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3 ways that funders can centre lived experience

By Katie Boswell 14 May 2024 5 minute read

Charities and funders are increasingly waking up to the value of lived experience, recognising that it can help them to be more relevant, credible, and better meet the needs of the people that they serve. However, funders face challenges in working out what their role can most usefully be and often struggle to strike the right balance between resourcing charities to centre lived experience and incorporating lived experience into their own decision-making.  

Here are three ways that funders can help to centre lived experience:  

1. Resource the work 

Centring lived experience takes resources to do well, and charities feel that funders do not always recognise the full cost of this type of work, or that it is an ongoing journey. Application questions about existing practice (e.g., ‘do 50% of your leaders have lived experience?’) can be perceived as a tick-box exercise penalising charities that haven’t previously had the resources to centre lived experience.  

Funders can respond to these concerns by thinking carefully about how to resource the work and what they want to achieve. Some will want to prioritise funding organisations with strong existing lived experience—such as those set up ‘by and for’ the people that they serve. This is important for addressing the historic underfunding of organisations led by Black and minoritised communities, Deaf and Disabled people, LGBT+ communities, women and girls, and others with experience of structural inequity. 

Other funders can play an important role in supporting charities that are either getting started with centring lived experience or partway through a change process. This could involve helping existing grantees to take a strategic approach to centring lived experience, building capacity across the wider sector through dedicated grant pots, or providing unrestricted funding that supports charities to invest for the long-term. Our Centring lived experience research found that it is important to support charities to embed lived experience across the whole organisation, rather than funding one-off participation projects. 

2. Incentivise change 

Funders have immense power to incentivise charities to centre lived experience through their grant-making strategies, programmes, applications, and reporting processes. Our work on funder power dynamics found that charities want funders to use their power for good, alongside sharing it with others. 

Funders can incentivise good practice across the sector by asking applicants how they listen to people with lived experience, how this drives their decision-making, and how they would like to improve. Asking open questions allows funders to understand where charities are on their journey, the values and culture underpinning their approach, and what support is needed. By not requiring a specific model of centring lived experience, funders can support charities to find the approach that’s right for them. To reduce the burden on applicants, funders should think about what else they could stop asking applicants if centring lived experience is their priority.  

To incentivise long-term progress in centring lived experience, funders can provide flexible funding to grantees and model the culture that they are looking for. For example, if a grantee commits to delivering an activity but people with lived experience think differently (e.g., a funder wants to pay for tickets to a big art event, but people would rather have events closer to home) then the funder needs to be prepared to change their requirements. For charities to really allow people with lived experiences to lead, it means that funders need to take a back seat.  

3. Walk the walk  

Funders should also think about centring lived experience in their own organisations and grant-making practices. Doing this requires a shift in decision-making power towards those they seek to help and a big change in how they operate. Participatory grant-making models, like those of Camden Giving or Black Thrive Lambeth, offer one way to embed lived experience expertise in funding processes. Other models like Barnwood Trust’s co-design of funding programmes with Experts by Experience share power with people affected by issues, which can improve funding decisions. 

Collaboration between funders can further amplify the impact of grant-making programmes that centre lived experience. Initiatives like The Phoenix Way, Propel, and NPC’s Open Philanthropy Fund involve funders coming together and reorienting their work around communities, rather than communities having to change to fit different funders’ requirements. Significantly, some of these initiatives involve long-term investment in equity infrastructure and frontline organisations. This can help to address a common concern that we hear; that funders directly involving people with lived experience can undermine or reduce funding for organisations that have been doing this for years. 

Done well, centring lived experience can allow funders to increase the impact of their grant-making, improve engagement with grantees and communities, and accelerate social change. 

We’re looking to do more work to explore what good practice for funders centring lived experience looks like and to equip funders with the tools to do it well. We are actively seeking support to enable us to carry out these important next steps. If you’d like to find out more or partner with us on this work, please get in touch with Katie Boswell, NPC Associate Director.  


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