In October, commissioned by Comic Relief, the Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR) published a report that reviewed evidence to explore two main questions: What and how do other funders learn from their work, and how do they use this learning to improve? And, how do funders encourage and support a focus on ongoing learning in their relationships with grantees?

Driving Continuous Learning as a Grant Maker states that there are the early signs of a significant shift in the UK funding landscape, with learning emerging as a key driver of change in grant-making processes.

Why is learning driving this change?

The report notes several factors as to why learning is inspiring substantive change to the way funders work and engage with grantees. Firstly, evidence found a willingness from funders to question and reflect upon their approach. Funded organisations are often required to prove their success rather than discuss and learn from things that didn’t go to plan. The report noticed a shift in funders allowing organisations to learn and grow from what would have previously been viewed as a ‘failure’. There was also evidence of grant-makers becoming more explicit about the focus of their learning in relation to the type of funder they are.

What can funders do to ensure that learning is supported?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to learning, and you cannot force individuals to learn. However, the report presented some recommendations to help funders, and funded organisations to incorporate space for learning into their processes:

  • Time and space. Learning takes time and is an iterative process
  • Clarity. Funders should be clear about the purpose and how it will be used
  • Curious leadership. Funders should improve communication with organisations. The report found that funders are interested in a combination of:
    • How to set more realistic goals and outcomes for their learning
    • Making more time for ‘so what?’ questions
    • Gathering evidence about existing or emerging problems in society
    • Ensuring financial assets are used in the most useful way
    • Enabling grantees to achieve outcomes
  • Organisational culture. Creating space for reflection is important. As is, building learning habits into an organisation’s day-to-day routine and practices
  • Be responsive. The report states that at times learning can be ‘messy’ and unstructured. Funders should aim to be responsive to needs for the most effective learning
  • Review data. Grant makers need a range of information and knowledge-gathering techniques and sources to gain insight and perspective. The report identified the following practices as useful catalysts to learning:
    • Regular reviews, including ‘learning conversations’ and end-of-grant reviews
    • Regular reflective periods, e.g. every six months
    • Collective consideration of new evidence and research
    • Board papers
    • Publications to share data and findings.

How can funders encourage and support grantees to learn?

The report considered how evaluation and reporting practices will need to adapt in order to create a space for learning.

  • Develop relationships that are built on trust and mutual interest, and encourage honest and open dialogue
  • Reframe accountability and learning within monitoring and evaluation frameworks and recognise that they are complimentary objectives
  • Give funding that creates space for strategic reflection and development as well as resource for monitoring and evaluation activity
  • Develop a nuanced approach to learning relationships across a varied grants portfolio
  • Use ‘funding plus’ mechanisms to invest in organisations
  • Redesign reporting to encourage reflection and learning on both sides
  • Create opportunities to share and facilitate learning between grantees and other stakeholders.

The evidence in the report shows that there is a shift among funders from merely ‘purchasing results’ to becoming trusted partners of funded organisations, with the aim of not only helping improve learning within the organisation, but also improve funding practices as a whole. The report notes that much of this is still a work in progress, but the shift signals a possible evolution in future funders decisions, not just in how they choose organisations to fund, but also who they recruit as grant managers and Trustees, and how they present themselves to stakeholders and the public.

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