What Tom did next: The Big Lottery Fund

A few months ago I started working for the Big Lottery Fund. In the hectic period that followed I never took the time to post anything on why I wanted to work there and why it makes for such an interesting challenge for me as person with a particular passion for user-centered technologies deployed in the public interest.

A year ago I wrote a post about the process I’d been going through to work out my priorities, as I contemplated my life after mySociety. This post is a kind of sequel to that, and if you read it you’ll see how this next step lines up with my previous aspirations.

So first up, what is the Big Lottery Fund? Truthfully, I didn’t know much about it before I started because I’d never actually applied to it for any money (mySociety is really a transparency, accountability and anti-corruption organisation, and we only approached funders with a focus in those areas). However, I was aware that the Big Lottery Fund was a big beast in British grant-making, handing out a large proportion of the ‘good causes’ money generated when people buy National Lottery tickets.

What I didn’t realise was really quite how big it was, and just how many organisations it supports. Annual grant-making hovers around £650 million a year, and the sheer number of grants that it gives out are simply mind-blowing. Last year the Big Lottery Fund gave out 12,000 separate grants; I can remember dealing with funding organisations that would struggle to administer a couple of dozen grants a year. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Big Lottery Fund helps a healthy chunk of the entire voluntary and community sector in the UK to keep on serving people of all kinds. For my US-based readers, you may be interested to know that the Fund gives out about the same amount of money each year as the Ford Foundation, despite Britain being rather smaller than the US. [If you’d like to know more about the grants the Big Lottery Fund makes, check out the awesome GrantNav which has data back to 2004 (NB, as an aside, Grantnav was probably my favourite new public interest web project of 2016. So clean! So fast! So useful!).]

But the world is full of large organisations with lots of clients and lots of money. Big Lottery Fund isn’t the biggest, or the most famous. Why was it still so interesting to me?

Well, sharp-eyed readers will already have seen from my earlier post that I had a pre-existing desire to work on improving the operation of grantmaking and philanthropy. This desire had been sparked by the friction created between two activities that made up a big part of my previous job: designing user-experiences and raising money from foundations. As someone who spent many happy years of my life worrying about optimising interfaces and smoothing out user journeys, it was impossible not to observe that applying for grants doesn’t tend to be as good a user experience as, say, using WhatsApp.

This embedded within me a strong, long-term desire to make the user experience of those approaching funders a better one.

On its own, the opportunity to improve the user experience of those seeking funding through a refreshed web offer would be rewarding enough. But the Fund also gets a lot of applications for projects that have digital components, and I’ve been lucky enough to start to work on those too. It’s endlessly fascinating.

And then there’s more too — in particular the Fund just knows so much interesting stuff. It holds so much data about voluntary and community organisations and the projects they carry out. My new colleagues have literally thousands of years of combined third sector experience. There are some fantastic opportunities here to take all the hard learning done by colleagues and grantees and make it easier to find.

Anyway, as 2017 kicks off I’m getting to work on all of these challenges. My first priority is to focus on our customers’ user experience.

To that end, my next challenge is to grow a multidisciplinary digital team around me that can help make the fund brilliant at a variety of user-centred digital things. If you happen to be a coder looking for an interesting job, please do consider us. Or if you’d just like to chat about what being a brilliant internet-era grant-making institution looks like, I’m up for that too.

Trying to get real about the connection between digital technologies and social needs. Full list of writings at http://tomsteinberg.co.uk

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