 might look like. The group includes independent funders, local authorities, NHS commissioners and infrastructure organisations.


Initially, Cumbria Community Foundation drew on learning from grant-making in previous emergencies such as the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak and flooding between 2005 and 2015.  They launched the Cumbria Covid-19 Response Fund at the end of March 2020. Several of the independent funders in Cumbria donated to the fund and joined the grants panel. This multi-agency approach was able to act quickly and flexibly to distribute funds to third sector groups – emergency response funding, agreeing to changes in what existing funding is used for, and assessing applications regularly: ‘Looking at applications on a weekly basis has definitely been a high for me, in terms of the capacity and pace in which we have responded in Cumbria. It has been a really definitive response to need’.


As a group of funders, we were keen to look at the emerging community needs regarding covid-19 and to consider this collectively. Now our attention is starting to turn to longer-term collaboration given the ongoing and uncertain nature of this pandemic. IVAR facilitated a conversation to support our thinking about whether and how we could continue working together.


Challenges

The situation remains fluid, but there are three concerns already on our minds:

 

  1. Funding: Some funders ‘have to raise our own money in order to give it away’, others are dependent on dividends that companies have suspended giving out: ‘We don’t know yet when we can look at grant-making and our situation in the long-term’. And for statutory funders in particular, internal processes are a barrier: ‘We are constrained by our funding guidelines and we try to support our third sector providers as much as we can … Even if our guidelines change, we will probably not be able to be anywhere near as flexible as other funders can be’.

  2. Organisations surviving: Some organisations doing good work will be unable to sustain themselves ‘because of a combination of possible long-term reductions in funding and fundraising activity’. This is exacerbated by lack of capacity in the third sector to think about and plan for the future, with most people either busy in emergency response work or furloughed. So, we’re not sure whether now is the time to introduce new funding pots: ‘Seen from previous emergencies, most groups would be too immersed to step out and write a proposal at this time’.

  3. Speed vs strategy: We have been busy with emergency responses, and worry that ‘we haven’t had a chance to stop and pause and look at the breadth of grant-making are we doing. Are we missing out some of our rural communities and underrepresented groups?’. There may also be a missed focus on sectors beyond healthcare and emergency, like the arts and climate change: ‘Once the dust settles, we will need to re-look at priorities’.

Shared vision with a collaborative approach

We want to work through these challenges together, to collectively support the third sector in Cumbria now and for the future – and to work with people who have ‘lived experience’ to develop a long-term vision for recovery: ‘This helps ensure panels are listening to communities and are able to then fund the actual need’.


We expect different priorities to emerge – financial hardship, children and young people, vulnerable groups, mental health issues: ‘Sharing our thinking around these priorities will be important, so we can spread out and fund different initiatives’.

 

Next steps

We believe it is ‘important not to lose the momentum and adrenaline with which we have all been working, and as we move away from lockdown to whatever the new normal looks like, we need to be practical about the collaborations built and continue to share information and work together with the same energy and vigour’. We have explored partnerships between funders who would not normally work together, and there is a need to preserve this for the long term. There is a definite appetite for working collaboratively in future. At the same time, we need to build the case for this collaboration through both hard data and softer, anecdotal data and stories. Through the Cumbria Funders group we will explore ways for future collaborative working.


‘Through this we have found that
[for all partners, funders and others,] prioritisation and collaboration is our common strength – how can we hold onto this good practice and make it our new norm? We have all been good in crisis mode, stepped up and worked together for recovery, but we must explore how we continue to do this in the long term. It is important to hold onto the positives.’ 

 


This briefing is co-hosted by Cumbria Community Foundation. It is based on a peer support session facilitated by IVAR with 16 Cumbria-based funders,  infrastructure organisations and statutory partners, namely: ACTion with Communities in Cumbria; Barrow Borough Council; Copeland Community Fund; Cumbria Community Foundation; Cumbria County Council; Cumbria CVS/Cumbria Community Resilience Group, Cumbria Exchange; Francis C Scott Charitable Trust; Frieda Scott Charitable Trust; Hadfield Trust; Lake District Foundation; Lloyds Bank Foundation; Morecambe Bay CCG; North Cumbria CCG; Sellafield Ltd; and Sir John Fisher Foundation

 

 

How can we – as funders – help communities to deal with the pandemic?

