Dylan Fotoohi: Responding to PHF Shared Ground Theory of Change

Published: 27 August 2021 
Author: Dylan Fotoohi 

Dylan Fotoohi, Director of Refugees for Justice, calls for a shared theory of change to support funders and the sector to work more effectively together.

The main highlights of PHF’s Theory of Change for me is its emphasis on behaviours and ways of working, and its recognition of the importance of lived experience leadership in the UK refugee and migration sector. As a person with lived experience who is active in this field, I believe that there are some very important but long overdue discussions to be had on both subjects. Progress on either of these two fronts would require culture change, which would need to be informed by evidence-based analysis and actioned through targeted intervention.

PHF’s emphasis on these areas, and its intention to play its part as a funder to address them is certainly most welcome. For this to be then translated into funding priorities and grant-making criteria is an important step in the right direction, which would undoubtedly have an impact. However, in my opinion, funding criteria on its own is unlikely to lead to meaningful and long-lasting change in the sector.

What is needed is an in-depth diagnosis of the root causes of the kinds of behaviour and ways of working that dominate our sector and encumber our collective capacity; an accurate understanding of the possible mechanisms for changing those behaviours, and a recognition of the role that funders can play to promote positive behaviours and ways of working.

We are yet to define and reach a consensus on what we mean by lived experience leadership, why we think it is important, what good would look like in terms of lived experience leadership in the sector, and what practical steps can be taken to get there.

More in-depth thinking, analysis and action is needed collectively across funders and leaders in the field to understand the current culture, both in relation to behaviours and ways of working and in relation to lived experience leadership, and to initiate targeted and long-term interventions to bring about sustainable culture change within the sector.

Overall, I find the width of understanding and the depth of analysis expressed in the Theory of Change responsive to the realities of the system, and offer my reflection on the underlying intention and principles of the document.

The fact that PHF as a funder of the UK migration and refugee sector demonstrates this level of commitment, understanding, analysis and engagement with the issues on a system level is highly commendable. My hope is for this way of working to be adopted by other funders in this space too, both individually and collectively.

The UK refugee and migration sector is under-resourced, stretched, polarised, and fairly unhealthy (assessed against my indicators of a healthy sector). This is while we, as a sector, have a very onerous task on hand to be delivered in a highly politicised and oppressive context. We have much to resolve and improve both in terms of our internal dynamics, culture, behaviours, ways of working together and relating to each other as well as our external strategies, actions, ways of working within and influencing the wider public and political context.

Funders are integral parts of this ecosystem and have an important role to play in this equation; a role that stretches beyond being a provider of (financial and non-financial) support to the sector to being active and purposeful partners within this space. It is clearly demonstrated that PHF understands and owns its role as an integrated partner within the sector, rather than an outsider; a partner who owns and publicly presents its evidence-based opinion and analysis of what good looks like, how we can collectively get there, and what role each one of us can play on this path.

This intentionality and proactivity informed by deep analysis of the context is most needed, and I hope to see it evolving as a model in other parts of the philanthropy sector. We need a Shared Theory of Change, and I strongly hope that PHF’s work is a steppingstone towards it. Our sector would be stronger and more effective as a whole if funders work collectively, together and with the voluntary sector, on the basis of a shared analysis that is then supported by collaborative, aligned, and strategic grant making.

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Director of Refugees for Justice