Scanning for gaps and opportunities

“Where are the emerging needs and gaps?” is one of the key questions that the Funders’ Collaborative Hub aims to help funders answer.

In this blog, Cassie Robinson (Deputy Director, Funding Strategy at The National Lottery Community Fund and member of our Project Group) shares how we have started to explore this question and the wide-ranging issues our initial discussions surfaced.

We intend to build on this, with input from other funders and civil society organisations, to develop a methodology for identifying where more funder collaboration may be needed – and bringing funders together to respond.

Email policy@acf.org.uk if you’d like to discuss or contribute to this work.
 

Cassie Robinson
Cassie Robinson

Every month the Funders’ Collaborative Hub Project Group meets to check in on how things are progressing. This month we tried something different and used the session to carry out a horizon scanning exercise - the first time we’ve attempted to see what would surface if we all got together to do some sense-making around our external contexts. 

It was an experiment to see whether it was a useful way to start surfacing the things we are each noticing and whether if we start to do it consistently we might grow our collective intelligence, get smarter and wiser about who else needs to participate in the space, and regularly draw on that collective intelligence to prioritise what the Hub focuses on.   

The purpose of the scanning session was to see what gaps, opportunities and areas in need of urgent action might be brought into focus; to help provide us with a sense of orientation and momentum; and to collectively begin to build up a shared awareness of the wider landscape. 

We talked a lot about the tentativeness of funders to take a position or to recognise that they do have a unique view. Whilst there is a growing movement towards the centring of 'lived experience', I’m a fan of Baljeet Sandhu’s recognition that the skill is in fact the weaving together of lived, learned and practiced experience. If you work as a funder, how might you think of your ‘practiced experience’? For me, one aspect of that is how I make sense of and share my view of the landscape, what is emerging, what is changing and what are we learning. It’s also about how we use all the assets we have beyond funding - which obviously include the data we have - from application data, to feedback data, to impact data and the foresight work we do too. Certainly working somewhere as large as The National Lottery Community Fund gives me a UK-wide view (and data) about what is happening, where and by whom it's being done. It’s the material of what you might call a ‘Systems Convenor’ if you start to recognise it and build it as a practice. 

We are going to do this as a monthly exercise. Ideally we’d like to open it up to others (so please get in touch if you’d like to take part) and we will publish a summary like this each time, because that is part of the work. If we all made more visible what we’re noticing, what hunches we have, what data we are drawing on, then we’d start to build up that shared awareness of the wider landscape and an important awareness of where our biases and gaps are. This blog summarises what emerged from our collective intelligence.

Opportunities for funding programmes not yet realised

The grassroots

There is an opportunity for more funding to be directed to the grassroots, particularly around collaboration. At the same time, more could be done to bridge the gap between ‘grassroots’ and ‘established’ organisations - those who are seeking to raise £50-200k. This could be done, for instance, through ‘staircase’ funding - funding organisations from beginning to end, rather than at particular points in the journey. 

Making connections

There is space to make more connections between different strands of work. Geographically, we could better share lessons across the UK; thematically, we could do a better job of joining disparate areas, especially with regard to climate change and combining cultural funding with funding of complex social issues; and programmatically, we could do more shared communications and policy work.

Ownership

Huge opportunities exist for exploring alternative models of ownership that enhance community resilience, such as cooperatives and community ownership - particularly when it comes to (technological) infrastructure. 

Rural justice

Lots of room exists to work on racial justice in rural areas - we should be taking advantage of opportunities opened up in the last year or so in this space. 

Gaps - what isn’t being considered or funded enough?

Activism & civil society

Few funders are supporting or engaging in campaigning and activism, despite threats to civil society and human rights. On a deeper level, there is insufficient funding going into the infrastructure that supports this work to take place.

Geographical disparities & connections

More could be done to address geographical disparities in funding - such as the disproportionate London-weighting of the funding world, as well as a lack of focus on areas with a weaker voluntary sector. While it’s important to recognise the differences between these areas and fund them appropriately, there is also a need to invest in genuinely cross-UK work, recognising the similarities and uniting elements across different parts of the country. 