Over the past 15 months, we’ve been supporting grassroots, community-based grant-making in each of the four home nations through Comic Relief’s UK Intermediary Funders initiative¹. Learning has been key to our approach as we want to understand how we as funders can share and shift power to people in communities through ‘lived experience’ and community-led approaches, both in the grant-making process and the grants themselves. Now, in the midst of a pandemic that is deepening inequalities and creating an environment of prolonged uncertainty, how can we continue to do that? What are we learning as a group of funders that we can hold onto as we move into recovery and renewal?

Through this blog, we wanted to share some of the questions being discussed amongst our grassroots intermediary funders.

Emergency vs the longer term

Most charities are really anxious about funding – they may have some money now for emergency work, but with no fundraising and limited grant-making for non-emergency work, there will be a gap very soon. We are really conscious of this, and know there is a role for us, our partners and other foundations in protecting charities for the future.

However, this comes with a set of challenging considerations: 

  • Should we stall some emergency funding, in case there is a second ‘lockdown’ in the autumn and winter? Or should we hope that we will be able to meet future needs through additional fundraising?
  • How can we work to ensure that emergency funding is accessible to those who need it and supports organisations on the frontline to deliver crisis support whilst sustaining them so they are able to provide in the medium and long term? What’s on the horizon?
  • We can’t yet predict when something vaguely resembling normal life will resume, and what exactly that will look like. What does that mean for the timing and focus of our support, and our expectations of charities in relation to plans and activities? When should we seek to shift from emergency to recovery?
  • We do know that the pandemic is exposing and deepening inequalities, and that both the charity and funding sector will need to adapt – to both changing needs in communities and shifting priorities. What will that mean for future grant-making processes? What can we do to retain the flexibility and collaboration that has emerged between many funders over the last few months?
  • Many organisations are providing emergency support beyond their particular area of experience – like mental health support or working with women affected by domestic abuse. Can or should this work be sustained over the long term, ensuring those intervening in such complex issues have a ‘do no harm’ approach as a starting point? This will ensure those doing this work have the proper expertise to deal with the issues responsibly and effectively.
  • Many emergency funds ignore so-called ‘nice to have’ things in the community, like cultural arts, theatre and sports – in the long run, how is this going to impact on people’s lives and social values, especially young people’s education and mental health?

What will the role of unconstituted community groups be?

 

New community groups have formed across the UK in response to Covid-19, and they aren’t waiting for funding – they’re just getting on with it, driven by empathy and with little ambition to be constituted organisations. Some of us have funded residents’ groups even though, in the past, we would have preferred something more structured; others are looking at whether this could continue beyond emergency: ‘I don’t think there is anything stopping us, it is us that strangle ourselves’. How do we support these groups as drivers of community change? And will they want to continue or disband after the pandemic? ‘In a time of crisis and chaos, there has been a new order established around shifting the power which has communities and their responses at the heart’.

 

As funders, while appreciating the myriad of amazing community responses, we need to be mindful of the groups that already exist doing responsive work. We must not forget them, and we must remain alert to the possibility of duplication – between longer-standing activities and newer, emergency responses: for example, established food banks working on ending food poverty, alongside newer groups doing similar work, could lead to an over or under supply of food.

 

Doing the right thing – ask funded partners or potential funded partners to help us think about the future

 

Communities have shown tremendous power in leading from the front, reacting first often ahead of both established charity and statutory organisations’ responses and support. They are becoming first responders by asking for feedback from people on the ground to understand local needs. As funders, we must find ways to support and embed this shift in power right down to the local community level. And we must also be conscious to proactively reach out to those groups who are disproportionately affected, may not be well represented in broader community responses, or may not have the means and avenues to be able to directly ask for help? (For example: BAME communities, LGBTQ+ communities, young carers, and people dealing with loss and grief.)

