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How to use learning questions

At IVAR, we recognise the value and importance of engaging people with varied viewpoints in our work, and listening to them. But knowing the importance of this and actually doing it are two very different things – and it can be difficult to know where to start.

 

One way to hear different perspectives is to share your own thinking – including things you’re still thinking through, even if it’s messy. This helps others join the conversation and see where there is space to shape thinking, bringing alternative views on the world and different interpretations of what’s happening. The main purpose of this is to collectively understand what we’re seeing and what this means we should do next.

 

To support this in our work, we have been exploring the idea of ‘powerful questions’, pioneered by our friends at the Center for Evaluation Innovation and further developed at the UK Evaluation Roundtable:

 

The kinds of questions we often pose — Did the intervention work? What are we learning about a particular issue? — may lead to information that is a useful input into learning, but they often don’t help us determine what to do next. Powerful questions, if answered, will make a difference in how we do our work.’

 

Find out more about powerful learning questions

 

We decided to draft a set of questions in relation to our strategy, to guide both our own reflections and quarterly board discussions. We wanted to move towards ‘so what/now what?’ conversations, and not get stuck in performance updates that tend to be more about ‘what’.

 

So, we asked Tanya Beer – our US partner on the Evaluation Roundtable – to facilitate a session for our Senior Leadership Team and two trustees, with the aim of developing these powerful learning questions.

 

One of the questions that we came up with relates to our goal of ‘being the best IVAR that we can be’. It was originally drafted as:

 

How can our internal workings enable us to develop and deliver work that is relevant, high quality and useful? 

 

Later we developed this, tweaking it to:

 

How are our internal workings enabling us to develop and deliver work that is relevant, high quality and useful? 

 

We asked Tanya for feedback on our revised version and she offered some insights that, in the spirit of making our own thinking visible, we think are really useful to explain both the theory and practice of powerful learning questions.

 

Tanya’s Feedback:

 

I want to reflect for a moment on the psychological aspect of a powerful learning question as a strategic question rather than an evaluative or knowledge-gathering question. The reframing of the question has turned into a conventional descriptive reporting and evaluation/data gathering question instead of a strategic puzzle question. It’s a subtle difference, but it really changes the tone of the conversation when you frame learning conversations in this way.

 

The purpose of the forward-facing and action-focused framing is that those questions invite the group into a generative process of jointly making sense of why something has happened, what insights that produces, and – most importantly – what that means for how you work going forward. Compare this to a conventional board meeting where trustees listen to your description and then say ‘well, that was the answer to the question’, and don’t really know how to help you think through what’s next or if you even really want them to do so.

 

The future-facing and action-orientated framing propels people to move from reflection mode (which is the space that boards in particular are already very comfortable sitting in as passive consumers of information) and into ‘so what/now what’ mode (which is where information gets turned into learning-as-new-capacity-to-act). It reminds them that the conversation is not just a reporting update, but rather invites them to make meaning and explore implications to improve the work together.

 

It does take some mental gymnastics to look backwards using a future-oriented question, particularly for people who are accustomed to bringing answers to the table about what has happened in the past. But powerful questions are not answered by the data and observations. Instead, the data and observations you bring are inputs into the learning-as-action conversation: ‘what do insights about the past mean for our future work?’

So, if I were organising a learning conversation with the board, here’s the flow of conversation I would want to have:

  • The strategic/operational puzzle we would like to think through together is: How can our internal workings enable us to develop and deliver work that is relevant, high quality and useful?
  • What we have experimented with over the past year is: [Describe strategies]
  • What we have observed about our experiments is: [Describe results so far – this is the question you framed above – for example, you could produce a report on ‘How are our internal workings enabling us (or not) to develop and deliver work that is relevant, high quality, and useful?’. But the conversation does not end there.]
  • What insights do we draw from these results so far and from others’ experience? [For example, in addition to learning from your own data, what insights do board members bring from their own experience around what it takes to set up internal workings in a way that unleashes the full potential of the organisation?]
  • Therefore, given what we’ve learned, going forward: [POWERFUL QUESTION] How are our internal workings enable us to develop and deliver work that is relevant, high quality and useful?

