Cassie Robinson: Responding to PHF Shared Ground Theory of Change

Published: 27 August 2021 
Author: Cassie Robinson 

Cassie Robinson, Deputy Director of Funding Strategy at The National Lottery Community Fund, welcomes the drive for transformational change.

It is valuable for organisations to share how they are designing their funding approach in relation to how they believe they can best effect change.”

The new Theory of Change that Paul Hamlyn Foundation has produced for its Shared Ground Fund feels like a deeply important step both for their work in the immigration sector, and for the funding sector as a whole.

To begin with, even the act of openly sharing and publishing the Theory of Change (ToC), and inviting feedback, is a welcome novelty with regard to how organisations – particularly funders – share what they do. In my opinion, many more organisations should be socialising their theories of change in this way, increasingly working out in the open. Some people have critiqued the value of the theory of change concept in the first place. But I think regardless of whether or not the ToC is the best way to approach the process of change, it is nevertheless valuable for organisations to share how they are designing their funding approach in relation to how they believe they can best effect change.

One of the benefits of a funder openly sharing their theory of change in this way is that – as noted within the document itself – it makes it easier for organisations seeking funding to see how their work fits within the funder’s vision. This is an important way of being respectful of people’s time – a vital consideration within the funding world where we are acutely aware of the burden funding applications can place on individuals and organisations.

Continuous learning

Another thing I really like about this theory of change is the commitment it demonstrates to reflecting on and learning from previous work, continually iterating the Foundation’s vision of how change might come about. This sort of reflexive practice is rare to see in funding – although examples can be found.

In particular, I value the way the team at PHF have reflected on and incorporated into this revised ToC not only what they have learned from and alongside Shared Ground Fund grantholders, but also lessons and reflections on broader patterns and changes in the world. Funders can sometimes be relatively internally focused, or focused only on insights gleaned from grantees, and it can be hard to see how and where they undertake this kind of wider sensemaking, with regard to the broader patterns that influence and shape the field within which they work. It’s really welcome to see PHF bringing in and learning from a broader set of intelligences to shape their vision for change.

Taking a stand

Relatedly, and perhaps even more importantly, this ToC isn’t afraid to take a position. There has been an increased tentativeness from funders with regard to taking a view or a position. Funders are increasingly so aware – and often necessarily so – of the need to include and listen to a diverse range of voices and experiences that they can forget or disregard the field intelligence’ that they often uniquely have because of their position – a view of the landscape as a whole. To not effectively generate and contribute this field intelligence is often a failing of our responsibility as funders. Alex and the team have developed their own set of hunches and their own wisdom about the field over the years of funding in the immigration space, which they recognise and give credence to within their ToC.

Having said that, one question I would pose to the Shared Ground Fund team is how they will consider and incorporate the ideas, experiments and projects which they haven’t considered within their existing work or this ToC, but which others with different lived, learned and practice experiences may bring to the table. How will they account for people whose work doesn’t quite fit within this ToC, but who have the potential to nudge and push at the edges of what the Fund is trying to achieve? It will be critical to consider this question to ensure that the ToC continues to evolve and serve its purpose as a vehicle for learning as well as directing change.

Nevertheless, I think what this ToC does really well is to clearly show the difference between what is, and what’s possible – it’s propositioning a potential more desired future. Often, system-mapping work can be limiting, because it only shows the current system, and doesn’t seek to imagine what new system might be possible: the articulation of where one is actually trying to go is often missing. By clearly articulating their vision for the new system, the Shared Ground Fund is paving the way to go beyond plaster-sticking to drive transformational change. 

Associate Director