 

Grassroots organisations are already thinking of ways they could deal with the challenges lockdown has thrown up, for the longer term. Things like mental health, isolation, increased inequalities and child poverty, and domestic abuse. After the pandemic, how can this surge of community action help us to understand what is needed and how can we support this community response for resilience and rebuilding?

 

So…

 

Like many funders, we have adapted our processes and made them simpler; we have been flexible in our grant-making; and we have set up emergency funds quickly in response to Covid-19. But it feels like we’re at the start of a period of sustained evolution and adaptation. We hope to work closely with people, communities and other funders as we face the future together.

 

Please do share your thoughts in the comments below.

 


[1] The four intermediary funders are The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, Corra Foundation in Scotland, Wales Council for Voluntary Action and Groundwork in England.

From disused bus stop to community hub

Stainsacre is a Yorkshire village 2 miles from Whitby where transport via bus has stopped due to cutbacks. This has had a big impact on the people living there causing some to relocate. As a Totally Socially Development Worker and Stainsacre resident, I wanted to get the community talking about solutions to the transport issue, but where could we meet when there was no obvious place? If I tell you that we first met at a bus stop, surely you would be intrigued to know how this came about and where we are now.

Why a bus stop?


I was walking my dog and walked past a disused stone-built bus shelter. It occurred to me what a great little space it was and made me wonder if people would meet me there to discuss our local transport issues. I asked my mum (and fellow Stainsacre villager) to come along for moral support to help me start a meet-up. We started by cleaning out the bus shelter to make it a place that one wouldn’t mind passing an hour or too. We added cushions, chairs, stools, fairy lights and a trolley full of tea, coffee, cake and biscuits. Then we made a basic leaflet and spent three hours walking around the village talking to people about our intentions and posting the leaflet through doors.

At the first meet-up, 20 people arrived. In fact, they came early and left late! People discussed how the lack of transport had effected them and people they knew – some of who were now stuck in the village or facing a long walk (often pushing a wheel chair) down unsuitable paths or roads. It was a really happy event and we decided to do it all again and meet once a month.


Unexpected results


In terms of progress in dealing with the transport issues, many solutions have come out the meet-ups – not just the one! For example, small pockets of people have begun to share taxis, a conversation with the local community transport organisation was held and an offer made, and some neighbours help each other out by giving lifts to town or doctor’s appointments.


Our monthly meet-ups have become more than a way to solve local transport issues now. Parish Councillors have made a good connection with the group and are now a huge part of running it. It’s used as a way to feedback from council meetings to people who were unable to attend and to ensure that people are able to have their say and their views are taken back to the parish council meeting. Organisations focussing on health and security, such as the Fire Service, have also shown an interest in attending. It is seen as a great way to access the views of a group of local people and get knowledge to them.


The community has become generally more connected – people now know each other and, in some cases, by their actual name not just “the egg lady”! At the meet-ups, those attending talk about many things such as the history of the village and their past. They swap vegetables and books. Some of the elderly people have begun to mix with people they didn’t before and it’s become a gathering to look forward to. As people began to know one another, they decided to host in their own homes (not just the bus shelter) and assisted those who might struggle to do this. In one instance, a meeting host struggled to walk, so his neighbours made the tea and helped him to set up. What is great is that people from nearby villages have also started attending, often with a view to setting up something themselves or to feedback to the group because of their own community connections.


As a result of the unexpected popularity and success of the group – now known as the ‘Stainsacre Social’ – the reason for meeting up has widened to not just be about finding a permanent solution to transport, it now aims to connect people in order to form their own solutions to wider local issues. Looking forward, the group would like to formalise and work on other things like running a village hosted event. Who knows where the Stainsacre Social will go next!


