“Complexity-friendly funding is human, systemic, adaptive” — Annabel Davidson-Knight

On15th May we launched our joint report with Newcastle University Business School, A Whole New World: Funding and Commissioning in Complexity. In two events in Newcastle and London we were lucky enough to have a wide range of folks in attendance — from funding bodies (Public and Charitable) as well as from charities, intermediaries, academics, consultants and others with experience around the support of social initiatives. We heard from two Case Studies covered in our report — Gary Wallace of Plymouth City Council — and John Esterle all the way from the Whitman Institute in California, US. You can hear their presentations by clicking on their names above.

At a time when resources are becoming ever scarcer, and the status quo of how we organize and manage those resources across state and civil society is being fundamentally challenged, the question of how we can best manage the distribution of those resources most effectively is clearly of great interest. In our presentation of the report, we outlined some headlines of a distinct way of funding which an increasing number of funders seem to be exploring. This is a complexity-friendly version of funding and performance management which has three core ideas at its heart:

HUMAN — with trust as a core value and working principle to be nurtured, it recognises and responds to the people involved, their intrinsic motivations, and the relationships between one another — whether beneficiary, grantee or commissioner.

SYSTEMIC — understanding the interdependent nature of things and working across and within systems, silos and institutions to co-create change together, building shared goals and networks and communities of practice.

ADAPTIVE — with a core focus on learning to drive improvement, rather than data for accountability, it allows for flexibility in delivery to achieve the outcomes that matter to people.

All this is underpinned by a realistic and unflinching acceptance of the complex messiness of the world as it is, and rejects the idea of oversimplifying problems to make management of social interventions easier.

In participative sessions, we continued the process of open dialogue around these headlines, to understand the practice and experience of those in the room, making plans together about useful ways ahead. What we heard were clear calls for more opportunities for open and honest dialogue which doesn’t shy away from the “dirty little secrets” of the difficult problems in our systems which no one wants to talk about. Problems like misaligned incentives across siloed departments; or multiple reporting to grantmakers. There was appetite for inviting others into the conversation — going beyond the usual suspects and asking people (or as we often term them, ‘beneficiaries’) to join in. Specific work to create safe spaces for grantees to enable challenge to the funding sector at large was thought to be important — but that such open feedback fora would have to be built on trust and a commitment from funders to change practice in response.

In the coming weeks and months we will be taking this work forward in a number of ways:

  1. deepening our findings in conversation with commissioners at a Commissioning Academy Alumni event in July;
  2. opening feedback platforms to funders;
  3. developing proposals to develop and build on platforms which offer;

a) peer learning opportunities for charitable funders and commissioner

b) exploration of new forms of measurement and accountability

c) opportunities to test out multi-stakeholder approaches in a locality;

4. and others yet to be defined…

There is energy around this conversation and a desire to continue to explore this way of working through practical steps (see #complexityfunding on twitter for a flavour of the debate). But this work will only continue to grow with the support and engagement of a range of players. We invite you to join in by emailing [email protected].

To find out more, contact Annabel Davidson-Knight. Read our accompanying presentation here. Read the full report A Whole New World: Funding and Commissioning in Complexity here.