Innovating funding | In conversation with Chris Manion, Head of Grants at the British Science Association

In today’s podcast episode we catch up with Chris Manion, Head of Grants at the British Science Association.

Chris tells us about The Ideas Fund, an innovative public engagement programme that provides grants for community groups and researchers who have new ideas for addressing local challenges related to mental health and wellbeing.

We also take a dive into some of the challenges that come with being a funder, the power dynamics at play and the importance of building trusting relationships with grantees.

To learn more about The Ideas Fund, head on over to theideasfund.org.

If you are a funder and you would like to meet with other funders to discuss the challenges, ideas, and opportunities relating to grant making, then visit losingcontrol.org to learn more.

Listen below (or through your favourite podcast provider), or continue reading for the interview in full.

Introducing Chris Manion, Head of Grants at the British Science Association

Maisie: Hello and welcome to The Social Change Agency Podcast. I’m Maisy Palmer consultant at The Social Change Agency and today I’ll be talking with the Head of Grants at the British Science Association, Chris Manion. We’ll be discussing The Ideas Fund, an innovative public engagement programme that provides grants for community groups and researchers who have new ideas for addressing local challenges related to mental health and wellbeing. We’ll also be looking at the role funders play in bringing about social change, the power imbalances that accompany grant giving and what funders can do to ensure they address this imbalance. Chris, would you like to introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do?

Chris: Hi Macy, so I’m Chris Manion, my role is the Head of Grants at the British Science Association. We run a programme called The Ideas Fund, which is supported by the Wellcome Trust and we launched it last year. My role overall has been focused on getting the fund up and running over the last 12, 18 months working with the team to deliver the funding rounds and manage the relationships with projects, etc. But also increasingly, now that the fund’s a bit more established, starting to look at the wider system that the fund is operating in to think about how we can encourage or support others who might be interested in learning from what we’re doing.

What is The Ideas Fund?

Maisie: Great. Thanks Chris. And could you tell us a little bit more about The Ideas Fund and what it hopes to achieve

Chris: The Ideas Fund was set up to try a different approach to supporting community groups or individuals even, or charities, to have the opportunity to work with researchers and academics in their local area. It’s a place based fund, it’s been delivered in four different areas of the UK. And the general premise is that often when this public engagement type work happens and communities and researchers work together, generally, it can be led by the interests, or the ideas of the academics, or the researchers themselves. And the balance of power is often a bit, one way. The Ideas Fund is trying to be a bit deliberate really in funding communities directly. So as I say, individuals or community groups, informal groups, or charities, to hold that balance of power in their relationships with researchers and hopefully be able to draw on the researchers’ expertise in a way that is beneficial to them as a community group.

Why did you decide on a ‘place based’ approach to funding?

Maisie: You said that the ideas fund was targeted at four regions and that there’s often community groups and individuals that might not get opportunities where they’re working with academics and researchers. Was there some thinking and reasoning behind the four regions that you’re working in? And for those who don’t know about the fund, what regions are you working in at the minute?

Chris: So the four areas of the UK are Holden, Hull, Northwest Northern Ireland, which is kind of the Dairy and Strabane area and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. And it was quite a deliberate decision I suppose, to be placed based in that way and to choose those four areas in particular. The fund is trying to reach groups who perhaps have never heard of the British Science Association, they’ve not heard of The Wellcome Trust, or wouldn’t be able to access Wellcomes funding under normal processes. So we were interested in trying to test the funding model in different settings. Obviously the Highlands and Islands [there are] lots of rural communities, often quite isolated communities whose voices are never, or rarely heard within the researcher academic space, because it’s more difficult logistically, etc. In Oldham, for example, there’s obviously a high proportion of minoritised ethnic communities. And so again, it felt important to target the funding in that way, to help us build relationships and connections in the areas to hopefully try and get funding to those sorts of communities and groups that are often missing from this conversation.

What lessons did you learn?

Maisie: What are the most interesting lessons that you’ve learned from that first round of The Ideas Fund? What insights have been generated?