Taking a risk and not having an initial ‘outcome’ has been liberating. It is very much the Totally Socially way! People create their own aims and form their own solutions based on the knowledge and skills they already have. They have their own strengths and ideas and they should be allowed to try these out and, if necessary, fail and learn for next time. Being part of the Stainsacre Social has been great on so many levels. As a resident I now know many more people, some well enough to offer a lift to the local shops. On a professional level, it’s great to see that people only need the seed of something new in order to mould it into something far better themselves.


The Totally Socially project is funded by The National Lottery Community Fund and run by Coast and Vale Community Action. For more details, please check out Totally Socially on Facebook or www.cavca.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.

Stepping outside the normal – the Tudor Trust and small grants in Hartlepool

In June 2019, a team of Tudor Trust staff and trustees visited Hartlepool to test out a way of paring back bureaucracy and placing relationships and trust at the forefront of grant-making. Here’s why…

 

‘Too much caution can narrow the range of people and organisations funded and what that funding can achieve.’

In The possible, not the perfect, we described how funders supported community groups and charitable organisations working in response to three emergency events in 2017, and found that funders stepped outside their normal practices in a range of different ways – in particular, their approach to risk. We posed a challenge to funders – can such an approach only be adopted when there is a sense of moral imperative to suspend business as usual?

 

‘Every day in a community is an emergency. They don’t have to have a tragedy or emergency to give money that way.’

Many funders have agreed with the sentiment of this question, but they also share concerns about the challenges of lighter touch processes, including a view that they aren’t ‘effective’: ‘too much risk, too much uncertainty, too many unknowns’.

 

Tudor’s Trustees and grants staff have translated their freedom to act into less burdensome and more straightforward processes – especially appropriate for small community groups who can be disadvantaged by unnecessarily complex, risk-averse or lengthy grant-making processes. And they have confirmed that it is possible to adopt a lighter touch to due diligence. The story of Tudor’s work in Hartlepool suggests that this alternative notion of ‘effective’ grant-making has the potential to resonate beyond the confines of emergencies.

 

Christopher Graves (Tudor Trust) explains how:

“In June 2017, Tudor was one of many funders involved in the response to the Grenfell Tower fire. The response presented funders with a challenge: to get funding quickly to small, frontline organisations. We had to balance due diligence against speed of response. Operating outside our comfort zone, we had to act quickly and instinctively. We learnt a lot.

We asked ourselves how we could replicate aspects of this ‘on the ground’, quick, face-to-face approach to making small grants in a non-emergency situation. How would it feel to shorten our lead-in time for a grant, and work with community groups to create an application together through a conversation? Might this be a better way of engaging with the people and communities we want to work with?

We thought carefully about how this approach could be of benefit, and do no harm to the people, organisations and communities we wanted to work with. Taking into consideration the size of the sector, the organisations who could help us guide the work, the strength of infrastructure bodies, and the number of applications received and grants that Tudor has made in the past five years, we decided to focus on Hartlepool.

In the first half of 2019 we worked with organisations in the Tees Valley area to get to know Hartlepool, and to identify groups which might benefit from a small grant. In June, Tudor staff and trustees spent three days in Hartlepool, with an afternoon dedicated to meeting local groups. A trustee and a member of staff listened, and during a half hour conversation, with 20 groups, together drew up a funding request. In the few hours after the conversations, trustees and staff came together, reflected on the conversations, and approved grants of up to £5,000 for each group.”

 


There is much talk of funders becoming less burdensome, more straightforward and quicker in their dealings with applicants and grantees. For that to happen, funders need to be ruthlessly clear about the purpose and necessity of their processes. Tudor’s work in Hartlepool wasn’t rushed or haphazard – the preparation and execution were characterised by care, attention to detail and great sensitivity. But it was nimble and proportionate. And it sends a clear signal to others about what is possible when you are prepared to step outside the normal.


Read the full research report – The power of face-to-face grant-making: Small grants in Hartlepool.

Look out for IVAR’s Thinking about… risk framework, which will be published on Thursday. It also aims to encourage funders to step outside the normal through considering their position in relation to different elements of risk.

