In a recent meeting with people from across the third, public and private sectors, we enjoyed creating some headlines for 2040 that reflected Scotland’s progress towards a wellbeing economy. It felt as if a repurposed economy, in service of people and planet, was within reach. The discussion hosted by the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll) Scotland was a breath of fresh air.

And although we know the third sector will do lots of the heavy lifting to support those most impacted by the current energy price hikes and cost of living crisis, we can take heart from the many organisations not only responding to immediate need (providing the sticking plasters) but also carving out affirming and enduring solutions, creating, and shaping more hope filled futures – looking upstream.

We all witnessed how Scotland’s communities pulled together to support one another throughout the pandemic. And we’ve all read reports, Tweets or blogs that made a rallying cry for things to be different going forward to deliver a fairer society.

Communities have stepped up. But what have funders been doing differently to reset and support the renewed sense of purpose the pandemic has accelerated?

Funding differently

Before Covid, there had already been some welcome shifts from some funders to move away from historic top-down funding models. Some embraced a more open and trusting approach and devised ways for grant making to be less funder and donor led, and better serve the needs and aspirations of communities. Through unrestricted multi-year awards, for example, or participatory grant making activity.

Arguably this could be described as grant making going more upstream.

Within the constraints of our own funding arrangements Foundation Scotland welcomed some of these developments (and adapted or redesigned our grant making systems, approaches, and processes), tussled with others and remained overwhelmed by some.

Then the pandemic and the widening inequalities it exposed gave us a further jolt. We began asking ourselves not just how we change our grantmaking process to be more efficient and effective for those they are designed to serve, but how can the funding we distribute better tackle some of the very harms charitable funding is regularly required to address? Or put another way, how can we tackle the failure demand that we as a funder sometimes inadvertently contribute to? And how do we do this while not leaving behind those organisations serving people in immediate need?  

Working downstream, looking upstream

Of course, the theory of prevention, early intervention, tackling root causes or working more upstream is nothing new. As an inner-city youth worker in the 1990s, the organisation I worked with focussed on pre-vocational support for young people defined in that era as “at risk”, and we responded to a range of types of needs. In the same week, it was common to lead mountain hikes, deliver inner-city graffiti art and DJ sessions, provide counselling, phone hostels for emergency beds, and be an advocate at an apprenticeship interview.

Our intervention had mixed success. We’d see some young people return over and over again. We could change mindsets in the short term, but our role often had no direct influence on the wider system, often negatively impacting those young people. Nevertheless, I was heartened that over a decade, I saw change, increased collaboration across a range of services, and an emerging continuum of services that made eventual graduation to vocational training, secure tenancies and even jobs more realistic.

I joined Foundation Scotland in the early 2000s at a youthful stage of our development. More by default than design, we provided a hybrid of funding programmes. A blend of conventional short-term funding programmes alongside longer-term ones that, because of their duration, lent themselves more to upstream thinking. At that point we didn’t have the collective understanding, language, or intentionality to fully recognise or grasp the spectrum of community-led prevention work that we were already funding.

For example, we ran the Fair Share Trust programme in Scotland from 2003-2010 on behalf of the Big Lottery Fund (the precursor to the dynamic Big Local programme in England). This programme provided assured seven-year-long community funds to 13 of Scotland’s neighbourhoods deemed not to have had their fair share of lottery money at that point. The work done in Linwood helped pave the way for further funding and support for the area, then enabled a group of residents to move their community aspirations and ambitions from the kitchen table into an inclusive community organisation. They continued with their community engagement and planning work. Today, there’s a flourishing development trust, owning assets, delivering services, and helping ensure that Linwood residents are more connected with and served by activity and services supporting them to flourish.

Alongside programmes like Fair Share and Our Community Our Future we also distributed other funds from a range of donors, including individuals, companies, and charitable trusts – keen to support communities to tackle some of the fundamental issues preventing their communities from thriving. And additionally, our pioneering work to bring a community development approach into the renewables sector’s provision of community benefit funding enabled communities to begin planning for community-led change with a 25-year horizon, albeit spend is directed across the spectrum of prevention.

