This year, our Good Problems team explored running workshops with funders as a way of sharing our tools for identifying and prioritising problems. This gave us an opportunity to understand how funders are thinking about their role and impact, and how we can evolve the support we offer.

This post features two workshops that we think reflect the sector’s shifting orientation toward problem-led approaches: a workshop with a group of Finnish foundations on how to collaborate around problems, and another with the Centre for Ageing Better on prioritising problems.

Collaborating around problems

We often work with funders who want to know who else is working on the problems they are interested in. It helps them understand where they fit in and prevents duplication of work. But some funders are taking steps to actively collaborate with other funders around particular problems. This helps them have more impact than they could have by acting independently.

Jouni Lounasmaa, Executive Director of the KAUTE Foundation, was interested in a more collaborative approach. He wanted to hold a workshop where Finnish foundations could meet, share best practices, and explore how they could work together to tackle climate change and other pressing problems. Working with Jouni, we co-designed activities to help them share and understand the problems they were interested in, and see how they could work together to solve them.

The workshop gathered a dozen foundations, each with its own distinct history, approach to grant-making, and set of priorities. To start with, we invited them to get to know each other’s interests by forming groups and sharing problems they were currently working on or would like to work on. We then asked them to cluster the problems, select a cluster they were particularly interested in, and prototype a shared programme to address that problem.

To help them scope out the potential programmes, we asked funders to fill out a Rapid research and validation plan. They wrote down what they knew about the problem, what they didn’t know, and what they could do to fill the gaps in their knowledge. We often use a version of this validation plan in our own research on problems because it works well to highlight what we still need to learn and to plan how we’ll do this, doubling as a to-do list we can revisit periodically as our understanding of a problem evolves.

Taking this problem-focussed approach made it easier for individual funders to understand what they could work on and how their resources and expertise might be complementary. When you lead with problems, conversations about potential collaborations become much more concrete and grounded.

Science Practice provided a pragmatic approach to an often philosophically slanted discussion. The workshop has inspired us to embark on a journey towards well-researched and problem-oriented co-funding. I have found the tools to be very useful in my own work.

Jouni Lounasmaa, Executive Director of the KAUTE Foundation

Foundations don’t often have the opportunity to meet and explore how to work together on solving problems. However, creating space for these activities is becoming increasingly relevant given the urgency and complexity of the problems we are facing. These problems require a shared vision, action plan, and complementary programmes that build on each other to maximise impact. We were excited by this open and collaborative gathering in Finland and are looking to create similar opportunities for funders in the UK to come together and explore how to tackle important systemic issues.

Prioritising problems

Even when funders have decided on a problem area, it can be challenging to define specific opportunities to intervene. Having a clear set of criteria for problems can support more open and constructive conversations and facilitate decision-making. It can also help funders clearly articulate strengths and pinpoint the biggest opportunities for impact.

The Centre for Ageing Better’s goal is to create a society where everyone enjoys a good later life. One challenge they face is setting priorities among the diverse range of problems they could tackle. For example, should they focus on workers over 50 with health conditions struggling to get back into work – or on transforming UK workplaces into healthy places to increase disability-free life expectancy?

To inform their decision-making, we designed and ran a workshop with around 20 team members focused on developing internal criteria for identifying and defining suitable problems for Ageing Better and exploring how the team could use these criteria to focus their work.

Before the workshop, we shared a short survey with the Ageing Better team to learn more about how they make prioritisation decisions, who is involved, and what criteria they use (whether these are explicit or not). We used the responses as a starting point for the workshop content and activities. This was important because it meant that the workshop built on the team’s own ideas and allowed them to advance and challenge their thinking rather than start from a blank slate.

For the main activity, we created a long-list of the criteria mentioned in the surveys and asked the participants, in groups, to discuss and refine these before selecting the five they thought were most relevant for Ageing Better team members to consider when deciding on which problems to pursue.

We then asked groups to use their resulting criteria to prioritise between three problems they were currently struggling to choose between. The activity proved challenging but productive. The teams said that making decisions over which problem to pursue over others was difficult because the criteria didn’t feel right just yet – the criteria were either trying to cover too many things at once, weren’t as relevant in practice as they had seemed when proposed, or were missing completely. This exercise proved useful for quickly testing the emerging criteria and understanding how they could be used in practice.

By the end of the session, the teams were already thinking of the next iteration of the criteria and how they could use different subsets at different stages of the research and prioritisation.

Having a defined set of criteria for this type of work can facilitate more open conversations and highlight hidden assumptions or potential misunderstandings around an organisation’s role and priorities. Being able to clarify these and speak openly and confidently about them means that you can be more strategic about the problems you decide to prioritise and the impact you can achieve.

Changing the funding narrative

With each conversation and workshop that we have with funders, we see a change in the narrative. Funders are increasingly reflecting on their own activities and looking for more strategic and collaborative ways to increase their impact. While the intent exists, there is still a lot of work to be done to understand how to best achieve this, what works, and what doesn’t. However, this learning needs to happen at an accelerated pace as the global problems facing us are only growing in scale and complexity.

Within this space, we see our role as helping funders become more strategic about the problems they prioritise to achieve greater impact, sharing best practice from across the sector, and defining common goals to enable collaborations. If you’re interested in what a problem-led approach could do for your funding organisation, we’d love to help.

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