What’s new in our Theory of Change? Q&A with Alex Sutton

Published: 26 August 2021 

Sophie Ahmad and Shelley Dorrans (PHF learning partners) discuss with Alex Sutton (Head of Programme – Migration) the thinking behind the updated version of the Shared Ground Fund Theory of Change and its significance for colleagues working in the migration sector as well as potential applicants.

PHF first developed a Theory of Change (ToC) for its migration work in 2018 to be clear about how we understood the context we operate in and to situate our funding in a clear narrative of how we saw positive change coming about. Our ToC was always meant to be a live document that evolved as we continued to reflect on the external context and our contribution to making positive change in such a complex landscape.

Can you tell us a bit about the new Theory of Change and how it differs from the first version? What do you see as the most important changes or shifts in emphasis between the two documents?

I think the first ToC helped to tease out and document our approach and view of the context at the time, and as a result of that, was framed mainly in terms of our grant-making. Although we talked about how change might come about and referenced systems change, the relationship between our actions and the change we wanted to see was heavily centred in grant-making. I think the new ToC is now very much focused on how we can support the migration sector and a wider movement to transform the UK immigration system, and that’s really exciting.

Can you say a bit more about how that systems prism is shaping your thinking?

The process of articulating our view of the system, including the structural challenges which drive and maintain the current system, and the future change we want to see has made us more ambitious in our goals. For example, the long-term goals set out in our last ToC are still in the new version but have now been repositioned as intermediate goals, as stepping-stones towards the longer-term transformation we want to see in the system. So, if we use detention as an example, our long-term goals in the last ToC were about a reduction in the detention estate and increased use of alternatives to detention. I think a systems lens made us envisage an immigration system that functions without the need for detention. The alternatives to detention pilots have shown that people do not need to be held in the detention estate. So, the systems focus has both clarified and made us more ambitious about the goals we want to achieve.

The other shift from the last ToC is that I think we now have a more nuanced understanding of the role that service delivery organisations have in the ecosystem of change. Under the previous ToC we shied away from service-oriented organisations, whereas I think we now have a better understanding of their contribution to change. That’s because we’re now much clearer that systems change is not the remit of any one single organisation, and everyone makes a contribution to this.

One thing that we talk more about in the new ToC but perhaps still needs more thought, is how we connect to other social movements, for example the climate justice movement. I’m not sure that if you are part of this movement and are interested in the intersection between migration and climate justice you would know from reading the new ToC that there’s a conversation we’d like to have with you. So that maybe needs a bit more thought.

The new document seems to place more emphasis on behaviour, of individuals and organisations in the sector, and in your own team. Is that deliberate and what has prompted this?

I think this is another evolution – we have been, unintentionally, creeping towards a focus on a particular set of priority issues, over behaviours and approaches. There were particular issues that fit within the previous ToC framework around which we started to cluster our funding, however, the intention was never to make these priorities. In reality when we’re assessing grant applications, we’re much more focused on the approach of an organisation than we are on the particular issue they are working on. Of course, that is not to say we are not interested in issues. We’re especially interested in issues that other funders don’t pay as much attention to, that are at the sharper side of the hostile environment and have a terrible impact on individuals, and that have the potential to leverage out wider change in the immigration system. But I think these issues are secondary to what we define as system-changing behaviours and approaches.

We think that focusing on behaviours is a more tangible and practical way to engage with systems change. If you take a view that systems are complex, dynamic and self-reinforcing, then you need to operate in a way that allows you to be reflective and view the system; in a way that is collaborative and that builds collective power; and in a way that is agile and able to respond to new opportunities to leverage change. So, if you’ve got over-stretched organisations that do not have the resources in place to support the wellbeing of their staff with high levels of burnout, I think the ability to view the system narrows, leading to more firefighting. This has an impact on their ability to be both agile and work towards longer-term change. I think we have a role in contributing towards a healthy, reflective sector that includes organisations with the capacity to lift their eyes, view the whole system and think about their own contribution to change in relation to others.

Your new Theory of Change seems to place a bit less emphasis on integration and on young people than the first version. Can you explain a bit more about your thinking in these areas? Is there a shift?

No, I don’t think there’s a shift, but I think we have better articulated how we think the long-term aims of the Shared Ground Fund will come about. Ultimately, we’re still driven by a long-term desire to ensure that young people who migrate are able to fulfil their potential and thrive, and that communities that experience migration are able to become stronger and more connected, and these aims flow very strongly from our overall mission as a Foundation. But we recognise that to achieve these you need a fundamental transformation in the immigration system that currently does harm to lots of people, including young, and to wider communities by weaponising narratives of immigration that influence people’s beliefs, how they view their neighbours and what they think people contribute to our society and what they are told people take from it.

So yes, our ultimate aims remain the same but to achieve them we need to tackle the dysfunction at the heart of the current system.

Thinking about the next few years before you refresh your Theory of Change again, are there themes that you think are going to be especially important to tackle? What kinds of change approaches do you think will be most relevant?

I do wonder if we might be on a bit of journey from a ToC that initially focused on our grant-making practice to the current one that centres systems change and system behaviours, to one in future that might focus on power and power building. That feels like an interesting potential trajectory for our ToC over time. So we’re currently focused on ensuring we have a sector that’s able to practise the system changing behaviours we identify. But once you have a sector that feels more agile, healthier, and more sustainable, then you might start to think about how the sector can build power to challenge and shift the power in the system. That would be interesting to explore.

Of course, I don’t want to say that this new ToC is devoid of an analysis of power, I think there is an articulation of power in relation to the system. But I think it is fair to say that the sector has been forced into being largely reactive over the last decade or so because of the constant change in a system that does so much harm to people. I’m interested in a power building strategy that sees the sector move from being largely reactive to being more proactive, with a much sharper power analysis and adopting new power-shifting methodologies that are perhaps less incorporated into sector activities at the moment.

I recognise of course that we’re talking about the sector in very generic terms and that there are people and organisations in our sector who already think about things in this way, but I think that hasn’t been the kind of space that the sector has been able to occupy. The churn and volatility in immigration policy and legislation puts the sector on the back foot; what I’m talking about is having the skills and capabilities and funding in place to enable people to move from the back foot to the front foot.

When you think about your team’s own role and your approach to funding and supporting organisations over the coming few years, is there anything you’re keen to do differently, or to do more or less of?

We would like to think about how we can open up our learning approaches so there’s a thread that connects our learning, our relationships with organisations, our convening and our ToC development process. Rather than us having conversations with partner organisations and extracting the information we need, analysing it and determining our approach and priorities, I would like to move to a position where we engage other organisations in our learning sessions with us, and together we’re analysing the system, and identifying the approaches and the priorities we need to focus on going ahead, which then influences our grant-making and future iterations of the ToC. That’s the big shift I’d like to see over the next couple of years.

What’s the main rationale in your mind for doing this?

It’s partly about increasing accountability, but it’s critically about developing better analysis. I think it’s acceptable for us to have our own analysis and approaches, and we hope that by publishing our ToC people will tell us whether our approach is right or not, if the behaviours we have identified are the right behaviours and so on. But how do you know if you’ve come up with the right set of answers? Opening up our learning approach so we collectively identify the change we want to achieve and have a conversation with a range of partners who have differing perspectives on how that change will come about feels like a healthy check and balance on us doing it alone. Of course, there’s a design challenge; we have a portfolio of around 120 organisations at the moment, so we need to consider how we design a learning approach that allows for meaningful involvement and also ensures we’re not giving privilege and power to some voices in that space and not to others. But we certainly have the appetite to do this and my hope is that this will be as helpful for the organisations that come into that space as it will be for us.