 

So, this is a re-orientation away from a question whose answer is a description about what has happened already, and towards a question whose answer is what should happen next. You still bring data and reflection on what has happened in the past to the table to inform the discussion by grounding it in what you already know, but the real point of the whole exercise is the ‘so what/now what’ question.


Learn more about powerful questions


At IVAR, we are currently experimenting with this way of framing learning conversations – both with our board and with our team of staff and associates. We hope that this piece helps you to think about whether and how this kind of question could be applied to your own organisation.

If you would like to find out more about the idea of powerful questions, sign up for a webinar with Tanya Beer on 16 September.

This is what applying for funding feels like

IVAR_word cloud_Jun 2021_v11


Introduction from IVAR

 

Much has been written about how funders acted differently in the context of the pandemic. Funded organisations have celebrated lighter touch processes, faster turnaround of grant decisions, recognition of uncertainty and the need to adapt – even the topsy-turvy scenario of being offered funding without asking for it. There is a strong desire from all concerned to retain these practical changes. However, alongside this and with much less attention, grant applicants are still carrying the burden of rejection after rejection, often receiving little or no feedback, unable to connect with funders as they would like. The experience of applying for funding still has some way to go to ensure it’s a mutually respectful process operating on a more level playing field. 

 

This is what we heard when we asked 22 charities about their experiences of applying for funding, as part of our open and trusting grant-making initiative. Whilst almost everyone recognised the positive changes through Covid-19, many still talked about the emotional rollercoaster generated by unsuccessful applications: the stress and self-doubt, the fear and inability to understand what is really needed for success. This blog, in the words of grant applicants themselves, offers an insight into these feelings. We ended by asking ‘what would make it feel better’? Some of the answers are surprisingly simple and return to the concepts of respectful, open and trusting grant-making. 


‘Exciting’, ‘rewarding’, ‘creative’

 

As grant applicants, we are incredibly passionate about the work we do. Writing grant applications is part of the fun and challenge of our job; successfully applying for funding helps our organisations to fulfil their mission and support the communities we serve.

 

However, for every successful application we make, there are many more that have been rejected.

 


Dealing with rejection

 

We know funders receive large volumes of applications and have to make tough choices but dealing with rejection can be immensely disappointing. We feel that we’re letting our organisations down, as well as our team and colleagues. You can feel responsible for the success of the entire organisation. It’s embarrassing having to tell colleagues ‘we didn’t get it’ – people’s jobs and our work for beneficiaries is at stake.

 

One of the most frustrating things is that you rarely get any communication from funders. To put so much work into an application that you get really excited about, but not receive any feedback, is incredibly difficult. It makes you question your skills and whether that funder will ever be right for you.

 

 

Maintaining resilience and wellbeing

 

Learning how to manage rejection and build resilience is a key part of how we persevere. Having a stable team and support network is vital in helping you manage the emotions that come up when applying for funding.

 

It’s not always as simple as picking up the phone to ask why an application didn’t make it through. The power dynamics make that hard, and you don’t always know the rules. It’s like that feeling you get as a teenager, plucking up the courage to call someone you wanted to ask out. You’d dial the number but hang up at the last minute as you were scared they’d say no.

 

 

Things can change because things have changed during this pandemic

 

We have seen greater flexibility from funders, with offers of emergency or unrestricted funding, and relationships more likely to be characterised by trust and open communication.

 

Having more positive relationships has allowed us to be more honest about our struggles, and clearer about the support we need.

 

However, with things beginning to open up again and emergency funding coming to an end, we are still in a period of deep uncertainty. While we are grateful that funders showed so much compassion and flexibility during the pandemic, we are fearful that this behaviour won’t continue – things may be slowly going to back normal, but we’re not out of the woods yet!

 

 

What would make it feel better?