In parallel, we have continued to run other funding programmes supporting communities to tackle issues facing them right now. This role has its place, and this approach is relevant to many donors who use our services and the communities seeking funding. But at the heart of our opportunity as a funder not tied to government resources or funding cycles is, like other independent funders, the ability to create funding programmes which are rooted in preventative or early interventional approaches. But there needs to be the will and drive to make this happen.

An inflexion point in our role as a funder

The widening imbalance within and between communities through the pandemic has been our call to action. Building on our 25-year heritage we chose to invest time in developing our preventative approach, to ensure we have the mindset, finance, and toolkit to work more consciously and deliberately upstream and downstream. So last October, we invited WEAll Scotland to work alongside us as a thinking partner. We were drawn to its articulation of a wellbeing economy but challenged by how to turn this into something tangible that resonated with communities and donors who have a diverse range of concerns and needs.

With them we’ve grappled with the concepts of downstream – midstream – upstream. We’re learning they are not always mutually exclusive and may often co-exist. It’s less one or the other. And more likely, as with my former youth work, one and the other. What’s different for Foundation Scotland – and possibly some other fellow funders out there – is better to recognise this duality and give more time, attention, and likely funding to the upstream element. Because if an organisation can be supported with testing, broadening, or increasing its effort upstream then logic tells us that there will be reduced demand downstream. Or that’s the kind of theory we’d like to test out.

So, since October we’ve worked with WEAll Scotland to co-design and deliver a programme of staff training, and workshops on understanding the wellbeing economy and developed new toolkits to aid fund design, assessments and reporting that better reflect wellbeing economy principles. It’s still a work in progress, and we’re looking at how we involve all the moving parts of our Foundation to embrace our upstream mindset, including engaging established and new donors, where and how we invest money, and the design and delivery of funding distribution often done in partnership with donors and / or communities themselves. In addition, we’ve created a brand new Theory of Change for the Foundation. Titled “How we make a difference”, it will influence all our moving parts and ultimately help guide us towards a more deliberate and intentional funding approach that is in service to the Wellbeing Economy.

Looking ahead

We anticipate challenges. Upstream activity may feel elusive to some, and change can be harder to evidence. Some donors will have their own priorities and causes less aligned to finding solutions or tackling root causes. And some communities have limited capacity beyond what they’re currently doing. And of course, evidencing impact upstream requires some different glasses. How do you report on what a grant or fund has helped reduce or prevent?  

We will continue to work very closely with charitable organisations across Scotland, but we will have more curiosity and interest in the root causes of problems they are working to address, alleviate or resolve. So, we’ll be keen to learn more about preventive aspirations or activity, what that means in their context and what the opportunities or challenges are to nudge further upstream beyond what they are currently doing. Importantly we now better understand the support required to raise your gaze.

It’s taken us 25 years to get to this point. While in some ways this feels like the beginning of a new chapter for the Foundation, it’s more an evolution than a radical change. We’re benefitting, not only from WEAll’s great support, but also from the insights and learning of a few other funders and practitioners who are already on this journey. We welcome further conversations with other funders to accelerate change together.

We will continue to deliver funding programmes that meet a wide variety of both community and donor priorities. And through the stories and learning that surface from a more deliberate effort to invest in work that helps groups test, develop or scale upstream ideas and solutions, we will be looking to increasingly influence donors and decision makers to support this work. After all, as we’ve learnt from WEAll Scotland, it makes good economic sense to get things right the first time round.

The Wellbeing Economy Alliance (Scotland) and Foundation Scotland will be jointly hosting a seminar at the Gathering to discuss the role of funders in a wellbeing economy and how the third sector can help accelerate change. Pre-register nowfor your chance to book once the programme launches later this month.