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People with lived experience of poverty: how can funders engage?

Author: Austin Taylor-Laybourn, Grants Manager

People with Lived Experience (PWLE), People with Direct Experience, Experts by Experience - whatever definition or ‘buzz-word’ is currently ‘de rigeur’, there is a growing appetite amongst funders to involve individuals who have direct experience of poverty in their work.

Here at Trust for London we have strived to support those with less power to get their voices heard through the organisations we fund; this commitment is at the core of our current funding strategy. Whilst some projects do this very well, all too often the voices of those who are living on low incomes are unheard, ‘talked over’ or they themselves feel they have nothing of much value to say or contribute. Helping to facilitate participation and involvement in a meaningful, non-tokenistic and non-abusive way is…let’s be honest..challenging and has led to many an angst-ridden, sleepless night under our comfy philanthropic duvets! On the one hand we recognise that people with the least power are most often those living in poverty and disenfranchised from society, but on the other hand, we still want some say in how this change is brought about – “it’s our money and investment after all”, right?  

So how did we manage to bury our ‘angst’ and grasp the nettle as it were? Well, the first step was to acknowledge that we were at least ‘on the right path’, but could do so much more with our assets, resources and investments. The second step was to ask some of the groups we fund, and who we knew were good at involving people in their work,  to discuss what would be feasible and realistic. Early in 2018 we invited three of our funded groups with experience of supporting people with lived experience of poverty and trauma (On the Road Media, Women for Refugee Women and Revolving Doors) to an open discussion. Early in the discussion there was agreement that organising an event exploring some of the issues and differences in approaches would be useful and help others to ‘unpack’ and re-evaluate their own practises. But we also recognised that, as a funder, we needed to ‘put our investment where our mouth is’ and hand over ‘power and control’ of the process for it to be truly worthwhile and successful. 

As a result, it was agreed that the event should be wholly planned, designed and run by people from the respective groups who had ‘lived experience’. The Trust provided meeting space, administrative support and of course the money to organise the event.  We were clear at the outset that the event should be totally co-designed and produced by the participants but with us taking very much a ‘back seat’ in decisions and format.  And this was perhaps one of the most challenging aspects – not steering discussions or decisions in favour of what we wanted as the funder took patience and a great deal of restraint!  But we gradually grew into our ‘passive’ role as part of the process. The second big realisation was the cost. Investing in co-production comes with a hefty price tag. The process required a significant allocation of time and resources (for the groups, participants and for the Trust); much more than any of us anticipated. Organisational buy-in from our Senior Managers and Trustees was generously given but costing the time and skills of the 14 facilitators (all PWLE), training (delivered by On the Road Media), a series of planning days and the actual cost of the conference and venue was significantly more than we originally planned. 

But was it worth it? In a word, yes. The conference was attended by over 80 participants (with a session Chaired by one of our Trustees) and feedback on the workshops was positive, with some participants clearly humbled and moved by the experience. That said, the outcome was different to what we as a funder hoped for, which was to come away with a set of guidelines or good practice that organisations could use. But, what it did achieve was to create a much-needed space for people to explore different perspectives of lived experience which gave a richness of experience, self-reflection and self-evaluation for all involved; much richer than the usual ‘output’ driven approach.  So what now? The Trust is firmly committed to exploring other ways to better support and amplify the voices of PWLE, but realise that this needs to go hand-in-hand with a cultural and organisation shift in approach. Both our Trustees and Senior Management Team continue to be passionate about (and engaged with) the issue. 

As an indication of their commitment, a session on lived experience was organised for our December, Trustee Away Day with a presentation given by  Women for Refugee Women. We are also hoping to create (and recruit to) a copted place on our Grants Committee and are considering putting aside a pot of money to invest in the experience and skills of those with direct experience of poverty. Our experience has also helped inform our Strengthening Voice; Realising Rights disability initiative which was designed with and by Deaf and Disabled people and where funding decisions were made by a panel of Disabled people. The initiative will run for 3 years and we are keen to develop the programme using our learning and experience and involvement of Deaf and Disabled people.  

As a fitting end to the year, in December, we convened a meeting of the original participants and discussed how we could carry forward the momentum of what was achieved at the conference. So, for 2019 onwards we will be disseminating the findings and report from the July 2018 conference; organising further discussions with funded groups on possibly developing a training package; we also hope to develop work with other funders to share good practice; as well as continuing to learn and reflect on our own experience and approaches.  So, watch this space! 

If you are interested in the work of the Trust in relation to involving people with lived experience, feel free to contact us.  

Austin Taylor-Laybourn is a Grants Manager at Trust for London and can be contacted at: austin@trustforlondon.org.uk