 

Applying for funding needs to be a mutually beneficial experience but at the moment it often feels one-sided. Current application and assessment processes can bring up feelings of dejection and failure, but in the best cases they can be incredibly rewarding. There will be no ‘one size fits all’ approach – what suits some organisations may not suit others – but we know that open and honest communication is crucial whatever the process looks like.

 

We’d like to see more of a balance between the needs of charities applying and the funders receiving applications – so that there is less of a burden on either.

 

Here are five things that funders can do to help:

 

  1. Continue the flexible, open and trusting funding practices that many adopted during the pandemic – clear criteria, core or unrestricted funding and light-touch forms all make a big difference.
  2. Be more transparent with eligibility criteria and share decision-making processes.
  3. Consider different requirements depending on the size of grant. For example, be open to different types of applications (e.g. video applications), use publicly held information (e.g. financial information from the charity commission) and only ask relevant questions.
  4. Ringfence funding to support specific groups or communities (e.g. small charities, community-led groups, ethnically diverse charities). Smaller organisations and those that support marginalised communities are often competing with larger organisations that have more resource and a paid fundraising team. Ringfencing funding could help.
  5. Create opportunities for open dialogue. Sometimes it feels like funders exist behind computers. Being able to talk honestly, even if we’re told that our application has been unsuccessful, is a sign of a good funder who we may want to develop a relationship with in the future.

A last word from IVAR

 

In the rush and sheer volume of applications received, it might be easy to forget there’s a person behind the application form and that how funders acknowledge, feedback and communicate decisions has a real impact on how applicants experience the process. Grant applicants are passionate people who care deeply about the work they do they and know that it’s not possible to develop in-depth relationships with all funders or be successful every time. But following through on some simple commitments to a more open process, where feedback is standard and relationships easier to navigate, would go a long way to level up the power imbalance. Our aim must surely be to remove words like ‘scary’, ‘frightening’ ‘stressful’ and ‘frustrating’ from people’s experience.  

 

The next stage of this research will explore how a small group of funders are trying to bring the principles of trust and respect to life in their applications and assessments processes.


 

This blog is based on the experiences of 22 charities based across the UK, including: 
Logos of charities who have co-signed the blog.

Experimenting and learning during a crisis: A voluntary sector perspective

These precarious times have created mounting pressures, huge challenges and uncertainty for the voluntary sector. At the same time, opportunities have opened up for voluntary organisations to explore and adopt new and different behaviours and relationships. For some, ‘Human Learning Systems’ practices have catalysed tangible improvements and advances across four elements of organisational life:

Collaborative relationships

 

There has been growing emphasis on working together as the most effective way of responding quickly to the changing needs and growing demands of individuals and communities. A shared sense of urgency, more accessible and immediate forms of communication, and a stripping away of bureaucratic red tape have enabled cross-sector partners to come together on a more equal footing. And a spirit of collective endeavour has opened people’s eyes to the value of varied expertise, experience and knowledge. This sense of common purpose has helped to build rapport, strengthen bonds, challenge norms and redress power imbalances.

Adaptation and experimentation

There was no rehearsal for the pandemic: it shook everyone to the core and asked questions for which there were few, if any, obvious answers. Unexpectedly, these uncharted waters created the conditions for being more experimental, trialling new ways of working, and testing assumptions behind long-established practices. Everything was up for grabs; there were no one-size-fits-all solutions. This opened up space for people to show ‘collective bravery’ and take risks, learning and adapting through more iterative approaches.

Distributed leadership

Leaders have taken on huge responsibilities, regularly making tough decisions to look after the safety and welfare of their workforce and service users, at the same time as living through a pandemic themselves. Although leaders have retained a breadth of responsibilities as the nodal point in their organisations, circumstances have required them to give up elements of power and control by delegating some responsibilities, trusting other staff to do what is best for people accessing services, using their judgement to make and take decisions. This shift towards more distributed leadership has heightened team morale, as well as enhancing job satisfaction.