Chris: From my perspective learning a lot more about the systems that sit around this type of work and why it doesn’t happen more often. Why is it difficult for communities to engage with researchers and vice versa? And the more we run the fund, the more these examples or barriers show themselves. And so, you know, stuff around how this work is incentivised within universities and whether researchers are afforded the time and the opportunity to build the sorts of relationships that need to be built to develop longer term opportunities for impact. And I think the first round of the funding really showed how different or how distant the community sector feels from the academic space.

We’ve been working with local development coordinators in each of the areas who know the sector, they know the communities and that has made an enormous difference

Chris: You know, they’re kind of operating really in two quite separate worlds with different challenges, different skill sets required, different funders. There’s not many opportunities to try and work together in this way. I think a couple of other bits of learning so far has been around the value that we’ve had in working through others. We’ve been working with local development coordinators in each of the areas who know the sector, they know the communities and that has made an enormous difference in helping us to reach groups who might not have heard of the British Science Association or The Wellcome Trust. I think the breadth of projects we’ve achieved in the first round is in no small measure down to that structure and the work that they have done in having those trusted relationships.

The last thing, or one of the other things I think, is the value of having funding available for people to just explore and build relationships and see where it goes. So not rushing straight to a project, not feeling like there has to be anything necessarily that comes at the end of this. In terms of some of the early stage ideas that we’ve been supporting, we give a very small grant for a group to work with the researcher, to just spend the time getting to know each other and I think that has really started to show. It’s quite unusual, I suppose, for funders or funding, for people to have that opportunity, to just have the time and not be thinking about your project plan and your outcomes and all that sort of stuff, but literally just take a few months, be introduced to a few researchers and see what feels right and where you start to make that kind of connection with somebody that you think you can work with. I think having that in place, we’ve learned this, because we didn’t do it as well as we could have in the first round. I think it’s changed for the round this year, but the value of doing that, it really helps to then set the partnership up on a different footing, a deeper footing, rather than going straight into delivering a project.

What is the role of the funder in bringing about social change?

Maisie: It’s really interesting to hear about how giving that time for relationship building at the start makes this fund distinct from maybe other funders. So, I’m interested, within the system that you described earlier, what would you say the role of the funder is in bringing about social change or social impact?

Chris: Yeah, so I think that’s, <laugh>, it’s an interesting question. Isn’t it, I suppose, when I was thinking about an answer to this, I was thinking about the role of a funder in terms of how it is at the moment or how it could, or should be. And I guess there’s loads of discussion about this with far greater minds than mine in terms of how funding practice, funding structures, can actually get in the way of social impact or slow it down, even though the idea is that that’s what a lot of funders are there to support. I don’t know if anyone’s ever looked into this, but I’ve wondered before if anyone’s been able to quantify when and whether funding calls might actually do harm in a sector. So generally speaking, if you’ve received over a hundred applications for something that’s taken each applicant loads and loads of time to pull together, but you’re only ever gonna be able to fund five of them, lots of work goes into then supporting the five that do get funding.

Their funding is skewing it in favour of of organisations that are well versed in the process.

Chris: I don’t know whether we ever think enough about what the overall impact is that that call has had on the sector, you know, has it actually been negative if you think about the amount of resource that’s gone in to it, to put something into that application process when there’s such a small chance of being successful. So can you really make good decisions in that situation anyway, trying to get down from a hundred to five? I think, particularly with larger funders, there’s a lot of keenness, and it is important to show that the processes are fair and equitable, but they end up trying to be so process driven, or they feel the need to be so process driven, that they actually end up focusing on supporting the best written applications and the ones that understand the language and the terminology. Which inadvertently widens the gap between the groups they want to reach, or the groups that might benefit most from this. Their funding is skewing it in favour of of organisations that are well versed in the process.

I don’t know. There’s something there uncomfortable often, I think, in terms of the social impact that the funders want to achieve, but whether they’re processes actually get in the way of that happening.

What they want to support is actually geared around helping organisations to sustain their impact, as opposed to focusing on shorter term outputs.