New (economic) thinking

There needs to be more thinking which is able to change narratives or raise the quality of debates - though not necessarily as a product of think tanks. One particular area where such new thinking is sorely needed is economics - what alternatives are there to the current model of capitalism? Is de-growth viable, and if so, how can it be implemented?

Moving beyond silos

Our work as funders is often siloed, but we need to move past these limiting boxes that we put our work and processes into. On a thematic level, for instance, there is a need for more funding at the intersection of the digital divide and other forms of inequality, such as racial inequity. These various forms of disadvantage can reinforce and compound each other - and there is a need for funding to target these entangled nodes of inequity. From a more processual perspective, it’s important for us to move beyond the narrow ‘sector’ boundaries we’ve drawn. What is the role of the private sector? What is the role of changemakers outside of the traditional ‘charity’ sector? How can we support leadership development within a range of ‘sectors’ (e.g. public, voluntary, private) and scales? 

Post-Covid skills

There is an unmet need at present for funding for employment and training for the post-Covid world. 

Where urgent action is needed

Funder governance & power

There is a need to review and reform funder governance structures in order to shift power. At the same time, there is a need to recognise that funders themselves build up intelligence over time thanks to their position overlooking the field which they fund - and that their wisdom with regard to the topography of that landscape of activity is valuable. 

Equity & anti-oppression

Urgent work is needed to advance the causes of equity and anti-oppression. The rise of nationalism & related forms of xenophobia and discrimination, such as Sinophobia, must be combatted. Similarly, sidelined axes of oppression, such as disability, need more attention. To this end, there is a need to identify clear gaps - whether by geography, sector, cause or charity type - and to encourage funders to respond to these.

Collaboration

While we advocate increasing collaboration both between funders and grant-holders, urgent work is required to enable this collaboration to bear fruit. Funders need to better define their roles within their funding ecosystem, enabling wiser and more effective and efficient use of resources. One means of achieving greater synchronicity in this regard could be using innovative funder delivery models - such as a single back-office servicing various funders. Progress also needs to be made on the basic tools required for collaboration, such as pooled funding vehicles and joint reporting. 

Mental health

As we emerge (however slowly) from the Covid-19 pandemic, significant support is urgently required to support mental wellbeing.

Climate

Much larger sums of money are required to address the climate crisis. Some of this funding might take the form of climate missions, where large sums of money are granted at local levels to address shared missions. 

Imagination & funding

There is an urgent need to fund imagination, healing, and even reparations - all of which require simultaneous resourcing in order to take place at once. 

Longer-term needs that need investment now

Thematic

We uncovered some themes which will need funding over the longer-term, including:

  • The long-term social, economic and health impacts of Covid-19
  • Redistribution of wealth - this will require a long-term cultural shift as well as significant, sustained investment in the mechanics of redistribution
  • Improving understanding of the role and importance of civil society, especially with the current government and with the wider public.

Operational

Some of the long-term work pertains more to the charitable sector and its operation, such as:

  • Ensuring that the increasing number of charitable organisations aren’t limited in their impact by their size
  • Developing strategic communication strategies and deep narrative work to shift attitudes on difficult, often polarised issues such as climate change and human rights
  • Investigating a new model for the charitable sector - to escape some of the potential limitations of the sector as currently configured.

This was an experiment, and already we’ve spotted ways to improve it. For example, we started off scanning around these four questions, but realise that ‘opportunities’ and ‘gaps’ are used interchangeably. We could also have benefited from writing up the discussion more immediately, whilst it was fresh in our minds, which is of course where more of the synthesis and collective sense-making was done - and could have turned this list of observations into a more focused set of actionable insights. 

We’ll be adjusting the process accordingly next time, and continuing to experiment and share in the open. 

The following people contribute to our Project Group meetings: Caroline Mason, Anna de Pulford, Sharon Shea, Duncan Shrubsole, Rick Hebditch, Jim Cooke, Nick Stanhope, Will Churchill, Josh Cockcroft, Max Rutherford and Joanna Pienkowska.