Insights and learning from the Digital Fund
Today we are pleased to be publishing a new report from our Digital Fund, which has been written with our support partners, CAST, DOT PROJECT and Shift, and shares insights and learnings from our grant holders. Whether you work in funding, a charity or community group, or a tech company, we hope this report provides valuable recommendations, insights and observations that help understand what is possible when it comes to tech, digital and data, especially within civil society.
In 2018, we recognised the need to become a more ‘digitally savvy funder’, both in terms of how we work and the grants that we make. Whilst we knew that our National Lottery grants were already supporting lots of people and communities to thrive in the digital era, we didn’t know a whole lot about what the sector really needed in terms of digital support, the wider context and what the opportunities were. However, we did know that people’s needs, behaviours and expectations were changing, and that civil society organisations needed to adapt to remain relevant and effective.
Setting up the Digital Fund
One way we set out to learn more and improve in this area was through setting up a new Digital Fund. In October 2018, after a period of user research, we designed and opened the first round of funding, which had two strands for different kinds of organisations. Fundamentally, we were interested in funding organisations to transform the way they work and the reasons they exist, to be fit for this new and continually changing environment. We received a staggering 1,197 applications and by October 2019 we had made some tough decisions and awarded 29 grants totalling £12.41 million to a range of organisations across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In addition to grant funding, dedicated support partners were also provided, giving grantees access to coaching, mentoring, technical expertise, research and design support throughout the first year of their grant. This was delivered by a network of support partners, including CAST, DOT PROJECT and Shift.
As well as funding great projects, this fund was designed, in part, to gather learning and insights that could help the Fund, and the wider sector, become better digital grantmakers. It also aimed to help orient the sector by sharing learning and insights that demonstrate what is possible when it comes to tech, digital and data. Because beyond strengthening civil society’s digital capabilities, the Digital Fund also had an intent to help shape the sector, and provide learnings and direction, new narratives and new understanding of what digital means to civil society. To do this, we worked closely with the support partners at the beginning of the programme to map assumptions and design questions that would inform this learning process.
Learning and insights
Our new report, published today, shares insights, recommendations and reflections in answer to our original learning questions from those first 29 grants, which were designed around our early assumptions. In the report, the support partners detail some key insights from working with grantholders, showing, for example, how:
- A culture of honesty, trust and openness plays a fundamental role in enabling organisational progress in digital thinking and practice
- Lack of clarity and consensus of what ‘digital’ means within an organisation leads to misaligned expectations and priorities particularly around different types and forms of digital, data and design approaches
- Knowing what to focus on and when is a common challenge for organisations embarking on digital change and those seeking to support them
Also included are recommendations for funding change and progress through digital, as well as key insights into conditions for navigating digital change, how this relates to other funding and commissioning the Fund has done since, and future opportunities. The report is written from the collective voice of the support partners and Digital Fund team and is based on learning reflections from December 2020. Though there is consensus, there are some sections where support partners have different views to each other, for example CAST and DOT PROJECT take a different approach to high-level milestones for organisational change through digital. By sharing both views, we hope that others can take the approach they feel is right for their project or organisation.
At the start of this programme, no one could have anticipated the extent to which the world would change and the pace at which the environments we were working in would be made anew. Since then, as originally intended, grantholders have used their grants to help them go through significant periods of organisational change and to scale the reach and impact of their digital services. However, the context in which this work has happened was entirely unexpected, with the need to transform the way they work in order to continually adapt, never more pressing. With many starting their grants just a few months before COVID-19 arrived, their journeys have looked very different than anticipated and our intentions as funders and support partners were tested.
Whether you work in funding, a charity, a tech company or are just an interested member of the community, we hope this report provides relevant insight into the digital journeys of these organisations and useful recommendations for your own work. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org