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Research into complexity-friendly funding published

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An innovative research project designed to address the question ‘how can charities and public services best help, when people’s lives are complex?’ has this week been unveiled to the public.

Supported with £17,600 of National Lottery funding from the Big Lottery Fund, academics at Newcastle University Business School have worked in conjunction with Collaborate, an organisation which helps services to the public come together to tackle complex social challenges, to produce a report detailing the way in which funders are finding a different way of tackling the complexity of real world issues affecting public services and charitable trusts on a daily basis.

Launching today in London, and tomorrow in Newcastle, the report highlights the problems which can occur when charitable funders and public service commissioners attempt to use a simplified ‘target-based’ model.

Toby Lowe, Senior Research Associate at Newcastle University Business School, explained: “Previously, many people have thought that people and organisations need to be motivated to perform well by being set targets. But this falls down when the complexities of the real world don’t fit into this simple mould – an everyday problem for those who pay for social interventions in areas such as care or education.


“Our research aims to encourage charitable funders and public service commissioners to not only do things in a different way, but to ask an entirely different set of questions. Our findings suggest many are already starting to do this, placing central importance on 3 common things: the motivation of those who do the work, learning as the route to improving practice, and the quality of relationships and the networks of which we are part.

“Examining the way in which staff are motivated is paramount. Those working in this sector tend to be intrinsically motivated to do the right thing and so aren’t necessarily inspired by hitting targets that don’t reflect the complexity of the lives of the people they are trying to help. They are more likely to respond to help and support to improve their judgement and practice.

“It’s also important to consider that the driver for improvement is learning. This learning comes from many sources including reflection, measurement and analysis. Viewing learning as a feedback loop will drive adaptation and improvement in a system.

“Effective funders also consider the quality of their internal and external connections. They invest in network infrastructure which enables them to communicate effectively and build positive, trusting relationships which in turn develop the skills of the people working for them.” 

Annabel Davidson-Knight, head of practice at Collaborate, said: “Complex problems require collaborative solutions and increasing numbers of funders – across the public and voluntary spheres – are experimenting with new ways of sharing power. Many are stepping into the role of broker, convening stakeholders across the complex environments in which they operate, seeing the maintenance of ‘system health’ as a crucial part of their role.

“They invest both time and money into network infrastructure to do this. This is fundamentally challenging for certain institutional processes – and behaviours – nonetheless, many work in spite of these barriers, or in some cases as we’re seeing from the research, are dismantling these barriers, reinventing processes and behaviours to be more fit for purpose. 

“Our research shows that trust is key here and enables those on the frontline to respond more effectively to the complexity of the lives of the people they are trying to help. It frees them up to respond to the issues that matter for people, moving beyond old notions of accountability.

“We now want to understand more about how funders and commissioners are responding to these challenges in their practice. If you move away from KPIs and targets, how do you know you’re having an impact? Is there still a role for measurement, and what is it? We’re looking forward to exploring these and other questions with a range of stakeholders in the coming months.”

Dawn Austwick, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund said, “We all live and work in diverse communities which face a variety of challenges. Money from the National Lottery has enabled Newcastle University Business School to explore how funders, charities and organisations in the public sector can make the greatest impact in these complex and changing environments. This valuable report is a great opportunity for us all to develop our practices to best support people and communities across the issues that matter most to them.”

The initial research focused on the views of 15 charities and public services – 14 from across the UK and one from the USA. John Esterle of the Whitman Institute was one of the charitable funders to take part.

He said: “The report provides a valuable service to philanthropy and the non-profit sector by not only questioning traditional assumptions about measurement, impact, and relationships, but by naming and framing organizational cultures and practices that support more grounded, effective, and equitable approaches to working in complex systems.  We were honored to be interviewed for the study and are excited about the authors’ invitation to interested parties to join them in future learning and exploration aimed at shifting philanthropic practice in important and needed ways.”

Another participant, Gary Wallace of Plymouth Council, added: “The current challenges to health and social care – less money, more complexity, greater demand – are compounded by the old paradigm of purchaser/provider and the patterns of separation and disconnection it drives. This report is important because it offers an alternative vision of shared endeavour, mutual respect and collective growth. A vision where relationships, trust and diversity of opinion are valued and a future where all the participants can build a new paradigm together.”

To find out more, or to read the paper in full click here: A-Whole-New-World-Funding-Commissioning-in-Complexity