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Blog: The power of funders learning together

Janet Morton, Trustee of ESS and National Officer at BBC Children in Need tells us how FunderFest16 enabled her to learn from other funders and how that learning will influence her work.

The world has changed since FunderFest16 took place on the 16th of June - changes so astounding and far-reaching that it feels like the ground has shifted beneath our feet.  It makes what I'd originally intended to say here a little more significant - I wanted to talk about the power of groups, and of diversity, and of working together for a common cause - and without getting too grandiose, isn't it now more important than ever that we discuss and value these things, in all spheres of life and society.

At the beginning of the day Steven said that with so many funders in the room his habitual cry of "you're my favourite funder!" to so many different people over the years was going to get him into trouble, however I think this proved to be an unfounded worry!  Of course funders already get together in many different permutations, however this was one of the most diverse groups of funders I've been a part of - established and new; small and large; statutory, independent and all shades in between - it was great to have the opportunity to connect, and the space to explore some interesting topics. first exercise was to reflect on our character as a funder, and for me it highlighted BBC Children in Need's evolution from a 'money out - receipts back' transactional funder, to one with the ambition to learn from and about the organisations we fund, and to support them to achieve their aims with more than just cash. This was reflected in the majority of funders in the room. The launch of 'Walking the Talk' illustrates how, at so many levels, working together with other groups and organisations can be so much more powerful than going it alone - pool our resources and learning, use our collective influence, and we can help to effect real change.

Of course there are challenges - working together necessarily entails compromise, and it was interesting to hear how the writers of 'Walking the Talk' had worked hard to define shared values and terms, and had ensured a safe and open space to discuss and explore ideas. Giving themselves enough time had been key - in itself quite a challenge!  Discussions at my table included how influencing often takes place locally as well as nationally, and that influencing practice is just as effective as influencing policy. The scale of influence can depend on the scale and type of funder - an independent Trust can afford to be a little more up front than a funder relying on public donations for example, and if your grants are on a specific theme or location, then there could be a natural discrete sphere of influence available to you.  We reflected that it was perhaps a more comfortable role for many funders to support their funded organisations to influence policy, than to directly influence policy themselves, but we also acknowledged our role in facilitating groups of organisations to come together, supporting them to have real impact.

Many people were keen to discuss with colleagues how to use some of the ideas in the report and apply them to their own work and priorities. At Children in Need for example, we have already dipped our toe into proactive funding programmes with the intention of learning and influencing - our Fun and Friendship grant programme brought together organisations supporting disabled children, and Positive Destinations, in partnership with the Hunter Foundation, looked for ways to support young people get ready for their next steps in life.  One of the outputs from Fun and Friendship was a resource to help schools (distributed in England and Wales only for now) to be better at providing the right kinds of support to truly include disabled young people in all aspects of school life, social as well as educational, so our learning from the programme is now benefiting hundreds more children than the original funding pot could.  Our senior management team are currently working on our next five year business plan, and are discussing doing some more specific proactive funding - I'll be recommending 'Walking the Talk' as a fantastic resource to inform our thinking on that.

I'll also take back some ideas from Kaylie Allen's session on how Inspiring Scotland is using online reporting - Children in Need has used online grant reports for a few years now, but seeing the agile way Inspiring Scotland are using it gave me lots of food for thought.

Throughout the day, in all the sessions, discussions and breaks, it was fascinating to learn about how other funders operate, where the differences and the similarities are. The most fundamental element in all of us, no matter how different we are, is that our aim is to make a difference for people - to make their lives better. Coming together to learn from each other enables us to do that better, just as it does for the organisations we fund, and as a Trustee of ESS I'm proud of our role enabling that to happen.

And what else did we learn? In this new world of uncertainty at least we can be sure of one thing... We are ALL Steven's favourite funders!

Please send comments to Jane Marryat

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