Being human and working with emotions in voluntary sector organisations

We are all feeling the emotional demands of living through a pandemic, not least the blurring of home and work life. Staff are feeling exhausted, sensitive and receptive to tensions that might normally have been brushed off. This can have a knock-on effect by creating uncomfortable and tense work dynamics. In response, leaders have adopted more human approaches, for example, by offering additional coaching or support sessions; building self-care into the working day; and through transparent and regular communication.

Three commitments 

 

Despite these advances and innovations, the risk of reverting to previous, more closed and insular ways of working is evident. To ensure that this is transformative moment, rather than a brief hiatus, attention will need to be paid to three commitments:

  • Ensuring that decision-making spaces continue to be accessible and available to different stakeholders, with a premium on involving and respecting the value of diverse expertise and knowledge when responding to complex needs.

  • Learning together, in real time, as a way of building trusting relationships and tackling competitive behaviour.

  • Acknowledging and addressing the emotional demands from working in this way, and embedding reflective and supportive practices to guard against burnout.


Download the e-book

We’re proud to be involved with the Human Learning Systems collaborative. You can read more about human learning systems approaches, and our chapter, in the new e-book. Download it here.


Four lessons for funders from a complex and uncertain year

One year ago, on 9th April 2020, we published The pressures of uncertainty – the first of fifteen Covid-19 briefings for funders, based on our peer support sessions for the leaders of small to medium VCSE organisations across the UK. Having heard from more than 500 leaders, we offer four reflections on what matters most in how funders go forward.

 

  1. Think and act strategically

The coronavirus emergency created the imperative – and the freedom – for funders to be responsive, flexible, and agile. But it has also shortened our horizons. And many of us are now looking at how we can retain the creativity of the emergency, in the urgently needed shift back to longer-term planning cycles.

 

VCSE organisations and funders alike face hard decisions about strategy and priorities. Extreme uncertainty is now a fact of life, and the challenges facing all social purpose organisations as the longer-term implications of Covid-19 take hold are immense. And yet, over the last twelve months, we have seen that you can achieve a lot when things are difficult and changeable: if you move beyond simply having a strategy, to thinking and acting strategically. 

 

This starts with being clear about your purpose, focus, and underlying values. The essential – and often neglected – next step is making sure that all of your systems and practices are aligned with these commitments, not working against them. Finally, it calls for a willingness throughout the organisation to live with complexity and uncertainty, and act anyway – to let go of the fallacy of certainty and give up the fruitless search for measures and metrics that prove impact, committing instead to an agile and iterative way of learning, that supports informed judgments about making a better contribution.

 

You can read more about how the idea of alignment can help to navigate uncertainty here.

 

  1. Recognise how much ‘how you do it’ matters

Without your support, good organisations doing work that you care about will be lost. This is what risk looks like now – not about knowing every detail about an organisation or exactly how every penny of your funds is being spent. There is a pressing need to bring day-to-day grant assessment and grant management practices in line with the new realities. And to ensure that they respect and build on the strengths of VCSE organisations that have been so evident over the last year.  

 

This emergency has shown us that lighter, more flexible, more trusting processes are possible. The powerful message from VCSE organisations is that it is time to make these changes widespread and permanent. And that doing so will enable better work – during an emergency and beyond. A growing movement of funders is responding to this call to action, determined to move beyond words – ‘trust’, ‘speed’, ‘light touch’ – and translate them into visible, tangible, durable changes to behaviour and practice. To find out more and be part of this effort, visit www.ivar.org.uk/flexible-funders.

 

  1. Support the voices of VCSE organisations

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the social, economic, and environmental impact of Covid-19, and the deep structural and material inequalities it has exposed. But VCSE organisations are well-placed and eager to be part of the collective effort to tackle them. Close to the ground and to the individuals and communities that are at the sharp end of economic recession and accelerating social change, their voices – and the voices of the people they serve – must be part of the debate about what happens next. You can support their participation – by reserving some funds to support advocacy and campaigning work; creating spaces for hard pressed front-line organisations to get their heads above water and share what they know; and using your leverage and brokerage to provide a platform from which the sector’s contribution and voice can be amplified and championed.