Becoming a learning organisation – learning as a set of small, easy to introduce, habits

The Center for Evaluation, based in Washington DC, have pioneered a “learning habits” approach to becoming a learning organisation. In our first Letter from America – our blog series sharing evaluation insights from across the pond – Tanya Beer (Center for Evaluation Innovation) shares the theory behind their ‘learning organisation’ method and we talk to Irit Houvras (American Jewish World Service) about introducing ‘learning habits’ into the day-to-day work of her organisation.

 


We ask Irit Houvras (American Jewish World Service) about introducing ‘learning habits’ into the day-to-day work of her organisation

Why did you decide to give learning habits a try at American Jewish World Service (AJWS)?

I was invited to participate in the Center for Evaluation Innovation’s Lab for Learning just as we were refining our monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system. One of our main goals for overhauling the M&E system was to increase reflection and learning opportunities, especially across teams, countries and regions. It was the perfect time to test out some of the new learning habits that I’d explored with the Lab for Learning — but I wanted to do it without placing the burden of extra training on staff, who already had plenty of demands on their time.


How did you decide which habits to focus on?

Based on existing planned work and points of engagement with programmatic staff, I decided what habits made sense. I experimented with the habits:

  1. ‘Making thinking visible’
  2. ‘Answering the “now what?” question’


It was a great year to be experimenting as it happened to be a busy year rolling out revised M&E procedures, with numerous and varied opportunities. I selected habits that were a natural fit with the opportunities – while I had hoped to work on ‘asking powerful questions’, the activities were better suited to ‘making thinking visible’ and ‘answering the now what’.


I was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly these learning habits picked up momentum throughout the organization. My experiment showed how the right habit can strengthen existing learning efforts and instill new concepts that can be easily adopted—without a formalized roll-out or time-consuming training for all staff.

 

Can you tell us a bit more how you did this?

Making Thinking Visible. This habit is about clarifying underlying assumptions in people’s thinking and pinpointing what we need to learn next. To put it into action, I added a new step to prepare for AJWS’s first biannual reflection sessions: facilitating before- and after-action reviews. 


After-action reviews, first developed by the U.S. Army, are used to clarify the intended results of an action (before) and compare these intended results to what actually happened (after), so teams can discuss what contributed to the actual results and consider ways to optimize their actions in the future. The after-action review process supported AJWS staff—especially those who are critical to coordinating team efforts but are not in formal leadership roles—to make a bigger contribution to organizational learning. It’s an important step, given AJWS’s commitment to gather perspectives from people working at all levels of the organization. The review process also contributed to directors on the grantmaking team better communicating their thinking to their staff. Together, we were able to unearth ways in which we could all contribute to improving the year-end reflection sessions.


Answering the “Now What” Question. After gathering new information or experiencing something new, most people spend a lot of time focused on what happened. They often spend less time discussing why it was important and how it should influence future actions. To apply this habit at AJWS, I prompted staff to pivot their reflections, focusing less on answering the “What?” and more on investigating the “So what?” and the “Now what?”


I integrated these questions into a training activity on our revised M&E form. During the activity, staff had limited time to report on the “What?” question. They also visualized the “What?” in a simple chart, which helped them move on to the “So what?” and the “Now what?” Holding staff to a short window for discussing what happened was essential to making this process efficient. While they only had 5 minutes to share deeply complicated information, their summaries were still rich and the prompts to discuss implications and next steps led to meaningful dialogue.


Later, in an unexpected turn of events, senior staff (including our executive team) began using the “What? So what? Now what?” framework in other settings, including a board of trustees meeting. When the exercise was repeated with the board, the trustees had the chance to discuss and better understand the staff’s decision-making—and the strategic thinking behind it.



Read more about this learning habit and others in this Medium post by Julia Coffman at the Center for Evaluation Innovation. Find more lessons from the Lab for Learning here.

Tanya Beer is the co-facilitator of our 18-monthly Evaluation Roundtable, which convenes UK Trust and Foundation Leaders. We’ll be discussing learning habits with Tanya at the Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice on 6 March 2020 and will continue to reflect on and share insights related to the theme.

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.