Reflecting on our grant-making - lessons learnt from centring the voices of those with first-hand experience

Hilary Cornish, our Evaluation & Learning Manager, shares some of the key lessons learnt from listening to our grantees when centring the voices of those with lived experience of poverty and inequality in pushing for impactful change.

In 2018 part of our new strategy prioritised strengthening the voice of those with first-hand experience of poverty and inequality. We wanted to ensure, in campaigning projects in particular, that those most affected were able to lead the agenda for change and reform as an important strategy for meaningfully tackling poverty.

In 2020 we’ve seen even more of those projects reporting back formally, as well as a wealth of learning from events and conversations with grantee and applicant organisations, and partners.

Along with many of the organisations we’ve funded, we’ve had to adapt and learn along the way. It has become more than just a different way of thinking about campaigning - it’s also started deeper conversations about what it means to centre the experience of those living with poverty and inequality, what it means to work not just to raise voices but share power, and how it might impact how we organise and work more generally.

This blog post pulls out some of the learning we’ve been hearing from grantees, from interim and final reports as well as less formal conversations and events.

The positives

There were three themes that particularly emerged from organisations that we funded to expand or trial projects that strengthened the voice of those with first-hand experience:

Valuable ideas for activities and campaign issues

Several projects reported that involving people with first-hand experience with the design or planning phases for campaigns generated unexpected, creative ideas for activities, and campaign issues. Making the most of this means involving people with first-hand experience early in the process.

Unanticipated outcomes from participants

Whilst projects might have had a particular research or campaign outcome they were looking to achieve, some projects which actively involved people with first-hand experience as campaigners or peer researchers found themselves recording unanticipated outcomes such as increased confidence and a sense of contributing to ‘something bigger’.

Wider cultural shifts within the organisation

Whilst initially the approach might have been adopted for a specific project or campaign, the process of working more closely and deliberately engaging people with first-hand experience, led to wider thinking and involvement in other areas of the organisation.

The challenges and changes

We also heard that it wasn’t plain sailing!

It costs more in time and resources

We’ve heard back from grantees that to really embed genuine involvement of those with first-hand experience takes more time and resource than they (and we) anticipated. There were several reasons cited for this – organising and working collaboratively might involve building shared understandings and relationships, developing new ways of working, managing and resolving conflicts, training and skill-sharing as well as adequately costing access needs. COVID-19 added an extra layer, as those already dealing with poverty and inequality were hit hardest, and social distancing and digital exclusion added challenges.

Policy and campaign outcomes can take longer

Some projects working in a co-designed approach, or projects led by those with first-hand experience took longer to identify and work to specific outcomes. The way of working itself surfaced underlying issues and preparation work of understanding systems, and power analysis, that took time and were challenging to work though.

Real struggles, and real pain

People often have painful and traumatic experiences of poverty and inequality and whilst there is often shared ground, there are also significant differences between what people experience or how they understand those experiences. Some of the models of co-design didn’t fully incorporate this and struggled to manage the tensions and conflicts between individuals involved, as well as the ways in which different forms of power play out in the process.

Where does that leave us?

We’ve seen real benefits and powerful work come from projects looking to strengthen the voice and the role of people with first-hand experience in leading or guiding them. This is a broad spectrum of work, from projects just starting to explore what listening to those with first-hand experience might mean, to those where leadership comes directly from those with first-hand experience. There is real potential for transformation, and stronger, deeper, more lasting change. But as funders we’re also learning that there are challenges involved and that such projects need to be thoroughly planned and budgeted for so ensuring that we fund them at a level to realistically achieve the results.

Along with grantees we’ve also seen the positives and challenges as a Trust. More than a simple ‘new tactic’ or approach to campaigning, we’ve been on a journey where we have had to be critical of ourselves and explore our own understanding of power relations, trying to ensure that we are also making the changes in shifting power that we expect from the organisations we fund - a process which is ongoing.

If any organisations or funders reading this would be interested in having a chat in more detail about this work, please do get in touch as we would be happy to share learnings and best practice.

13 May 2021


Annual Review - At the Trust at the end of each year we divide up and read through all of the interim and final evaluation reports grantees send us, and along with the conversations, meetings, events and published research we’ve engaged with that year to reflect on the key learning points.