 

  1. Make your thinking visible

Closer to home, you can open your policy and practice to the influence of others, by making your thinking more visible, and by seeking out and hearing diverse and dissenting voices, ready to say when practices are falling behind the curve of front-line experience. Making our own messy, imperfect thinking visible is what humility looks like in practice. It invites in people with alternative views on the world and with different interpretations of what’s happening, so that we can make meaning together about what we’re seeing and what it suggests we should do next. The more you can make your own thinking visible and invite others to do the same, the better we will all move towards transformational learning that helps us to understand what’s needed. And make our best contribution to delivering it.

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 

Four principles to shape your grant-making today

With months of local restrictions now extended to a national lockdown, it is clear that ‘Covid-recovery’ is far from us – even with the glimmer of hope in recent news about a new vaccine. And eight months on from the first national lockdown, we all desperately want to move out of emergency response mode. We need to find the confidence, skills and ways of working to operate effectively in our current environment, accepting that changing restrictions will feature in our lives for the foreseeable future. Let’s embrace this ‘new normal’ as best we can.

 

Although ‘paddling furiously’, VCSE leaders are increasingly assured in the face of the certainty of uncertainty: ‘We’re open, but it’s on my mind that we may need to close again.  But we know how to do this, and we will be able to do this more quickly’. And they are finding ways to combine planning with flexibility, enabling them to ‘move with the fluidity of the situation, in a pragmatic way’.

 

Some funders are finding it harder to make this leap. Used to a relatively structured environment of strategies, programmes, funding cycles, grant management and reporting, the constantly changing external context can be highly destabilising: We responded with the speed and agility that was required. But this placed strains on systems which were not developed to respond to such a scenario’. Meeting the requirements of the foreseeable future will be equally challenging. Adaptations introduced during the early stages of the pandemic need to be sustained and further developed. And other elements of the tried, tested, traditional, familiar ways of doing things will also need to change if funders are to make good the heartfelt commitment of so many to stand by the sector – and stand by it still.

 

Many funders felt freed by the imperative of the immediate emergency: ‘There was a lot of licence in the early months to respond generously’. But looking to the longer term calls for hard choices in the face of overwhelming need, a highly complex and changing environment and the imperative to act quickly: ‘The challenges before us are immense. And funders need to make decisions and contribute now’. Whatever strategic decisions individual funders make about their priorities, all have the opportunity to ensure these decisions are underpinned by day-to-day grant-making practices that best support applicants and grantees at the sharp end of delivery.

 

‘Become more of a partner and less of an auditor’

From very early in this crisis, we have heard a drumbeat of consistent and emphatic messages from VCSE leaders – ‘be brave’, ‘be flexible’, ‘trust us’, ‘be clear and open’, ‘understand the pressure we are under and reflect this in how you work’, ‘become more of a partner and less of an auditor’.  Looking back across the learning that has been generated from IVAR’s work with both VCSE leaders and foundation learning and evaluation staff, we would highlight four principles to guide funders in shaping the nuts and bolts of their grant-making and grant management practices now and for the future:  

 

  1. Express priorities, requirements and exclusions with absolute clarity. Funding criteria and guidelines do not always help VCSE organisations to make cost-benefit judgements about potential applications – whether because they have been put together too quickly, not rigorously reviewed from an applicant’s viewpoint, or deliberately written to allow funders to keep their options open. Ambiguity in guidelines is costly and frustrating for applicants at the best of times. In the current circumstances, the obligation not to waste time is paramount – for both applicants and funders.

 

  1. Scrutinise and simplify application and decision-making processes. ‘Pre-Covid expectations’ (about adequate reserve levels, robust forward plans and value for money, for example) may well be unrealistic in this new environment. And small changes make a big difference to applicants – such as testing every question for clarity and removing any that are not essential; relaxing word limits on online forms; or requiring less supporting information. There is much experience to draw on: 85% of funders who responded to IVAR’s recent survey have streamlined their application processes during coronavirus.

