How much can data tell us? - Walcot Foundation

In our latest issue of Trust & Foundation News, we spoke to members about the kinds of data they use and what it can help them to achieve, as well as some of its risks and limitations.

The first article in this series comes from Hugh Valentine, Director, Walcot Foundation.

As an endowed foundation, we are in the fortunate position of not having to raise money or generate data to satisfy any third party, so that is a tremendous privilege and a liberation. Our remit is also very tight – the relief of poverty in Lambeth.

What that means is that we are modest in our thirst for data and research. Our approach is proportionate and pragmatic – we are only really interested in research and data that would allow us to improve what we are doing. We want to safeguard every possible pound to spend on our grantees and not on research that might be interesting and stimulating but frankly isn’t of much practical use to those we are trying to serve.

But it does have its place. In our 350th anniversary year, we purposefully decided to look at the impact of our grant stream that goes directly to individuals – the bulk of our grant-making goes to organisations. The individual recipients are mostly young people from low-income Lambeth families and the grants are designed to support them in further and higher education. We wanted to test out our suspicion that this cohort, after successfully graduating, faces additional challenges compared to their better-off peers, and then explore how we could channel our grant-making to help overcome those issues. For example, a lot of them go to universities in or near London, probably to reduce their costs and stay at home, but that tends to exclude them from a whole dimension of university life that is held to be one of the real benefits.

We commissioned Birmingham University School of Social Policy to undertake the research, and they drew primarily on interviews with our grantees. This helped to flesh out the obstacles faced by this cohort, and the things we can do or stimulate to get done that might make it easier for them. We published the findings and made them known as widely as we could, but we don’t lose sleep about whether that is read by ministers – I am sceptical about the extent to which research influences policy on poverty. Fundamentally the problem of poverty is solved by political action, the redistribution of income and changes to taxes and benefits, but on the whole these things don’t happen. The important thing for us is how the recent research we commissioned can make our grants more effective in supporting our target beneficiaries in accessing higher education.

For example, the research identified the importance of mentoring – it makes a huge difference. Young people from better-off homes are informally mentored by the aspirations of their family and network of friends and relations, compared to those who don’t have any of that social capital behind them. We are looking at ways to make good that deficit, including perhaps a programme of Walcot Scholars who can support one another, and more structured mentoring systems.

Another of the streams emerging from our anniversary year under the 350+ programme is finding new ways of listening to our grantees. It’s great to get appreciative feedback but it doesn’t have a lot of substance, especially in such a small beneficial area and if grantees might want to apply for more funding. So we have decided to engage an external third party who can ask for honest comment about how the process has been for grantees, with the assurance that it will be anonymised before the foundation sees it. We hope that will generate useful information for us, as part of a triennial ‘listening cycle’ we are developing.

We monitor local demographics and poverty indices. While we don’t do it systematically, we do encourage applications and activities in wards that have higher levels of child poverty. We apply data in that way on a small scale, cross-checking it with our own information about where applications are coming from and where the organisations we are funding are doing most of their work.

In addition, our governors hold specific meetings to review the impact of our spending against our defined strategic priorities. And we try to build in that use of data into the routine life of our grants committee, so that they are regularly looking at policy and impact reports and any fresh data on poverty we think is relevant.

We are also very keen to collaborate with others in research with a practical purpose. For example, in partnership with Trust for London and the Learning and Work Institute we supported trial programmes with people in full-time work but still living in poverty by the official definition, to help them improve their prospects and move into better paid and more secure work.

Hugh Valentine
Walcot Foundation


Other articles in this series

How much can data tell us? - Friends Provident Foundation 
How much can data tell us? - Paul Hamlyn Foundation 
How much can data tell us? Corra Foundation 
How much can data tell us? - United St Saviour’s Charity 
How much can data tell us? - Co-op Foundation 
How much can data tell us? - Ada Lovelace Institute 

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