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Introducing our plan for knowledge & learning

21 April 2016

Joe Ferns – UK Knowledge and Portfolio Director at the Big Lottery Fund – tells us more about our new strategy for how we work with projects to develop our learning:

It’s strange being new again. After 12 years at the same organisation you can feel its heart beat, you know where its strengths and weaknesses are and understand its fears and hopes. You’re ‘wired in’ to its psychology.

Building this sense of connection with an organisation the size and scale of the Big Lottery Fund is difficult for lots of reasons and will take time. However, these last few months have provided a great opportunity when trying to develop the Fund’s approach to Knowledge and Learning. I’m seeing the ‘machine’ for the first time and as something of an outsider. I’m meeting people who feel able to share their experiences of working at or with the Fund in a frank and honest way. I’m seeing things that I think we should be shouting about and celebrating more, and I’m wondering why we would tie ourselves up in knots about others. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the warmth, humour and passion of the people. The image of the Big Lottery Fund may not scream ‘fun’ and yet in its people you can see a genuine sense of pride and enjoyment in what they do. Young girl with headphones at pc

Mostly I’m seeing a huge potential and an organisation which has set itself some fairly big challenges because it cares deeply about the people, communities and sector it supports. It’s a sense of duty and responsibility which has driven us to think about why we need a new approach to Knowledge and Learning.

What do we want from evaluation?

I felt strongly that we needed to make sure we had a clear sense of purpose when we thought about anything to do with learning. It’s too easy to end up trying to be all things to all people when it comes to learning. We need to make sure that the purpose of our work in this area is to empower people to improve their communities and their own lives; so our work has to be grounded in the real frontline experience of people and organisations and must be useful to them.

It was also clear that we needed to have a sense of proportionality. Given the range of grants Big Lottery Fund makes, it isn’t sensible to take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to evaluation.

Linked to this is the need to strike the right balance between formative evaluation (ie. evaluation during the development or implementation to see how to improve a project) and summative evaluation (i.e. an evaluation ‘afterwards’). We will focus on formative evaluation for smaller grants that can produce learning that grant holders can use in real-time. We will only use summative evaluation – which tells us about impact – where we have made the significant investment to support it and not shoehorn all  grants into measuring and reporting on impact where it is not appropriate.

I think some of the most important learning comes from understanding what hasn’t worked and why. We need to adopt a positive approach to learning from what doesn’t work so that people are as able to learn from failure as they are from success.

Our Big Aims

The upshot of all this is a new strategy with four aims:

  1. We, and the organisations we fund, will be accountable to the people and
    communities we serve through clear, proportionate information and evaluation
    which demonstrates the difference we make.
  2. We will be an organisation with a thirst for discovery and learning which is
    constantly innovating and using what our customers know in order to be an intelligent
  3. We will encourage and support the organisations we fund to learn by ensuring we are a flexible funder who promotes courage, honesty and adaptability.
  4. We will share our own knowledge and that of the organisations we fund by
    being more externally focused and creating platforms and networks

What do you think?

We have some ideas about how we’ll put this into practice and I’ll be writing about those in future blogs but most importantly we need to start a conversation with partners, grant holders and anyone else who can help us turn this into a reality.

It’s not something we’re alone in trying to figure out so I’m very keen to hear what others are doing and what else you think we should be trying.


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