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Involving lived and living experience – what this means for funders

Written by ESS on behalf of the funder evaluation and learning group

The funder evaluation and learning group is facilitated by ESS for people who work in funders in Scotland and undertake or support evaluation and learning within their fund.

We recently discussed our learning from involving people with lived (and living) experience of the issues we fund in funder decision making or delivery.   We are talking about people with past or current experience of the issue.

The benefits of involving lived and living experience are that our decisions and delivery are improved by a richer understanding of the issues.  The process of involvement can be empowering for people.

The risks to avoid are that we are tokenistic or extractive.  We must not pigeon-hole people or solely define them by a characteristic.

Although involving lived experience might seem like a self-evidently good thing it’s important to agree outcomes (what difference involving lived experience will make – including for the person).  This provides focus for the involvement itself and for evaluating that involvement.

Often involvement is in decision-making at grant award stage.  Some funders have special lived experience panels, others integrate people with lived experience into existing decision-making.  Research by Corra and The National Lottery Community Fund shows strong evidence of the benefits for people and for the decision-making process; but it requires resources and time to do it well.

Good practice about supporting involvement includes people having a consistent point of contact, having training and support, feeling safe and being able to give feedback.  Some funders pay people for their time.

Some funders are keen to involve lived / living experience in other aspects of our work such as strategy, day to day operations or evaluation.  We’ve learned it’s best to identify a specific and meaningful task so the person knows what’s expected of them and aren’t coming to meetings without knowing why.

Funders have different ways we encourage and monitor our grantholders’ involvement of lived experience.  Some ask questions on the application form – for example “please explain how the people you support are involved in your project” but that can be hard for environmental or cultural projects. 

A key consideration is what we use this information for.  Is it to help us decide who to fund (and who not to) or is about monitoring ourselves to inform future grant-making?  If the latter, some funders feel it’s better to collect data through a different form – not the application form.

We wrestle with what we might mean by “led by lived experience”.  Is it about numbers (eg numbers of people with lived experience on a board of trustees) or something less tangible?  Many funders adhere to the DEI data standard but this is not without challenges in terms of the potential for onerous data gathering or GDPR issues.

Funders can play a valuable role funding grantholders to involve people, by supporting the sharing of good practice and by amplifying the voices of people with lived experience through sharing learning with others.

Finally enabling people with lived and living experience to choose actively not to get involved in certain tasks is important – it can’t be all or nothing.