Control and trust – The challenges of breaking the mould
Reflecting on Renaisi’s evaluation of the Youth Fund, Alice Thornton highlights the features that make the Fund unusual and the challenges these pose regarding evaluation.
The Youth Fund has three key characteristics that are still fairly unusual in funding programmes:
- Provision of core funding, so that organisations have more control over how grants are spent
- Supporting strongly values-led organisations that use ‘asset-based’ approaches to work with young people, alongside working to achieve specific outcomes
- A focus on organisational development, but without requiring organisations to ‘grow’ if that is not appropriate
These posed three challenges for the Foundation, which the evaluation helped to explore.
If you provide core funding, how do you know what impact it has?
The Youth Fund provides a relatively small contribution to core costs, initially up to £60,000 over two years. Though modest in size, this core funding provides vital support for senior members of staff, infrastructure and systems investment and/or strategic or developmental work. The nature of this work means that measuring or demonstrating the impact of funding is not straightforward, not least because the investment sits alongside a number of other funding sources.
We wanted to understand how core investment and this approach to funding made a difference to the organisation, so we used qualitative research methods to explore different uses of the grant, rather than expecting organisations to demonstrate predetermined outcomes. What we learnt was that this type of funding aligned to organisational development and allowed investment in strategy, income generation, operations, and youth participation and involvement, while contributing to longer-term ambitions.
To help with our understanding, we developed a framework for thinking about what funding will contribute to in terms of core costs, AND what this aims to lead to in terms of impact at organisation level, with young people and more widely.
The framework aims to align expectations between the funder and the supported organisation, and to enable reflection during and after the grant. It provides structure, without expecting organisations to follow a funder-prescribed development journey.
You can explore the framework in this summary paper on core funding (8 pages, 12 minutes).
If you have a values-driven fund, how can you identify whether an organisation embodies those values?
The Youth Fund supports organisations which work with young people in an ‘asset-based’ way which, at its simplest, means addressing challenges in a way that empowers young people.
The challenge with this approach is a definitional one. It is a fairly simple concept in theory, but what does ‘asset-based’ look like in practice? As a funder, how do you identify it in applicants? And as an organisation working with young people, how do you get better at embedding this in your organisational approach?
The evaluation aimed to provide some structure for thinking about how to identify a range of approaches to asset-based working. Organisations working in this way demonstrated it in their purpose, having a core belief in young people, and strong organisational values that reflected this belief. But it was also important to understand how belief and values then played out in the ambition, behaviours, practice and impact of organisations.
We co-created a framework with funded organisations that can be used to identify and develop asset-based working in practice across these various arenas.
Our full paper describes different practices that organisations can embed, drawing on the breadth of experience of the Youth Fund cohort. Again, this work was aligned with organisational development, illustrating that asset-based working was not only present in service delivery but also in decision making, operations and influencing activities. We found that moving beyond service delivery and into these other arenas was often more challenging for organisations.
We also learnt that most organisations need further support to develop and embed asset-based practice and that specific resource is needed to build and develop the approach, working with staff and young people. Funding through the Youth Fund often contributed to some of this development.
You can read more about our findings and framework in this summary paper on asset-based working with young people (7 pages, 10 minutes).
If you support organisations at various stages of development, how do you know what ‘progress’ looks like?
The Youth Fund supports a diverse cohort: organisations of different sizes, ages, sectors and geographies, working with groups of young people experiencing different types of challenges in their lives. This means that we cannot expect each organisation to make the same level of progress, and it also means that what ‘progress’ looks like is defined very differently per organisation. We have found that organisations welcome a ‘personalised’ approach that recognises their varying development needs. However, it is challenging for a funder to provide tailored support to a relatively diverse cohort and to articulate whether ‘progress’ is being achieved across the Fund.
One of the ways the Youth Fund worked around this challenge is by not assessing everyone against the same criteria. Each funded organisation is asked to set a series of objectives at the outset of their funding: one related to the young people they are working with and for; one related to their organisational development; and one related to the wider impact ambitions. These three objectives are then the basis of reflecting on progress and development through the lifetime of the grant.
This has been a real challenge, but the Foundation’s belief in the importance of high quality, values-led work with young people and the importance of supporting the conditions for this work in order to grow its impact informed this approach. What we have learnt is that the impact for young people is often more of an indirect result of funding but that through a focus on and investment in organisational development, the quality and/or reach of organisations’ work is improved. For us, this is what ‘progress’ looks like.
You can read more in this summary paper on supporting organisations (7 pages, 8 minutes).
The Foundation designed and structured the Youth Fund to give away some control, based on trust. The Fund gives away control of exactly how funds are spent and what outcomes are achieved as a result, trusting that organisations work in a way that aligns with values they share with Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and that they will be able to progress their development effectively if they are given the resource to do so. That does not mean that we’ve lost the ability to analyse the impact of the Fund; it just means that we have needed to use a different approach to evaluation to generate learning.
The executive summary shares some further insights on how the Fund’s approach has supported grantees, and the challenges and benefits of this approach.
If you would like to find out more about the evaluation insights and issues highlighted here, join us for a funders workshop on Wednesday 26 February – please get in touch with Andy Curtis, Research and Evaluation Manager at PHF, for more information.
Alice Thornton is Head of Learning at Renaisi. She supports social sector organisations with their learning and development challenges, based on her experience of supporting Renaisi’s own learning practice.
 The Fund provided core funding in a flexible way but did not provide unrestricted funding.