Open grant applications

Publishing our bid for funding to work on networking the democracy space, and a plea for more open grant application processes

Previously, on this blog:

  • Research into the democracy ‘sector’ suggests that some efforts could be made to improve networking in the space (and that this is an excellent way to support the pursuit of a better democracy);
  • I wrote up some ways to do that… but it rather depends how much money is available;
  • The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (JRRT) put out a call for proposals to do some of this work.

On Monday, myself and a team of partners put in a bid to answer that call for proposals. Our approach has been to attempt to live the values of the thing we think should exist in future: including working together (hence five different organisations/individuals coming together on the bid) and in regards to openness: we shared a summary of our bid doc for feedback (thanks everyone who made suggestions!) — and now, here’s the actual full bid doc. (The only thing I’ve removed is the list of endorsements, because we didn’t tell endorsers that they’d be public.)

In case you don’t want to trawl through the full document, here’s a quick summary:

  • We’re trying to get to a place where more networking is practiced in the space and as a result, the community is denser and broader. Information flows more easily, duplication is reduced, innovation is increased, there’s growing specialisation, more collaboration and shared learning and understanding.
  • Some areas in the space are already connected — we’re not trying to compete with anything that already exists — attempts to create ‘The Democracy Network’ seem unlikely to succeed — the game is supporting and strengthening what exists, making connections across practices/issue spaces, helping build trust and space to work together, helping everyone understand where they fit in the space, who their allies are, who they can draw on for support, where they might connect well with or create other shared projects, where they might risk duplication, what they can learn about previous projects, and where these projects can be most effective for the sector as a whole.
  • The actual work is to (a) continue to deepen everyone’s understanding of the sector, through building out the UK Democracy Map as a live, open resource of organisations, networks and projects, and through annual surveys and other open research efforts resulting from the needs of the space;
  • (b) increase information sharing and coordination, by maintaining the Democracy Handbook — a collaborative information-sharing space, and a space for serendipitous meetings (a virtual water-cooler?) — and developing vital shared resources (e.g. media lists, public affairs monitoring, whatever the sector deems useful) — and capturing lessons from pop-up activity around elections so that lessons aren’t lost;
  • (c) develop deeper connections, community and impact, by hosting a range of meetups (horizontally, across a similar job role or practice; and vertically, through a specific area of democracy) as well as coordinated co-working days, mentorship, peer learning groups and coaching — plus supporting professional networks in support of the democracy sector (e.g. Designers for Democracy) — and supporting the sector to seize collective opportunities, such as profile at party conferences or the development of shared policy platforms at election time.
  • It’s not land-a-rover-on-Mars level stuff, but it needs a good team who work in an open way, are motivated by improving the whole sector, and are up for testing and learning along the way. The team is Koreo, Newspeak House, Fair Vote UK, Michelle Man, and myself.
  • Lots more detail in the full proposal.

More broadly … I see some kind of magical future where grant bids are always published — by default of the funders if necessary. Just as most funders are pretty open about what they fund after the fact, I think there’s value in openness before the fact too. It would help grant-writers compare their efforts with others and could raise the quality of grant apps over time. It would help different org’s who put in similar bids realise that they could probably work together in future. It could be done in a multi-stage way, reducing the (significant) cost of application-writing in a simple first round that allows everyone to see who’s interested, what ideas people are bringing to the table, a rough sense of costs, and seeing opportunities for more detailed joint proposals going through to later stages.

I’m sure someone is working on this, and there might be good examples out there somewhere — do please share!

Edit, May 2021: We did not win the JRRT bid! A close second. My sense is that JRRT went for the noun (‘the Network’) rather than the verb (‘networking’). Involve will now take this networking work forward — fingers crossed for it.

Photo by Gabriel McCallin on Unsplash


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