by Sarah McLoughlin, former Senior Programme Manager at Nesta

I’ve been a part of the Ratio and Lloyds Bank Foundation ‘How To Be Wrong’ network on and off for the past two years. I’ve always valued the opportunity to get together with like-minded people across the sector to discuss and debate how we need to work better and explore chances to embed learning in our day to day work.

Having worked in the charity sector for almost 20 years I’ve often been struck by an ongoing challenge of a sector constantly stretched to breaking point, especially during the last decade with a combination of austerity and the pandemic. While lots of brilliant work takes place that leads to social change, much of the sector still operated in a silo. This is led by a service delivery mindset that leads to duplication of work, a lack of collaboration and not enough learning and sharing about what does and doesn’t work to help to solve social challenges.

It’s an understandable challenge, with a public sector still mostly operating a delivery model based on top-down decision making defined by fixing people’s problems, the charity sector has followed suit. In addition to that, many of the people setting up youth and community programmes come at it from a sense of urgency to right an injustice, with the professional knowledge and/or lived experience of that challenge and a desire to get on and make things happen. But not always with the capacity or expertise to work in an open and collaborative way.

Small charities and social movements often have few paid staff and little capacity to reflect and consider what has and hasn’t worked. Alongside this, the funding often given to these groups creates little space for real reflection with an expectation on delivery, targets, and outcomes.

After years of working for small charities myself (and living those struggles mentioned above), I moved into the grant-making space in 2017 to work for the innovation foundation, Nesta. Working in the field of social innovation, rather than business as usual, created a brilliant opportunity to focus time energy, and resources on testing and trialling out new ways of working, with an awareness that some of these may not work. I expected learning and failure to be front and centre of how we worked.

Through our funding programmes, we supported over 100 organisations and had a high impact grant management model where we spoke to lead members of the organisations regularly, visiting them when helpful and supporting them with wider aspects of their work such as business planning and evaluation.

Yet despite this, we often struggled to really get people to be open and honest about when their programmes were going wrong. I would often find myself in a situation where after building up a relationship with an organisation they would share concerns verbally when we met or on the phone but would still find it challenging to write these things down for others to learn from.

This was especially true as our funding was provided by central government and with that came an expectation of delivering work at volume and a hesitancy by the charities and social organisations we supported to want to be seen as less than perfect to the purse holder.

The power dynamics at play within a funder/fundee relationship naturally create a challenging environment for learning and openness. The culture of a fear of failure in the sector means that many organisations worry that admitting that something isn’t working will damage their reputation, reducing their ability to gain future funding. The expectations of organisations once given funding for a piece of work is that they need to shift into delivery mode, hit the ground running, leaving little time or resources for initial research and development. Once a piece of work is complete and the funding ends, the organisation and funders quickly move on, any learning or time for reflection is lost.

Evaluations of charitable programmes can provide a good opportunity for learning but only when done in a way that is collaborative and appropriate with sufficient resources. Even in this case, any concerns or failures are often kept for an internal audience, with the concern about risk once again coming into play.

 So what can be done about this challenge to learning?

  • Funders need to provide more unrestricted and flexible funding, creating more opportunities for organisations to adapt and pivot their work when they see fit without being held back by the need to seek permission.
  • Create safe spaces for people within the sector to get together and discuss debate, and learn.
  • Open up opportunities for more diverse voices to be involved in decision-making both at a funder and charity level, bringing in wider life experiences to the work.
  • Create capacity for organisations to take time to reflect and learn by creating space for this in any budget/project plan
  • Model behaviour at senior levels and within larger more established organisations demonstrate that failure and learning are part of the work and can lead to a better experience for all.

As we continue to see the devastating effects of the global pandemic and climate crisis, the need for work that truly tackles social inequality and creates social justice is stronger than ever. Working together to find the best approaches that bring about this change in a way that embraces openness, honestly and adaptation is the only way we will be about the social change we all seek.

I’ve recently left Nesta and am soon to embark on a new opportunity at anti-poverty charity Turn2Us where I hope to bring this passion for learning to the work we do there to tackle financial insecurity and enable people to thrive not just survive. We all have a part to play in making this happen and encouraging a culture of learning in order to truly create a society that is equitable for all.