Moira Sinclair: what does it take to improve a place?

A grant maker’s perspective


Common Wealth’s No Guts, No Heart, No Glory is a site-specific theatre production based on interviews
with Muslim female boxers in Bradford.

Photo: Sophie Gerrard

Paul Hamlyn was an entrepreneur, whose success was built on challenging traditional approaches, innovating and bringing new products to market, and backing individuals. He was also a migrant, whose own experiences of displacement and prejudice have shaped that values that guide the work of the charity he established in 1987. Today the Paul Hamlyn Foundation is one of the UK’s largest independent grant makers, working to help people overcome disadvantage and lack of opportunity, so that they can realise their potential and enjoy fulfilling and creative lives. In 2018/2019, we will spend in the region of £30m in furtherance of that mission.

As we enter our fourth decade, we are exploring what it means to be a good and effective foundation in the 21st century, exploring the balance between grant-making, creating effective evidence and learning, and developing a meaningful communications and advocacy function. We think, if we get that balance right, we can help to improve the lives of people and communities, changing places for the better.

As a funder, we know that we aren’t the ones that deliver change. It is our partners, the organisations and individuals that we fund and the people with whom they work, who make the difference. Our role, then, is not to micromanage their approach or programmes, nor let our processes stand in their way, but we do believe that the manner in which we operate and the assets we bring into play can and should add value to them and their impact.

Allowing time for experimentation, play and innovation

Firstly, nodding to our founder’s legacy, we are committed to supporting individuals and the development of their ideas, to allow time for experimentation and to recognise the role that lived experience, a deep knowledge of local circumstances and context, and personal leadership play in social change. Our Breakthrough grants and Ideas and Pioneers Fund are specifically designed to back innovative and enterprising individuals and, in this, we are unusual amongst our peers.

People like Evie Manning and Rhiannon White, the two visionary women who lead Common Wealth, making site-specific theatre that is political and contemporary. They seek out places to stage their work that are sited right in a community; a residential house, a boxing gym, places where people who might not go to the theatre might come to instead. They say that their “ideas are rooted in socialist politics, working class backgrounds, a keen interest in contemporary music/theatre/art/design, the people that we meet and an idealistic ambition to shift things. We see our plays as campaigns, as a way of bringing people together and making change feel possible…” and we are backing them in that approach.

Or Friends of the Flyover who want to turn Liverpool’s Churchill Way flyover into a community hub and tourist attraction, which will include an elevated urban park, community centre and cultural and education space. Dreamed up by a group of friends, the proposal is winning support from communities and regeneration bodies. With permission from the local authority to close the flyover to traffic on a weekly basis, the group have used Paul Hamlyn Foundation funding to formalise their legal status, firm up agreements on the land use and develop a cultural and community programme with partners in the city and beyond. Their new social enterprise, We Make Places, aims “to provoke debate, make design collaboratively and bring about positive change in our city’s urban environment and communities.”

Our belief

Underpinning these programmes, and indeed all our grant making, is the belief that we can ‘design in’ supporting experimentation and early stage development, and critically that we should be encouraging learning throughout. We don’t recognise ‘failure’, it is more than enough for us for grant recipients to explore and test their ideas. We do not expect everything to work or have the outcomes that were hoped for. Indeed, we say “a successful grant could be as much about finding out that something didn’t work and why not”. Being open as a funder to allow for a process of testing and learning to take place, without prescribing a particular outcome or product to be generated, is an approach we think is valuable and can unlock solutions that would not otherwise be found.

This is so important, precisely because social change cannot be a one-size fits all approach. Many of the challenges we want to address are complex and long standing, and the last thing a place needs is for the funder to arrive looking for the shiny and the new, whilst all around valued community partners are sinking. So, as a second principle, we are committed to supporting innovation and to bolstering and strengthening the organisations we judge to be effective. As an endowed foundation, we can take the long view and when the need is great, we think core and multi-year funding can be enormously helpful.

We see the stresses that sector infrastructure is facing at a time when money is tough to come by and focused very much on the ‘frontline’. The core, the less visible, the costs which are not about ‘direct’ delivery, are vital in delivering change, and we know how hard the fundraising can be in this respect. So we have been proactive in saying we will support continuing professional development, in underpinning income generation posts, and we fund advocacy and communications functions too.

Through the Backbone Fund, we are supporting seven organisations to provide essential services to reinforce civil society and its leadership. The fund makes a lasting commitment of up to five years to each organisation to enable them to plan effectively. We see how, by strengthening, for example, Clinks and Liberty, we can fortify the work of many hundreds more who are making change happen on the ground.

The same rationale guides our belief that there can be a need for sectoral intervention too. As local authority funding started to decline, our research told us that the youth sector, in particular, would struggle and that the impact on the lives of young people would be devastating. In developing our strategic priorities in an age of austerity, enabling this sector to develop new models and approaches seemed to be vital and we developed the Youth and Growth Fund in response. We know we cannot step in to help every organisation, we simply do not have the resources, but we are sustaining a cohort that can apply for core funding and for resources to help them improve their impact and/or grow. With them, we hope to be able to demonstrate a way in which youth provision can be maintained, delivering services and support in a way that is relevant to the needs of young people locally.

