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Starting with purpose, not projects: learning from a Council-Funder collaboration

Over the past three years we have been working with colleagues at Newcastle Business School (Northumbria University) exploring alternative approaches to commissioning, funding and managing social support which better respond to real-life complexity. We have gathered insights and case studies from a wide range of practitioners who believe that long-term change requires whole-systems, flexible and responsive approaches. From commissioners, to independent funders to service providers, we have been able to identify common features of this practice, which we term a Human Learning Systems approach.

In this short case study, we hear from a local Council and an Independent Funder on how they took a very different approach to working together to improve outcomes for children and families in a place. The story of this work will be of interest to support services and funders who are keen to affect catalytic, systems change on any complex issue. This is because it illustrates what can be done with resources when, rather than funding a project with set parameters, you instead invest resource in creating capacity for reflection and relationship building among partners.

Through our research we are encountering more and more independent funders who recognise the importance of working with key stakeholders, such as Local Authorities, to affect long-term change — even if their own rules disallow them from funding such institutions directly. While some are doing so through large-scale funding programmes with money going towards new initiatives, many are applying modest, additional funds to support and shape existing systems of support. This is one such example that demonstrates the critical importance of independent funds and the unique value that Trusts and Foundations can bring at a time when public resource is scarce, and uncertainty high. Specifically, this takes the shape of support for learning, trialling new approaches and building collaborative purpose and practice — components essential for change which can be hard to prioritise, often at the very time they are needed most.

In this example, we see partners from across a range of local services supporting children and families in Stirling grapple with issues affecting places across the country — how and when to engage differently with communities to explore new ways of working together; managing service reform during periods of flux; and balancing the need to make savings with staying true to purpose. In the context of these challenges, the Robertson Trust were able to provide something essential: the space for local partners to learn, reflect, and develop shared purpose — all of which contributed to Council partners making significant progress on changing support for children and families for the better.

We’re grateful to colleagues at Stirling Council, The Robertson Trust and the facilitator for sharing honest and enlightening insights on their journey together.

If you would like to find out more about this case study, please email Annabel Davidson Knight.

If you would like to find out more about the Human Learning Systems work, please email Dawn Plimmer.

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