Lessons from the Listening Fund (Part 4): Reflecting on fund design

Over the past two years, the Centre for Youth Impact has been working with the funders and youth organisations involved in the Listening Fund, a collaborative effort to support organisations to listen and respond to young people – and make this the norm. The Centre is evaluating both the England and Scotland Fund, and this week is reporting on the findings from England. This blog by Sarah Williams and Jo Hickman Dunne, who are part of the Centre for Youth Impact’s research team, reflects on lessons learnt from delivery and evaluation of the Listening Fund in England, and emerging learning from the Listening Fund in Scotland.

This is part of a series of blogs exploring the findings from the project. The rest of the series will appear here.

Reflections from partners

As well as understanding enablers and barriers to listening, the evaluation was designed to learn about the approach of the Listening Fund. The central research question for the evaluation is: what is the impact of dedicated funder support on organisational listening practice? In particular, the in-depth case study component allowed for an exploration of partners’ experiences (more details on the evaluation methodology can be found in the final report).

In sum, both the opportunity to take part and the Fund’s overall ethos was highly valued by the partners – the organisations receiving grants from the Fund. The evaluation shows that developing listening practice is complex and challenging, and as several partners told us, time and capacity will always be the biggest challenge to undertaking this type of work. The Listening Fund provided the resources “to slow thinking down, to reflect on whose voices are heard and where power lies”.

In particular, the Listening Fund was valued by partners for its flexibility and light-touch reporting processes. In being flexible, the funders were relatively un-prescriptive, which allowed for highly individualised projects, and for partners to revise original plans or adapt practices without being constrained by earlier timelines or rigid guidelines. The funders were wary not to overburden partners with evaluation work, and this has been a consideration throughout the Fund. Light-touch reporting processes allowed partners to focus on improving their listening practices and be innovative and creative in their projects, without the pressure of trying to demonstrate their impact.

Reflections from funders

From the perspective of The Blagrave Trust (England) and the Corra Foundation (Scotland), the Listening Fund has highlighted the time-consuming and resource-heavy nature of this type of work: where the focus is explicitly on learning at the organisational, cohort, and sector level, rather than solely outcomes and impact. The Listening Fund was designed to be a learning community through which partners could share and learn from each other, including multiple convening days, webinars, and ongoing support and coordination from funders. In the England cohort, whilst all of these were valued highly by partners, this is an area which funders would like to improve. There was limited reference to cross-partner learning in through the evaluation, which was disappointing. It was acknowledged that in order to generate better opportunities for learning and sharing to take place, more resources might need to be set aside to make this happen, for example to increase the number of convening days offered as part of the Fund.

In the spirit of listening, in Scotland, efforts were made to involve young people in the design of the Fund itself, including: workshops; focus groups with partners; a young people’s survey; and a youth Advisery group. Overall, this development phase was considered highly successful in both outcomes for the Fund design and gaining insight into the challenges involved in listening to young people’s voices. The recommendations put forward by young people and included in the Scotland Fund design are described in detail in the forthcoming interim learning report. For the Corra Foundation, this process also provided some key take-aways:

1. Children and young people are interested and capable of having input into this kind of work, but careful consideration needs to be given to the format, for example how workshops are delivered. Questions around fund design are generally not inherently interesting to young people and limited background information and support could be provided with the survey. Therefore, delivering it in an interesting and creative way was important, and this was reflected in the relatively weak engagement with young people through the survey vs. the insights gained through the workshops. This parallels learning from the Listening Fund (England) evaluation in highlighting a trade-off between broad but shallow quantitative methods and in-depth but more focused qualitative approaches.

2. Engaging a wide range of young people is always challenging, both in terms of demography and geography. The workshops were held in Edinburgh and Glasgow and Children in Scotland primarily recruited young people with whom they already had a relationship. The survey intended to combat this limited representation, but distribution issues meant that it obtained limited responses. Time and money are needed to invest in recruitment processes, for example in reaching young people who had not previously engaged with Child in Scotland. Again, this finding is reflective of the wider project evaluation where undertaking ‘representative listening’ was a particular challenge for partners.

3. The ongoing engagement of young people requires constant evaluation and an intentional focus. This may involve trade offs: having reflected on opportunities to involve young people in the most meaningful way with the resources available, the decision was taken not to include young people in funder meetings on an ongoing basis: .to invite young people to a funder meeting may enable their input in that context, but finances will not be available to deliver some of the activities outlined above.

The feedback from the Corra Foundation reflects the feedback from partner organisations in terms of some of the ongoing challenges in organisational listening. The Corra Foundation in particular felt that this process has encouraged them to think more widely about how young people’s voices can be involved in other strands of their work, as this is not a routine aspect of their work currently. All project funders (The Blagrave Trust, Corra Foundation, Comic Relief, The National Lottery Community Fund, Esmée Fairbairn, The William Grant Foundation and The Gannochy Trust) are working with Costrata to help them reflect on their own listening practice, and we look forward to the release of these findings later this year. We would encourage other funders in the youth sector to take account of this experience, as part of a wider appetite in the UK to give people and communities more agency to influence the direction and approach of funding decisions.

Reflections on the evaluation process

Whilst overall the evaluation provided useful insights into understanding the impact of dedicated funding on organisational listening practice, as well as making broader contributions to the evidence base around organisational listening, some shortcomings have been highlighted. The Blagrave Trust felt there was a missed opportunity to co-design the original evaluation with the partners. The overall structure of evaluation was designed by the Centre for Youth Impact and the Blagrave Trust before final selection of funded youth organisations had been made, and without direct consultation with them. There was a concern that because of this, at times the evaluation has come across as ‘high-stakes’ as opposed to a process that was there to support the project partners. The flexibility, emphasis on learning, and expectation of sharing within the Listening Fund supports the desire to support organisational development and practice rather than be driven by ‘demonstrating’ predetermined outcomes for young people. The Most Significant Change workshop, detailed in the final learning report, was added to the evaluation as a means of sharing findings and learning more widely with partners.

If the Centre is to be involved in a future phase of the Fund, it is likely that activity would be framed as a ‘learning project’ rather than an evaluation, and it would need to involve a process of co-design. This would allow us to draw directly on partners’ knowledge and experience, and to ensure the methods were well suited to the variable circumstances of different organisations.

More detail about the evaluation findings can be found in the full learning report, and in the accompanying case study report that takes an in-depth look at six partners’ projects.

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