Chris: And then I think other bits and bobs on this, in terms of what funders look to support. What they want to support is actually geared around helping organisations to sustain their impact, as opposed to focusing on shorter term outputs. And again, this is changing. There’s lots of organisations that are doing this now, focusing on supporting the organisations, doing the work, as opposed to supporting the project that they’re delivering. What is it about that organisation’s development or the influencing work that they might need to do to help embed or sustain the work? Quite often, that stuff is not felt to be fundable or funded because it’s longer term and less tangible. So, yeah, I don’t know if I’m really giving examples of thoughts on the role of a fund and bringing about social impact, but there are things in here that I think can prevent it from happening, or from happening as well as it might.

What do you think about power dynamics in funding?

Maisie: In terms of thinking about funding within the context of power and system. I know that you’re a member of our Losing Control in Funding Network, which is a peer network of funders that are exploring power dynamics in funding. What do you think about power dynamics in funding, both as a funder yourself, but also in the relationships you see between community groups and researchers?

Chris: I think this is something that is being talked about a lot, being thought about a lot and the Losing Control Network is a good example of funders coming together to try and talk, think this through and work on it. So, obviously power is there, isn’t it when you have funding? It’s difficult to get away from. What we’ve tried to do with The Ideas Fund is to be really intentional in how we work with applicants and grant holders to demonstrate that we’re keen to, and we want to try and build trusting relationships that we are willing as much to be guided by them in terms of what should be funded next as by our own strategy or priorities. And trying to take a bit more of a humble approach, a collaborative approach, that can help to build that trust over time.

you’ve got to be quite deliberate in trying to move away from the fact that you have the power in the room

Chris: I think that’s really something that does only come over time when you’ve been working with groups or running a fund for a while, that you start to build up that trust where people can start to feel that maybe it’s not the traditional funder-funded relationship. Because, although you can say that as much as you want, at the start of a fund, or when you first run the application process, but there’s still, I think, understandably quite an inherent cynicism or lack of trust. You know, it’s built up over such a long time that the funder has the control and the funder has the power that that’s kind of what people assume is going to happen. So when we’ve run the second round of funding, it’s been really informed by the feedback and the learning that we’ve had from the first round. And when we’ve had projects that have run into difficulty, etc. we’ve given that space and time, which again, lots of funders do this, but you’ve got to be quite deliberate in trying to move away from the fact that you have the power in the room, because you are the one who is funding the work.

How can more traditional funders shift the power into the hands of communities?

Maisie: What kind of advice would you give to another funder who wants to, I guess, shift power into the hands of communities, but is perhaps used to a more traditional funding structure?

Chris: From what I’ve seen over the years there’s lots of quite entrenched or traditional historic ways of doing things and now there feels like there’s a bit of a rush. Everybody’s looking at their practices and processes and trying to change what they’re doing. I think particularly for big organisations. But doing this in a kind of incremental way I think is fine. There is a lot of change that’s needed, but it’s unrealistic for people to think that you’re going to change overnight and go from being a funder that’s quite traditional or bureaucratic, to then shift to something more relational or strategic in the thinking. I don’t think it’s realistic to assume that that will happen very quickly, but it’s about that kind of intention and moving towards it bit by bit with each time you do a new funding program, how you change it, how you learn from what went before, making the most of some of the peer support, things that are there from other funders who are doing this as well, to learn from them and have a bit of space to tear your hair out if it’s not working.

What will The Ideas Fund look like 10 years from now?

Maisie: What do you hope funding will look like 10 years from now?

Chris: A lot of the bigger picture stuff has been looked at and talked about by lots of people with far greater minds than me, lots of reflection going on. And some really fascinating conversations. From an Ideas Fund perspective it would be really good for us to think that in a few years time we’ve managed to work and fund in a way the actual stuff that we fund leads us to be less needed. So The Ideas Fund is less required in the four areas in which we’re working. Have we been able to help to address some of the barriers, changing some of the mindsets, helping people to develop the skills, etc? So that the things that currently prevent communities and researchers from working together in a really balanced way is removed and the challenges are removed, so that it becomes more of the natural way of working. So that over time you don’t need to run a round of The Ideas Fund every year, because actually the university in the local area and the voluntary sector in the local area have got these built up embedded sustainable relationships. That means that it’s happening as a matter of course, or certainly more often than it was when we started. For us, that’s kind of what we are looking to work on.

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