2008 saw the first recession in Britain since the early 90’s. It hit GDP and employment and motivated an incoming Conservative government in 2010 to pursue an austerity agenda, in the hope that reducing the national budget deficit would make us more resilient to future economic shocks. The combination of the crash and the contraction of government spending exposed a major lack of resilience in local and national economies. For many people, the economy stopped meeting their needs.
It took until 2013 for the UK’s economy to return to its pre-2008 size, but it had become clear there were issues not just with the size of the economy but its nature. That same year, Friends Provident Foundation launched the Building Resilient Economies programme, to determine how to build a fairer, more resilient and more sustainable economic system. In doing so, it hoped to protect the most vulnerable from future economic shocks. Five years on, the programme has reached its conclusion and NPC was commissioned to carry out an evaluation.
The broad framework for the programme has remained consistent since it began: a focus on two strands, systems change and local economic resilience; and the aspiration for the Foundation to use all its assets in pursuit of its goals. When it was set up, the intention was to encourage a multitude of ideas and approaches from as many thinkers and doers as possible. Staff wanted to learn about the context they were operating in rather than putting all of their efforts behind one chosen route to change.
In 2016, the Foundation made a number of important decisions to change the way that it worked in line with its aspiration to use all its assets, including: aligning its mainstream investment strategy with its change goals, lifting the lid on its endowment, developing a more strategic approach to core funding and investing in its own organisational capacity through the addition of an Investment Engagement Manager, a Communications Manager, a larger grants team and a broader range of skills on the board.
So, what can we learn from the Foundation’s approach?
Friends Provident Foundation is a progressive funder, characterised by its high-risk appetite, flexibility, openness, and a genuine partnership approach. The Foundation is often a core funder and what grantees would refer to as a ‘first or significant funder’, whose early investment is likely to help them to secure future funding. Core funding is gold dust for grantees/investees, enabling them to recruit more staff, improve their operations and systems, and become more self-sustaining.
The Foundation has been strategic in funding organisations that tackle similar issues from different angles. Funding at a ‘systems’ level involves considering underlying causes and interdependencies, being aware of tacit aspects of the system like power structures and searching for ways to exert leverage. It involves working to shift what FSG would refer to in its Water of Systems Change as explicit policies, practices and regulations, but also shifting more deep-rooted ‘implicit’ conditions for change such as power dynamics, relationships and ‘mental modes’. No one condition taken in isolation would be enough to change a system, hence the value of multiple grantees and investees working to tackle similar issues from multiple angles, be it at a local or national level.
Crucially, the Foundation has also put its money where its mouth is, acknowledging that the contribution to change it can make is a function of its own assets. The Foundation therefore took the decision to lift the lid on its capital endowment and has embarked on an ambitious investment engagement strategy; a bold move few have yet to replicate. Doing so has earnt the respect of the sector and created the opportunity for the Foundation to be a more prominent voice on good funding practices.
Five years on, the external landscape has changed. The economic system was never going to be turned on its head in such a short time frame, and no one expected as much, not least the Foundation itself. Resilience was relevant in the context of the financial crash but is too value-neutral to reflect the challenges ahead. After all, a resilient system can still be socially or ecologically undesirable. While the Foundation evaluates whether ‘resilience’ should remain the dominant theme of its future grant making and investment strategy (which seems unlikely) there are also other things it can be doing; supporting grantees to secure future funding in uncertain times; sharing knowledge with its network and creating greater clarity on its ecosystem and grantees’ and investees’ role within it; proactively collaborating with funders and peers to become a more powerful voice in the sector.
The Foundation has taken a bold approach that has built momentum, galvanised organisations to think and work differently, taken chances on the newcomers and the more established. Inroads have certainly been made, and those who have worked with the Foundation to date should be hopeful for what’s to come.
Friends Provident Foundation really have played a huge part in building that sector from a handful of ten people to about 50 relatively established institutions. They have looked around for the energy, the new thinkers with radical ideas. And they haven’t splashed money around without thinking –they have thought about a sector they want to build. I honestly think they are to be commended.
If you’d like to find out more about systems change evaluation and NPC’s methodology, please get in touch.