 

  1. Give the organisations you support the freedom to act. Make funding decisions based on ‘the spine of an organisation’: its mission, values, aims and track record. Trust these organisations to make good operational judgements about volume of activities, delivery mechanisms and managing risk day-to-day: ‘Funders need to trust us to know what we can do and achieve in our communities. We know how disproportionately some are going to be impacted, so funders need to give us a more blank paper rather than being too prescriptive with too many targets’. Now is the time to have real confidence in your funding judgements – by making longer grants; by giving unrestricted funding; by making reporting as light touch as possible.

 

  1. Act, learn and improve. Everyone is trying to make their best contribution in a context of huge uncertainty: ‘Some of the best solutions come from having some courage – saying “I can live with that risk”’. So, learning is critical: balancing data with intuition; combining evidence with instinct; and turning inevitable problems into better practice: ‘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’.

 

Read reflections from other funders on their evolving Covid-19 responses in our Learning from lockdown blog series.

 

Invite your grantees to take part in our peer support sessions – we are funded to deliver weekly drop-ins.

 

This blog is based on our work with over 390 VCSE leaders and over 100 trusts and foundations since March 2020.

My Volunteering Experience during Covid

Tahmed shares his experience of volunteering at Birmingham Children’s Hospital during Covid-19. The hospital is part of a network of 30 NHS Trusts and their respective charities who have been welcoming young volunteers since early 2018. 

 

Who am I? My name is Tahmed and I’m an 18 year old student from Birmingham. I’m currently in my 2nd year of college, studying a BTEC in Emergency Services and I hope to join one of the emergency services sometime in the future. In my free time I like to volunteer at Birmingham Children’s Hospital.

 

So where do I start, here’s a bit of a background on my volunteering journey: I’ve volunteered at the trust for just over 18 months; I was initially interested in volunteering as I wanted to take my passion of helping people to the next level and I thought what better place to start helping people than within an NHS children’s hospital.

 

YPAG: I joined the trust as a volunteer in February of 2019 with my first role being a member of YPAG (Young Persons’ Advisory Group). YPAG is the service user/youth group at Birmingham Children’s Hospital where the group do a multitude of things such as: being panellists on interview panels, expressing the opinions of young people and teaching medical staff how to effectively engage with young people, to name a few things!

 

YAV programme: A few months later (August 2019) I decided to take on a second voluntary role within the hospital, this time as a volunteer on the YAV (Young Adult Volunteer) programme. As a YAV I would regularly engage with patients and families on wards across 3 different placements over 6 months. I completed the YAV programme in February of 2020 whilst also being involved in a variety of YPAG projects throughout that period as well. It was just a few weeks after I had completed the YAV programme, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

 

The effects of Covid-19 on my volunteering experience: When the Covid-19 lockdown started, all volunteering opportunities in the Trust were put on hold. However, a few months into the lockdown, a handful of new volunteering opportunities began to slowly open up. These roles were completely different to the volunteering opportunities available pre-Covid-19.

 

I took up one of the roles which was a Meet and Greet Screening Volunteer, where I supported a member of staff at the front of house at Birmingham Children’s hospital. My responsibilities were to:

 

  • Screen visitors and patients before they came into the hospital to ensure they had no symptoms of Covid-19.
  • Provide visitors with a face mask if they didn’t have one of their own.
  • Direct visitors to their desired destination for appointments, consultations etc.
  • Help visitors with any general enquiries.
  • Be that friendly first point of contact for patients and visitors.

How I’ve found the role: The screening role has been varied. It’s been; fun, challenging, busy, funny, and hectic at times but above all an amazing opportunity! It’s also been a great learning experience and I’ve found that my general knowledge of the hospital and its services has improved immensely. I’ve also met loads of different staff members/medical students from different departments and faculties and have built a really good relationship with many of them.  The highlight of my role has to be the positive interactions that I’ve had with patients, families and staff.

