Is it time for complexity-friendly funding?

When I started out in grant making 15 years ago measuring impact could be quite different from today. When asking how a charity knew what difference a particular project or intervention made, it was not unusual to get the answer “from the smiles on people’s faces”. So, the move toward measurement, evidence and a focus on outcomes was welcome. It provided a helpful approach for funders when deciding how best to allocate resources. And more importantly, a useful tool for charities to really understand what was working and where to focus their limited resources. It also provided additional internal benefits for charities, such as motivating staff and helping those who received support to see the progress being made.

But there are limits to the outcomes approach, and these are now being discussed more frequently. Some people continue to see measuring outcomes as a tick-box exercise – targets that meet the needs of external audiences - rather than an opportunity to learn. Effort can be wasted measuring things that don’t need to be measured – surely we can all agree that play is good for children’s development and people’s wellbeing improves when they connect with others? And by tying everything into a neat logic flow, from problem to intervention to result, are we not missing the fact that people’s lives are far more complex than this? That it is hard to attribute positive change to single interventions that inevitably take place in the context of so many other factors.

This brings me to my favourite read so far this year: the report “A Whole New World: Funding & Commissioning in Complexity” from Collaborate (link below). It “challenges the idea that an intervention (project, organisation or programme) can be held accountable for the impacts it makes in the world.” Instead “outcomes are created by people’s interaction with whole systems”. It puts forward the case for a complexity-friendly version of funding which puts people back into the heart of funding approaches. It calls for an approach that recognises that people working in the sector don’t need to be incentivised using targets; that measurement is just one mechanism for learning; and that it is healthy systems that support social good.

The report sets out lessons for funders. But what does it mean for charities and other social purpose organisations? It is not saying to stop measuring your impact, but to recognise other important factors such as: trusting relationships, the expertise of staff and the interconnectedness of processes, interventions and organisations. And when dealing with funders, strive to be honest; challenge narrow targets and a metrics-only focus; be confident in your expertise; speak up and out about your added value – your ethos, your people; be humble about what you claim is down to you and embrace the complexity of those you serve and the context you operate within.