10 Things On My Mind As A Funder

Cassie Robinson.
Aug 8 · 5 min read

Yesterday I had the pleasure of doing a phone interview – or more informal chat – with a senior person working in another Foundation as part of scoping out their future strategy. She asked me what was on my mind and where my energy and focus currently is in relation to funding and foundations. These are not new thoughts, and I’ve written about them in various places, but it was helpful to reflect on them in the round and I thought I’d share them here.

  1. Collective and ecosystem approaches — Whether that’s actively designing for a network of organisations to work more intentionally together and coordinate their efforts, incentivising a field of practice to collaborate and achieve something greater together than they can alone, portfolio’s of experiments, bringing more collective awareness, commitment and value to the wider ecosystem (like we’re trying to do with Strand 1 of the Digital Fund as part of the grant contract), making actual *things* that facilitate more shared practice (data standards, design patterns etc), collective leadership programmes, to designing for solidarity.
  2. Space to think and see from different vantage points — I think Foundations have the privilege of a helicopter view that they could do so much more with. Whether that is investing more in horizon scanning, sense making, framing and foresight work, and making sure the value from those activities is opened up to everyone, as well as actively informing how to better connect up dots across the landscape, to creating and resourcing civil society organisations to have more time and space themselves to invest in critical and longterm thinking.
  3. Civil society taking a lead in shaping our futures — Related to the above, and as I have written about before, I’m concerned how little civil society is currently determining things like the impacts of technology on our lives and communities. As Paul Mason says in his new book “Through the screens of our smart devices, both corporations and governments are becoming adept at exerting control over us via algorithms: they know what we’re doing, what we’re thinking, can predict our next moves and influence our behaviour. We, meanwhile, don’t even have the right to know that any of this is going on.” I believe Foundations have an important role to play in equipping civil society to know what is going on, and to bring more accountability, different values and alternative future visions into this space.
  4. Transition work needs investment — Moving through the 3 Horizon’s model, which many organisations need to do, requires a type of funding that is hard to come by — some of this is core costs, some of this is space to engage with why transition is needed, and then there’s the how — doing the work, which is a long haul investment. It’s what we’re funding through Strand 1 of the Digital Fund, but I don’t see many other funders investing in the organisational capacity needed to enable this kind of transition work. Then there is whole sector transition — which hopefully The Catalyst will be part of. Part of transition work is also about closing things down when they are no longer relevant or necessary — but doing so well. And also work that is about “systems readiness” — it’s no good funding something new if the system is not primed to receive it and I feel like Foundations could do more to resource this kind of work in advance — are the policies in place? Is the necessary infrastructure in place? Is the culture aligned? Are the right people backing it? Is the right narrative in place to frame the change?..etc.
  5. Radicality and disobedience — I only just recently wrote about this, so I won’t labour the point, but we are, and will continue to, live in complex and challenging times which will require more people to feel able to take a stand — this should be resourced and acknowledge as important work. It reminds me of Staying With The Trouble, a brilliant book that talks about how “our task is to make trouble, to stir up a potent response to devastating events..”
  6. Climate and coping — linked to the above, in the same sentence, Donna Haraway goes on to say “…as well as settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.” The whole book is about new ways to reconfigure our relations to the earth and all its inhabitants and I’m interested in what role Foundations can play not just in resourcing ‘projects’ but in helping us with navigation and preparedness over the longterm.
  7. The maintenance and renewal of infrastructure — we’ve hugely underinvested in our infrastructure for civil society. Some of that infrastructure is out of date in terms of its relevance and needs to transition or close down, and some of that infrastructure is said to act as gatekeepers rather than enablers, however, people in the lead still need infrastructure and working out what that looks like in a changing world is an important, and inadequately addressed question. Oh, and I think of things like this, local news platforms, as important infrastructure too.
  8. Investing in the skills for systemic and strategic narratives — My Point People colleague, Ella, wrote this great piece for Stanford Social Innovation Review last year about using story to change systems and there are people like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Frameworks Institute, On Road Media, and the Narrative Initiative who recognise the power of narrative, of re-framing and the huge limitations (and the social sector’s over-reliance on them!) on case studies and individual stories. We need more nuanced, drawn out, sophisticated and systemic ways of weaving together the plural threads and themes that are more honest to the interconnected and interdependent nature of things. Foundations should be resourcing and encouraging this practice and ensuring we are equipped to re-author and spread new narratives.
  9. Resourcing new and different roles — Some foundations don’t have the scale of funding that The National Lottery Community Fund has, so it was interesting to think about what you might invest in if you have smaller pots of money, but that could still influence change. Whilst I think we need greater imagination about how to live differently (and resource to fund that thinking and exploration work) I do think a lot of the alternatives and answers exist out there already or are at least being explored. The challenge is not new ideas in that case, but shining a light on and connecting up that activity. We need the people that are weavers, connectors, translators, sense makers and narrative builders to be resourced and this is something more Foundations need to do.
  10. Make some stark choices about what not to fund — If you only have limited funds it’s interesting to think about how to embed specific design principles into funding criteria. What if you only funded collectives and “network weavers” and no individual organisations at all?

I have other thoughts too, of course, about ways of being as a funder and questions of power but the 10 points above are the things I am ruminating on the most at the moment.

Cassie Robinson.

Written by

Head of Digital Grant Making at The National Lottery Community Fund & Co-founder of the Point People. Previously Strategic Design Director at Doteveryone.

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