 

Challenges I have faced: One of the regular challenges that I’ve faced is that I’ve had to inform parents/guardians about the “one adult with one patient” rule and, understandably, they’ve had their frustrations about it. These situations made me realise that on many occasions you can help people understand something from your perspective by simply being empathetic towards their situations and articulating your points in a calm and respectful manner. Most of the time people ended up respecting the rules and went about the situation in the right way because of it.

 

Skills that I have improved on:

  • Self-Discipline: I’ve had to have self-discipline to wake up really early in the morning for more than half of my screening shifts.
  • Empathy:  Empathy has been vital in communicating and engaging with people.
  • Adaptability: Things in the hospital continue to change on a regular basis, because of this, I’ve learnt how to adapt effectively in different situations.
  • Communication and Confidence:  My communication and confidence skills have improved a lot, I have done over 100 hours of volunteering in the Covid-19 period to date and have spoken to hundreds of people.

 

You can find resources for setting up youth volunteering in your hospital here

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.

Covid-19: Getting money quickly to frontline services

I blogged on Wednesday about the simple, immediate actions that funders can take – and many are already taking – to give practical support to their current grantees. This leaves the pressing question of how to respond quickly and effectively to the bigger challenge of supporting and sustaining the wider sector through this crisis.  A huge effort is gathering to tackle this task. And, thanks to the persistence of representative bodies and others, the sector is beginning to feature more strongly in Government thinking and emergency action. But the situation is complex and fast moving. Right now, the sector needs the nimble and targeted response that funders have shown themselves to be capable of in the past. 

 

In particular, the unrolling crisis highlights the importance of the layer of small, grass-roots organisations, galvanising volunteer activity to support vulnerable people or connected deep into the most disadvantaged communities, which both statutory services and larger charities recognise they struggle to reach. The smallest run under the radar of many large national funders – and even the largest tend to rely on a complex patchwork of project grants, with very little core funding or capacity to build reserves. But this is where community action happens – and community action is essential to the care and protection of the most vulnerable and marginalised at this very difficult time.

 

 

‘Applications could be “passported” between funds to avoid duplication of effort for applicants’

 

This sector is fragile and needs help now.  Looking at what others are doing and building on our conversations and past research, we suggest four ways in which funders can show their commitment to these frontline services and get money out quickly to help them:

 

  1. Contribute to the collective effort: Three big funder collaborations – the National Emergencies Trust and London Funders initiatives, and the Third Sector Resilience Fund in Scotland – are well underway. A £1 million fund for smaller charities (launched by Martin Lewis of moneysavingexpert.com (MSE) on 19th March and making its first grants this week) has now grown to £3 million – against applications for support of more than £50 million. For those who have not yet signed up, this is the week to get behind these collaborative initiatives and help them get moving as fast as possible
  2. Connect to local knowledge: Many UK-wide funders have good relationships with local foundations or infrastructure bodies, who are well placed to identify gaps and reach smaller groups providing much needed practical support in their communities. National and local emergency funding initiatives are mobilising, but the speed and strength of collaborative response varies across the country.  If you have trusted colleagues and partners in local areas, why not consider bolstering their funds right now so that grants can start flowing?
  3. Think about who may be missing out: In the face of an emergency of this scale, funders may be predisposed to big interventions or generalist services in the hope of helping the largest number of people. But there are whole sections of society that simply aren’t reached by generalist services or need specialist support. This was true before the virus struck and is a pressing concern now. Some – for example, isolated migrant communities, disabled people with complicating health conditions or women in violent and abusive relationships – are at particular risk from the virus or the consequences of lock down. Many funders are active champions of equalities. Providing funds to local partners specifically for people at risk of missing out or directing financial support through specialist national funders are two ways to make sure they are not further endangered and excluded.
  4. Commit to the lightest possible processes: This is not the time for business as usual in grant-making. Everyone involved in distributing emergency funds is looking to adopt the light touch process necessary to put money in the bank for hard pressed organisations within days not weeks. As part of this, applications could be ‘passported’ between funds to avoid duplication of effort for applicants.

 

We are working closely with our five core funders, and other foundations, to support the leaders of small voluntary organisations and will continue to share insights and ideas to help inform emergency responses.