29 Sep 2023
8 Jun 2023
As part of our current learning question on risk, Geraldine Blake shares some of her hopes for how our long-term funding collaboration – Propel – will challenge us to think about risk differently.
As we discussed in our recent blog, London Funder’s latest learning question is focused on exploring risk - how we view and respond to it, and how as funders we can approach risk differently so that we can work in greater solidarity with civil society and communities.
Funders tell us that one of the main drivers for collaboration is that they can take risks together that they couldn’t take alone.
When we began to develop the collaboration that would become Propel, the funders and equity partners involved in those discussions agreed that Propel should offer a way for funders and civil society to take risks together. This would be underpinned by shared funding approaches and behaviours (in line with our principles of being bold, equitable and accountable) and through enabling funded organisations to respond to a dynamic environment (other shared principles include being flexible and long-term).
Propel’s ambition is to put money and power in the hands of communities who are best placed to make change happen, distributing £100m over ten years and supported by a number of our members, including Bloomberg, City Bridge Trust, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and the National Lottery Community Fund and main advice funders, such as Trust for London, co-ordinated by London Legal Support Trust.
The collaboration prioritises communities who experience structural inequality, supporting them to explore, develop and lead collaborative and systemic approaches that tackle some of London’s biggest issues (more on how we define equity-led organisations below).
This is a journey that funders and funded organisations are taking together, funding change at the same time as we are changing funding.
What we’re seeking to embed across Propel at all levels are dynamic and challenging conversations, where we can collectively develop approaches that push the boundaries for all and are comfortable for no one. This is where taking risks will lead to learning that has the potential to drive real change.
Propel is taking us to new territory, and as a collaborative, we need to ensure we aren’t held back by worrying about getting things wrong or a fear of failure. Thinking about risk differently has been an important part of this process.
On equity, Propel’s equity partners shaped the criteria for an ‘equity-led’ organisation (75% of your Board and 50% of staff from the community that the organisation serves). Some potential applicants expressed concern that the threshold might exclude organisations that are unable to meet these criteria but can demonstrate other ways that they are equity/lived experience-led. Equally, some funders were worried they wouldn’t be able to find equity-led organisations delivering the kind of work that they could fund. But the data shows that this was a risk worth taking - 83% of nearly £26m worth of grants went to equity-led organisations who met these criteria. We can see that half of the Propel funders made 100% of their grants to equity-led organisations, many of whom they had never funded before.
At our first Propel Learning Network Day, we heard from funded organisations that ‘systemic change’ is not a useful term, but that words they hoped to see associated with Propel include: growth, development, movement, transformation, disruption, responsive, emergence, influence, change, connect, user-led, bottom-up approach, story-telling, leadership, humility, bold. They told us that flexibility, patience and trust are necessary to work in this way and that funders need to understand that change is not linear. What we all need to do is to take the time to listen, build relationships, and understand the complexities of the work we’re supporting. We need to enable – indeed encourage – experimentation. It is by trying and failing that we learn the most about the conditions we need for real change. This will require funders to radically change their risk appetite and develop their solidarity muscles.
The building of the Propel collaboration itself took almost a year from first bringing funders and equity partners into a room together to opening the first grants round. The process has been flexible and creative and builds on a set of shared principles to which we return when things get sticky, and to which we seek to hold each other accountable.
Is it inevitable that making collaborative decisions can sometimes be a challenge? Of course - we're asking people to step outside of their own organisational cultures and commit to taking risks together while also recognising the challenges people face in doing things differently when their own organisational cultures have different restrictions, considerations and ways of making decisions on risk. As we introduce the funded organisations into co-designing the next stages of the programme, we must not forget to stay creative and dynamic, and we must be honest with each other when we get things wrong.
We need to enable – indeed encourage – experimentation. It is by trying and failing that we learn the most about the conditions we need for real change. This will require funders to radically change their appetite for risk
The reality is that Propel has made some initial steps towards turning shared long-term ambitions into action. These steps may feel small to some whilst feeling significantly risky for others: a single application to multiple funders, a shared approach to reporting, and a relational approach to progressing from one grant to another. If we approach these risks in the spirit of experimentation, collaboration and solidarity, then we can build on them over time. And although £100m is a big programme, the crucial thing is to share what we’re learning from Propel back with our wider membership to influence fundamental change in wider funder practice.