Lightbulb with lots of ideas coming off it

The privilege of learning: a funder’s perspective

By Matt York 23 June 2023 5 minute read

In this guest blog Matt York, Foundation Manager for the Santander Foundation, explores how to balance the value and possibilities of learning, against the desire not to overburden recipients of funding, or contribute to extractive practices. He highlights how the insights shared by the foundation’s funded partners are helping to shape its approach, providing wider lessons for grant-makers today. 

The Santander Foundation is the corporate foundation of the British bank Santander UK. Since 2021, the foundation has operated its Digital & Financial Empowerment Fund, a funding programme which supports charities across the UK to deliver services that develop the digital and financial skills of communities facing economic disadvantage and inequalities. The programme supports the foundation’s mission to contribute to the alleviation of poverty by empowering people to prosper. 

Privilege, it’s one of those words that seems to have rightfully gained greater prominence in recent years. Whilst the meaning remains the same, its purpose and power in our vocabulary has shifted with the needs of our society. The Santander Foundation is a grant-making foundation which, like any other funder, operates from a position of enormous privilege. By far the greatest privilege of any grant giving foundation is the ability to connect with and learn from the experts, our funded partners.  

Whether a grant-maker is funding for systems change, the alleviation of a social or economic disadvantage, justice, community integration, or education, every funder is presented with a generous and at times uncomfortable privilege- ‘learning privilege’(the inherent opportunity to access knowledge by virtue of a funding relationship). It’s therefore important that funders acknowledge and are open to dialogue on the conditions and precursors which have created this position of learning privilege. Furthermore, we should be proactive in creating opportunities to dismantle inefficient or extractive behaviors caused by this advantage. As funders, we should work to ensure that any insight and learning requested has a purpose, and where possible, that this purpose is beneficial for those we fund and their social missions. 

What does learning look like in practice? 

At the Santander Foundation, we’re exploring opportunities to exchange mutual learning across the sector, the foundation, and Santander UK. We’re particularly interested in increasing opportunities for people with lived experience to collaborate with financial institutions and decision makers. It’s very early days, and there’s a long journey ahead for us to ensure that we do this in the right way, without inadvertently overburdening our funded partners. 

From conversations with our partners, we’ve been eagerly populating documents with their insights and propositions, creating opportunities for additional dialogue where it is effective and desired. As a funder, we have access to such a wealth of knowledge and insight that it can all too easily become overwhelming, leading to an overly theoretical approach when trying to comprehend nuanced social issues. Left unchecked, this can lead to the development of bewildering funding programs, that even the most seasoned fundraisers are left scratching their heads at (anyone for the ‘Incipient Coalescence Economic Regeneration Response Fund’?).

NPC have been supporting us on our journey towards being proportional in the evidence that we gather, ensuring that our approach is driven from our collective principles of efficiency, relevance, participation, and flexibility. Since the launch of our strategic fund in 2021, our funded partners have helped us to understand the complex and competing challenges that they’re responding to in the communities that they support. This nuanced learning is driving our understanding of where and how to best deploy future funding. 


Corporate social impact: Theory of change

An event for businesses and corporate philanthropists interested in taking a Theory of Change approach to their giving.

Find out more

What we’ve learned so far 

We’re fortunate to partner with organisations working across a broad spectrum of communities and themes. Our partners deliver a variety of interventions and activities, from universal support and early intervention, to supporting people facing and recovering from financial crisis.

Over the past few months, we’ve learnt how young people are being placed at risk of developing gambling habits within some gaming apps, and how youth workers are working to support young people towards a position of financial wellbeing.

We’ve also learned how victims of economic abuse (a form of domestic abuse) can face immediate destitution when leaving the perpetrator. And how relief workers play a significant role in developing not just the opportunities to access a place of refuge, but the mental resilience required to do so. Alongside the ongoing support needed to move victims closer to a position of financial independence. 

A standout feature of this learning journey has been the generosity of our funded partners, who have been sharing their approaches to responding to the cost-of-living crisis within their communities. Despite the breadth of interventions, communities, and geographies that our partners work across, there’s a visible ‘golden thread’ shared by each organisation, which is their approach to responding to crisis and escalating need.  

Each of these organisations support individuals with a tailored system of solutions, relationships, and assets. They’re responding to the needs of “the whole person”, often providing intense wrap around support, whilst understanding their own strengths and the opportunities that arise through partnership work. 

The power of flexible and human centered approaches is evident across the learning shared with us to date. As a funder we’re actively reflecting on our role to showcase, foster, and safeguard these relational ways of working, to ensure that current and future funded partners are resourced and supported appropriately.  

How learning is feeding into our grant-making  

The holistic approach demonstrated by our funded partners provides a useful model for the approach grant-makers should take in these challenging times: 

  1. Consider the needs of the grant seeker as an organisation; fund with greater flexibility and freedom to allow grant holders the agility to respond to an ever-changing environment and priorities. 
  2. Take time to understand how your funding contributes to a wider eco-system of funding opportunities across a vast network of funders and commissioners. Doing so will allow you to build meaningful partnerships, programs, and understand when others are better placed to respond. The knowledge and propositional feedback given to us, has directly shaped our cost-of-living response; uplifting our partners grants with a 10% unrestricted increase, and offering flexibility to utilise the funds in whichever manner they deem appropriate to respond to the crisis.  

As a foundation, we’re entering our second year of running a more strategic multiyear funding offer, and we’re still discovering when to lean into the learning privilege to uncover practice and knowledge that will benefit our funded partners. Equally, we must remain conscious of how and when we ask for knowledge to be shared and ensure that the very act of doing so is mutually beneficial and without burden. 

At NPC, we’re addressing some of the questions raised in this blog in a new project, exploring evaluation and learning approaches which chime with the principles of trust-based funding. Over the coming months, we will be developing, testing and sharing approaches. Please get in touch with if you would like to find out more. 

Related items