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Moving towards participatory and adaptive funding and evaluation: learning through the Listening Fund


This blog was written by Jo Hickman Dunne, the Centre’s Research Officer.

Last month we shared some reflections on the design of the Listening Fund, which is providing support for youth-focussed organisations (referred to as ‘partners’) to improve the way they listen to young people and respond to what they hear. The Fund explicitly puts organisational learning and the privileging of young people’s voices as a central aim, facilitating partner convening days and workshops to bring the cohort together. 

Despite this, both we as evaluators and the funders have been challenged on how to maximise the impact of the Fund for partners, young people and the wider sector. In England the first phase of the Fund has just
​come to an end (you can find the final learning report here), and whilst English partners fed back positively on the flexibility and light touch-reporting process, the desire for cross-partner learning and their involvement in the evaluation did not happen to the extent that funders were hoping. A merit of the Listening Fund, however, is its two-stage approach. Whilst the Fund in England has finished, in Scotland it is only at the half-way point, and we have just published the interim learning report here. This means there is a timely opportunity to reflect on the key challenges encountered in England, and how we have learnt from and can build on them over the next year of the Fund in Scotland. 
Making room for participation and adaptation
In thinking about the role of reflective practice in evaluation, Richard Longhurst invites us to consider the  limits to participation that might be imposed by (a lack of) available resources. This of course extends to how funds are designed and ‘delivered’ too. Whilst not suggesting that the Listening Fund or its evaluation are being conducted on a shoe string, they are not free from resource limitations. Where there are limited resources, there is less room for people to express themselves, and play a role in the learning and outcomes of the evaluation process. Importantly, without participation, there are fewer opportunities to listen deeply and understand the needs and experiences of those engaged in the project. As such, it is paramount that we are focussed and intentional in the highly valuable time and with the resources set aside for participation activities, in order to get the most value possible.
The Fund seeks to be a community through which learning at the organisational and cohort level is central – moving towards participation. However, as mentioned, in the first round of funding in England this is an area that funders felt needed improvement. Whilst partners were highly engaged and invested in their Listening Fund projects, bringing them together to have a wider conversation around organisational listening was not always successful. This was felt to be a consequence of the internally-focussed and intense nature of this work, which may leave little ‘head space’, let alone diary space, for collaborative thinking and learning. In addition, experience highlighted that engaging young people more fully in the learning process is both necessary and challenging. Attempts have been made in England, for example through offering to run partner workshops on the weekend to make them more accessible, however, in general, young people have been missing from partner convening days and workshops. Given these practical challenges in engaging partners in learning and evaluation, what adaptations to listening practice are being made as we progress through the Fund?
The next year in Scotland: supporting young people’s participation in the Fund
The interim learning report gives some insights into the progress of the Listening Fund in Scotland that can be actioned over the next year of the Fund.  In particular, there are three key areas which, in discussion with the funders and in light of the challenges outlined above, will be of interest for both practice and evaluation over the next year. One of these areas is for Funders to explore and trial ways to engage young people in the Fund, for example, considering how to increase their presence and participation in partner learning days.
In line with the ethos of ‘listening’, in Scotland young people were involved in the design of the Fund through a three-month ‘development phase’ (you can read more about the outcomes and lessons learnt from this process in the interim report). Overall, this development phase was considered successful by all involved, and the further involvement of young people is being explored through a developing Youth Advisory Group. It is hoped that this group will be able to inform and contribute to partner convening days, and in turn have greater input into cross-partner learning and the evaluation process. At the Centre, our part to play is making sure that findings and associated outputs are accessible to young people, not just funders and partners. As an organisation that doesn’t work directly with young people this is has not come naturally to us, but feels like a very necessary step towards involving young people – as key stakeholders in this Fund – in the learning process. 
Where next?
Of course, these adaptations are not cost-free. In particular, the development phase that consulted young people on fund design came at a cost, and when young people have been engaged as knowledgeable experts, they are rightly being paid for their time. Money to pay young people is something that has had to be negotiated between funders ‘in-fund’, to make some of these ongoing processes (such as the Youth Advisory Group) possible. Engaging with partners on an ongoing basis and being responsive to their needs and suggestions necessarily means building in time and resources for reflection, review and adaptation. Although the Listening Fund sought to have participation and learning at its core from the outset, learning from the English cohort and making small adaptations to the Fund in Scotland represent valuable areas of improvement in the delivery and evaluation of the Listening Fund. 
We know that budget, expertise and capacity are key factors in determining methods used in delivery and evaluation. These factors lead to inevitable compromises in terms of the value of the approach and there can be an important trade-off between resources available and the quality of the process and learnings. The interim learning report has shown us that there is some promising learning coming out of the Listening Fund as a whole (both England and Scotland). In particular, even when money is dedicated to organisational learning, we need to be intentional about creating adequate spaces for learning on limited resources. 
The distinct but simple adaptations to Fund delivery that have been put in place in Scotland are just one way of creating more participatory funding and evaluation spaces. Early conversations suggest that making these small shifts to support a more participatory approach to fund delivery and evaluation appear to have yielded meaningful positive changes for partners and young people in the Listening Fund. If there is to be a future iteration of the Fund, it will incorporate much of what this current round has taught us about learning from, and with project partners.