Stronger Foundations blog: Why do funders do so much learning in isolation?

ACF’s Stronger Foundations initiative aims to open challenging discussions about foundation practice and identify what it means to be a ‘stronger’ foundation. As part of the project, we will be publishing a series of provocations from members offering their personal views on the initiative’s themes.

This contribution comes from Gina Crane, member of the working group looking at impact and learning. Share your thoughts on Twitter using #StrongerFoundations.

What are the most common learning or impact measurement “traps” for funders, and how can we avoid them? I’ve been thinking a lot about this question while taking part in ACF’s Stronger Foundations working group on impact and learning. For me, the most common trap funders all fall into is thinking about the impact of our grants, to the exclusion of anyone else’s.

Funders are not usually commissioners of a service, or sole funders of a project. Yet we tend to see ourselves as bankrolling brilliant work which would not happen without us, and word our own impact reports accordingly. Charities and social enterprises, on the other hand, see our funding as one piece of a complex jigsaw. Without our funding, they would re-arrange, re-fundraise, re-jig their puzzle, and still deliver the work. For them, funders’ money is one part of an ever-changing picture, the whole of which - not just one piece - is responsible for the work being delivered.

If charities are juggling an average of 15 funders at any one time* and often report to each funder separately on the outcomes of each grant, what are the consequences of each funder setting up a complicated system to learn from its own grant, to the exclusion of everyone else’s?

For charities, this means writing individual progress reports for individual funders, giving different parts of the picture, filtered and re-packaged according to each funder’s needs. It also means putting funders’ interests above their own, and funders’ learning above their own learning.

For funders, this means we only see part of the picture. We don’t consider the impact of other people’s money, or the way it has been given. We don’t ask about, so we don’t get told, the negative or unintended impact of our funding (or the way we fund) on the organisation, sector or issue we fund.

Why do funders do so much of their learning in isolation? What would happen if we took our blinkers off and acknowledged our place in a funding system, if we agreed to learn more together about the work we’re funding together?

Funders could prioritise learning from others over building new strategies from from scratch. Charities could prioritise their own learning and improvement. We could all commit to sharing our research and what we learn in a format that others could use. Everyone could learn from funders’ mistakes. We could all waste less time.

So why aren’t funders doing this already? Because letting go of the link between our money and its impact, and acknowledging that it is just one part of a more complex picture, makes it harder to understand our impact, and even harder to report to our trustees.

At Esmée, we are exploring what it means to let go of our own reporting requirements through the Institute for Voluntary Action Research’s Aligning grant reporting project**, along with many other funders and the organisations we fund. But this is just one change, and I think further progress starts with opening our eyes and ears to the world around us. As funders, how are we listening to the organisations we fund and they people they work with? How are we using data and evidence from other funders? Are we sharing our own learning in a format that others can use? When we find something out that we think is significant, are we influencing others take it on board too?

One small step everyone in the sector could take now is to stop using what the Center for Evaluation Innovation calls “fuzzy language”. When we publish learning reports that conclude “long term support is best”, what behaviour is that likely to change? If we say instead “one year grants actively hinder charities to do their jobs. They can’t recruit or retain staff, and are only just able to get started on the work at six months”, readers could understand the consequences of not offering long term support. Could they then be convinced to change the way they fund?

Gina Crane
Head of Communications and Learning, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation

*Listening for Change, 2017, Blagrave Trust and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation
**Learn more about IVAR and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation’s Aligning grant reporting project here


Views in this series are the personal views of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the working group, ACF, or its wider membership. More information about Stronger Foundations can be found here.

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