By Alison McKinley

This blog is part of our series on modelling progressive funding. Access all of the blogs, plus all the outputs from our January 2023 event on this theme, via the project page.

Too often, evaluation and learning commissioned by funders centres the kind of knowledge that the funder determines to be most important, whether consciously or unconsciously. Not only is this counter to shifting power and decolonising, but without the benefit of multiple perspectives and knowledges, it also hampers our collective ability to learn and progress.

What Comic Relief has done

Learning isn’t always well funded within the social sector, especially outside of individual projects. Even then the focus is too often on ‘learning for accountability’, which is to say demonstrating impact to satisfy donors. This often comes at the expense of real learning which could actually improve the social impact of their funds.

In addition to providing funds, Funders are well placed to support organisations though strengthening networks and convening funded partners to share, learn and collaborate. At Comic Relief, we’ve started to more purposively define and support ‘collective learning’. While a firm definition is developed, our working understanding of ‘collective learning’ is an approach which maximises benefit of the expertise and knowledge held by our cohorts of funded partners. Underlying principles are that it should be led by funded partners, adaptive, flexible, collaborative, participatory, and proportionate (to add more value than it does work). Our role is to create opportunities for funded partners to meet, share and reflect with each other. It is not technical M&E support, and we do not set an explicit learning agenda. It is not without direction however, and cohorts are facilitated by a Learning Coordinator who we commission and fund in parallel to grants. Participation is not as a condition of the grant, but we find that almost all organisations opt in, and indeed lead the learning agenda, which helps to ensure that the types of knowledge they deem appropriate, and useful are centred.

What we’ve learned

  1. Investment in collective learning is of added value to our funded partners, who both provide and benefit from the peer support. It is not simply interesting, but creates new understanding of the issues that they, and we, seek to address.
  2. With its initial origins in our evidence and learning work, it’s increasingly considered a ‘funder+’ investment – that is, an opportunity we can offer funded partners in addition to their grant, to enhance their capacity and resilience and ultimately to achieve greater impact.
  3. Traditional approaches to commissioning and managing research and evaluation aren’t always suitable for collective learning. We continue to deconstruct and unlearn our practice, being aware of our own power in commissioning and the common expectations around funder-initiated learning work.
  4. As convenor, we may have our own questions or expectations about where learning should focus. It is tempting to use our power as commissioner to stipulate these, but this would be contrary to genuine collective learning, that is led by and for our funded partners. “Given the risk of power imbalances distorting grantee learning, it is important to discover and build on grantees’ own learning needs.” (IVAR)

Back to progressive funding practice

Clearly, placing learning over accountability is a strong basis for positive funding relationships. Moreso, building those relationships between funded partners (not just bilaterally with the funder), also more authentically conveys trust – trust that funded partners are not only best placed to identify what they want to learn, but often also well placed to support each other in the learning process.

Our starting point was evidence and learning, and funded partner feedback is that professional network-building is a significant benefit from this work. Additionally, though, individuals have expressed benefits from collective learning that they did not expect. These included greater personal resilience and motivation through connecting with others working under similar pressures, and autonomy to define and engage in the issues closest to them. There are advantages in terms of personal wellbeing which could be as, or more, valuable than the programmatic learning.

What we’re planning to do

We continue aspiring to enable well designed and facilitated participatory learning for our funded partners. We need to get better at articulating this as a funder offering. Along with commissioned facilitators and even our funded partners, we need to unlearn habits and expectations around learning-as-accountability.

As with all MEL approaches, every context is unique with lots of outstanding questions. For us, these include:

  • How does collective learning fit with other approaches to learning and reporting in support of wider systems change?
  • When is collective learning the right approach, and what are the enablers within funded partners cohorts?
  • Should collective learning be intentional with pre-defined objectives, or should a learning agenda be allowed to emerge and evolve dynamically?
  • Should collective learning result in specific actions or outputs, or can it simply be about participation and networking?

Ultimately, we want to improve our own practice and intend to share what we’ve learned with other funders, to support civil society partners to connect, learn, and support each other towards social impact.

Key take away

This intentional approach to learning that is led by funded partners, from which the funder is explicitly removed, is key to strengthening the relationship between funders and their partners,  which in turn underpins wider approaches to progressive funding practice.

Alison McKinley is the Head of Social Change and Impact for Comic Relief. She started her career as a nurse in the UK, Africa and South America before moving into health programme management. Her MSc in Demography and Health bought her focus more into data, research and learning both as practitioner and commissioner. Alison was a speaker in INTRAC’s August 2022 event on shifting the power through monitoring, evaluation, and learning.

This blog is the fourth of six in our series on modelling progressive funding. All of the outputs from this theme, including the full recording of our January 2023 online event, are collected here.

No. 1: “Modelling progressive funding” by Kate Newman
No. 2: “Modelling progressive funding: in practice” by Kate Newman
No. 3: “A change agenda that belongs to communities: approaches to resource mobilisation in Kenya” by Emilly Omudho (KCDF)
No. 4: “An approach to learning within progressive funding practice” by Alison McKinley (Comic Relief)
No. 5: “Levelling the playing field: helping to foster a healthier funding environment in Latin America” by Juan Lozano (Innpactia)
No. 6: “Modelling progressive funding – what did we learn?” by Kate Newman