Listening and learning

Together with their partners, the Blagrave Trust set out to address a collective failure to listen to young people.

Edd Fry
Listening Fund Project Manager, Blagrave Trust

The Listening Fund is a five-funder collaboration supporting England’s youth sector to be more accountable to the young people it serves. It has deepened funders’ learning and pushed them to improve their work.

The Listening Fund (TLF) was established to collaboratively address a collective failure to listen to young people. We wanted the youth sector - including funders - to do more to respect young people’s rights to be equal partners in decisions that affect their lives. We also hoped that supporting organisations to center young people’s experience and knowledge would result in more impactful services.

To achieve this, TLF directs funding and support to listening and power-sharing work. Phase one, between 2018 and 2020, supported adult-led organisations to improve their listening policies, practices and cultures. Phase two, between 2021 and 2024, will help nine first-phase partners take their work deeper, whilst also recruiting a paid panel of young advisers to input into all aspects of the Fund, including designing a strategy for a discreet pot of funding.

The Listening Fund followed a Blagrave Trust and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation collaboration on organisations’ use of feedback. This led to deeper discussions about listening and transferring power, and by late 2017, TLF was born when the Blagrave Trust, Comic Relief, the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the National Lottery Community Fund committed pooled funds.

The power of space to reflect together

The Blagrave Trust manages the fund. We liaise with our funded partners (grantees) and use light-touch reports to share updates and learnings across the Fund. We also invest in external learning partners. In phase one, the Centre for Youth Impact and Nusrat Faizullah worked with funded partners and funders respectively, supporting reflection and challenging us all to address shortcomings in our listening. In phase two, Collective Discovery are leading our learning, which will be shared via open-to-all workshops and TLF’s website.

Before the pandemic, Blagrave regularly convened everybody involved in the Fund. These sessions were integral to the collaboration and allowed us all to address shared challenges - like influencing non-responsive internal cultures, considering issues of diversity in who we listen to and effectively closing feedback loops.

The five funders involved in phase two meet quarterly. As with the sessions with funded partners, we use as much of the time as possible to focus on bigger questions. Where does this work fit into the sector? How is it influencing us? Where can we collectively exert influence?

These reflective spaces have been powerful. We are constantly sharing learning and resources, troubleshooting common challenges and generally sense-checking work with critical friends. The benefits have been individual and organisational, with staff and organisations building stronger networks and skills. In both cases our resulting expertise is deepened by shared thinking, sharpened through constant engagement and streamlined by cooperating instead of duplicating.

All five funders share a strong commitment to listening and power-sharing, a willingness to trust rather than micro-manage and an acceptance of some messiness and missteps

A portrait photo of the author
Edd Fry
Listening Fund Project Manager, Blagrave Trust

Increasing capacity, reducing hassle

Collaborating has also boosted our capacity. In resource terms we all contribute different, complementary things, from a press team to legal expertise to knowledge of funding different work. Psychologically, we push one another to achieve more through challenging conversations and healthy peer pressure whilst recognising our different positions in the sector: as a smaller funder, for example, the Blagrave Trust has a different perspective to an organisation like National Lottery Community Fund, which is distributing public funds.

Our funded partners benefit from having a single point of contact while accessing a bigger funding pot. Collaborating also showcases their work to more funders, even if in this case they probably already knew the funders involved. This, in turn, helps better communicate the value of this work to the wider sector - something funded partners appreciate.

Not that the collaboration has always been straightforward. Aligning policies, processes and ways of working has posed challenges and required patience. And having a lead funder requires proper resourcing - in our case funding my time managing TLF.

However, this resourcing has allowed us to negate much of the bureaucratic hassle joint administration would entail. As a result, grant managers have been able to focus on learning and reflecting rather than administration. This saves time, and funded partners like it too.

The glue of good relationships

Another key enabler has been trusting relationships. We are lucky that all five funders share a strong commitment to listening and power-sharing, a willingness to trust rather than micro-manage and an acceptance of some messiness and missteps. Good relationships between senior staff across the funders has also helped push things along.

Support for and experimentation around better listening and power-sharing has grown since 2017. The conversation has shifted from whether to how. This is a positive step, if not an end point. Alongside the many others behind this progress, TLF will continue to travel in the right direction through collaboration.

Related opportunities

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