Funded through the Growth Fund, Leap Confronting Conflict empowers vulnerable young people to make changes in their lives by supporting them to gain a greater understanding of themselves and their relationship with conflict. Leap works directly with young people, researches issues facing young people today, and supports relevant policy and practice changes. Our four year grant is helping them to widen and deepen impact at the local and the national level, and to grow their influence by providing professional training for those starting their careers and through a digital training offer.

Much of the current writing about place-based work emphasises the need for community engagement, and this chimes with Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s values and approach and frames my third point. When we reviewed our strategy in 2015, we were much more explicit about the principle of giving local people voice and agency. The learning from previous programmes such as Right Here, which looked at young people’s experiences in mental health settings, and from our support for young undocumented migrants, pointed to the need for meaningful engagement. We said that we wanted our funding to ‘give people control over the decisions that shape their lives and to help them to speak out and be heard, including by those who make policy or provide services’. We do not believe that improvement and change is easy to come by without the active and powerful involvement of those whose lives could be changed, and we are now equally explicit in our funding criteria about our expectations. We want to see co-design, to see representation at governance level, to understand how need has been identified and why the proposed solution will have traction. All of this is more likely to lead to positive, impactful and sustainable change.

Campaign Bootcamp was set up by six campaigners who were frustrated that it was way too hard for campaigners to learn how to change the world. Since their first Bootcamp in June 2013, they have devised a way to develop and deliver training programmes that give people the skills, network and resilience to tackle important social issues. The focus for the next three years will be on migration, mental health and disability rights and our grant will support the migration stream in their training by adapting the programme’s syllabus, structure and outreach to the needs and experience of potential participants.

Lastly, we would be unrealistic if we failed to recognise that all of this brings with it the very real possibility of organisational and cultural change, that existing systems may well need to be addressed. And if this is required of the charitable sector, it follows that it will require us, as funders, to change our behaviours and approaches. What we ask of grantees we need to ask of ourselves. We need to embrace a more collaborative and partnering way of working, and to unlock the assets that perhaps have not been well deployed in traditional philanthropic giving – our partnership and pooled funding with Unbound Philanthropy in the migration space points the way to this different way of operating.

Knowledge creation is at the heart of this. For far too long, trusts and foundations have required data and information, reports and submissions from those they fund, and done very little with all of that material. We have lofty ambitions. We want our resources to have the greatest possible impact for the people involved in and benefiting from the work we fund. In order to achieve this, we believe that we need to make sure we learn about social issues, about sectors, about the challenges of running organisations. We want to be an organisation respected for its field knowledge, its networks and being ahead of the curve on approaches to some of these complex issues. We want to help our grantees use evaluation and research to reflect on how to adapt and improve their work. That means creating a reciprocal environment, one that is about knowledge exchange, so that we can add as much value as possible to those whose work we support and, in turn, they can help us to learn.

Our Museum: Communities and Museums as Active Partners worked with seven institutions across the UK between 2012 and 2016 to support them through a process of organisational change in order to embed community engagement and participatory ways of working into the core of their work. Paul Hamlyn Foundation commissioned an independent evaluation team to work with all partners throughout and a report, “No longer us and them: How to change into a participatory museum and gallery”, was also published.

In it, David Anderson, Director of National Museum Wales, described the benefits that staff found working with third sector organisations, using volunteering and co-production methodologies to develop new learning opportunities for their clients. For staff, these methodologies have required a substantial investment of time and emotion and a letting go of authority, but their reward has been to see the museum become more relevant and engaging. For participants from communities and partner organisations, the experience has often been inspiring and sometimes life-changing.

Since then, we have been working to influence participatory practice across the UK museums and galleries sector. Much of this has been in association with the Museums Association, as a deliberate strategy of handing over the learning from the programme to the sector. In keeping with our commitment to develop and share knowledge, we have just launched a follow-up exercise, to understand how much change has been sustained in the participating museums, two years after the end of PHF funding and support.

These are approaches and values that, I think, Paul Hamlyn would have appreciated thirty years ago, and they steer us today. Above all, our support for individuals and new ideas, our championing of meaningful community engagement, our commitment to long term funding, our backing of sector infrastructure and our exploration of organisational and cultural shifts are about the desire for learning and improvement, and to help those that can do things differently. Our trust in people and organisations, in their expertise, knowledge and efficacy, is as important as the funding mechanisms that support their work and it is the nature of our relationships that help ideas and change to flourish.

About the author:

Moira is Chief Executive at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Moira joined PHF in February 2015 from Arts Council England where she was Executive Director for London and the South East.

Renaisi is currently evaluating and working as a learning partner to the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Youth Fund.

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