Edd Fry, Blagrave’s Listening Manager, reflects on how funders listen.
At the end of December, I got a copy of a report which was written during the first phase of the Listening Fund. Called ‘Do I Hear You?’ and authored by Nusrat Faizullah, the report examines funders’ listening practices through the lens of The Listening Fund’s funding partners. Part one looks at where we (funders) are now, part two looks at where we need to improve. It is brilliant and challenging and practical. And yet I have spent the last month wondering: how can we (the Blagrave Trust) frame and share the report’s findings to actually get anything done?
Because the areas for improvement are not new. Which is not a reflection on Nusrat, her colleagues, or the funders who took part, but rather the glacial pace of change amongst organisations who have resources like millipedes have legs. Funders’ boards don’t reflect those we serve, nor do our staff teams. We fund amazing organisations to do brilliant work, but they tend to be amazing organisations who largely look and sound like us. We fund core costs (sometimes) but all too often the processes to get some of that money (which isn’t really ours in the first place and is literally supposed to be given away) are bureaucratic and laden with hidden power dynamics. We extract knowledge, information and social capital with an enticement of providing resources in return, all whilst ensuring that the balance of resources, and thus power, stays forever in our favour.
This is not to say that good work isn’t being done. Great work, even. For example, TNLCF are actively sharing their experiences of participatory grant making and putting young people in the lead. Esmée are working with Hudl to improve how they listen to young people, work which Virgin, Islington Giving and others have been developing for years. At Blagrave, we have reformed our governance and grant-giving putting young people at the centre, including directly funding young social activists on the issues which matter to them. And of course, all of this work is complicated and nuanced and must be approached with sensitivity.
But it must also be approached with braveness, ambition and honesty. Honesty about our collective low starting point, honesty about how far we have to go, and honesty about the need to move far more quickly than we have to date. We hope that the second, 3-year phase of The Listening Fund – and the involvement of young advisers from across England – will be one of several pieces of work which does more to bring funders together to collectively explore how we can advance practice. And not just in the youth sector.
So read Nusrat’s paper, find one aspect of it which resonates with you – I found the three tools around non-extractive listening practice to be particularly helpful. But then do something because communities are under pressure: from a pandemic-battered economy, a climate in crisis, cuts to local authorities’ budgets, and a wide-variety of other local and national challenges. Those who our governing documents say we exist to serve are bearing the brunt of this upheaval and uncertainty whilst we, with all of our individual and collective resources, are still talking about the challenges of understanding what support people want and need when we could – and should – have been listening.