We are in the midst of a period of change in the Research Team at Shared Assets. Several big projects we’ve been working on for some time, such as Resilient Green Spaces and Ruralization, have finished recently and others are due to wind down in the coming months. While in some ways this provides a breather from an intense few months of delivering work (and you can see some of the many things we have produced during that time in this blog), and opens up some space for more reflection on what we’ve learned and where we want to go next, in a small organisation like ours, it also comes with some stress as cashflow lessens and we feel the pressure to bring in new funds quickly to sustain ourselves.
At a recent webinar bringing together people funded by Farming the Future to discuss shared challenges - another attendee noted how they had once heard someone describe a key problem with project-based funding in terms of seasons. To expand on how I understood this, they described how most projects naturally have a cycle of:
- ‘winter’ - a slower period when reflection and dreaming can take place and ideas are formulated,
- a ‘spring’ where the best or at least most fundable ideas are taken forward, arranged into bid frameworks, and for some of them, granted the resources they need,
- a ‘summer’ where the core work/delivery actually happens,
- and then an ‘autumn’ where things are written up, communicated, and eventually put to bed.
The issue is that most funders are only interested in financially supporting the ‘summer’ period, and maybe a little of the ‘autumn’ if you’re lucky. There is hardly ever funding for the hard work of putting together bids, never mind the ‘fallow’ period at the end of autumn/winter where learning and ideas from different pieces of work can be mulled over, joined up, and built upon. But without this time, it is hard to learn from mistakes, or take forward the most promising activities into the future. For us, the autumn, winter and early spring period would look like having the funds to do this learning and see where it leads, and not have to decide on outputs at the start, or to tick boxes when putting together project applications, but for things to be allowed to emerge and evolve. We want anyone interested to afford to be able to be involved in this reflection and planning, as well as the ‘summer’ work, and not to constantly have to be seeking funding through pots which aren’t quite what we want to do, and which we have to compete with our peers to get.
In this moment at Shared Assets, where we consider how to move forward, this is raising two important and interconnected questions:
- How can we stay true to the ambitions of the organisational strategy/theory of change we have worked hard to develop, and not be forced to just chase any money going to ensure our survival now that finances are tight?
- For the Research Team in particular, but also for the wider organisation, how can we shift from being ‘project led’ to ‘knowledge led’?
At their core, both of these questions relate to a third - How can we ensure we are adequately resourced to work in a cyclical and seasonal way, not an artificially linear one?
There are some things we can do to try and address this internally. We have recently spent time discussing a refresh of our Research Strategy (you can see some new information about our approach here), and there will be two key changes in the way we think about our work in future as a result. Firstly, we are reframing the ‘Research Team’ to a crosscutting Research and Learning function, which prioritises regularly making space for reflection internally, and communicating these insights (as well as those emerging from other groups across the sector), as a key part of our role as an infrastructure organisation.
Secondly, we are now thinking about the different sorts of work we do as ‘building blocks’ which make up a whole, with an ideal balance of these blocks being a mix of core-funded action-research work we devise alongside peers and the grassroots of the land justice movement, some grant/tender-funded projects with partners on topics which are strategically important to our broader work, and some support with learning and research for community-based organisations, who may approach us - all drawn together by the reflective/communications work mentioned previously. We hope that this strategy will provide a set of ‘guiding stars’ for the long-term, meaningful work we want to do as an organisation to transform the land system, whilst also enabling us to keep afloat in the various ‘seasons’ of work.
However, it would be significantly easier to implement this new approach to our work if we were abundantly funded for the ‘autumn/winter’ seasons in particular, and, relatively, we don't think this would cost that much to achieve. For example, to enable myself and Graciela, the two core members of the Research and Learning function, to spend a day a week on learning and reflection, might cost between £10,000 and £30,000 over a year (depending on whether we take into account just salaries, or also all the overhead costs of running a small organisation). This might be funded through multiple projects which properly build in time for this work, or through more generous core funding. We are already doing our best to consider and communicate what we are learning in spite of our limited time to do so, but having this time funded could unlock a huge amount more, and benefit the whole sector.
From the recent Farming the Future call mentioned above, and many other conversations we’ve had over the years, we know we aren’t alone in struggling with these issues, so if any of this blog has resonated with you, here are a few more things we would love you to join us to try and change things over the next few weeks/months:
- If you are a funder, or connecting to funding circles, and have advice or ideas about who might be interested in funding the less popular ‘seasons’ of learning, reflection, dreaming and planning in an abundant way, please drop us an email or get in touch about a chat via firstname.lastname@example.org.
- If you are a peer in the land/environment/justice sectors also struggling to fund these ‘seasons’ of your work and would like to try to think creatively about how we might better do and resource this collectively, we would like to hold an online session to come together in the New Year. If you would like to share and collaborate on how we could start to work this out together, get in contact with email@example.com.
- If you are an old or new partner or friend of Shared Assets, and you have enjoyed working with us before, and would like to again, especially in a way that more actively incorporates reflection and learning, we’d love to hear from you about new project ideas/funding sources - you can get in touch with me or Graciela directly, or again via the research email address above. It’s also always massively appreciated when people shout about their good experiences of working with us on social media, so that word spreads and we can make more connections to great people to work with, so feel free to do that too!
- If you are a small grassroots or community organisation that could use some support on a piece of research or learning work related to land, check out the new packages we’ve outlined here that we can help with and feel free to get in touch about a bespoke arrangement via firstname.lastname@example.org
We feel deeply there has to be a different way and rhythm of doing the vital work we need to as a movement for land justice besides the funding rollercoaster we are currently on. In nature, although in winter trees and other plants might look dead or quiet to the human eye, this is a period when the essential processes of restoration take place to prepare for the next growing season. Without this time, the next year of life would be impossible. Keeping this principle in mind, we look forward to building with all of you a more seasonal work cycle that embraces ebb and flow, and results in collective flourishing over the long term.