The Phoenix way: lessons from the pandemic


Shane Ryan


It has been the strangest yet most memorable year and for mostly reasons we may want to forget. But amid the crises of the past year, there have been organisations and individuals who are seeing this challenging time as an opportunity to be better, increase their understanding of those around them in their pursuit of excellence and truly be counted in their attempts to make the world a better place for everyone.

What they realise is that it is our diversity that makes us great and that when we move from combative to collaborative, we advance our collective priorities. Towards this worthy cause I would like to share brief reflections on an approach developed with a group of black-led voluntary sector organisations involved in the Phoenix Fund supported In partnership by the National Lottery Community Fund, The Ubele Initiative and Global Fund for children in the UK. The approach is based on an initiative during a challenging time that brought together a number of different organisations to provide emergency support for a range of communities in crisis. It had an equity lens at its heart and sought to be co-created from its inception. The organisations involved named it The Phoenix Way.

Everything including the name is owned by the organisations that created it and is a celebration of their work that proved successful in reaching a large number of small and micro-organisations across the country at a scale previously unseen by The National Lottery Community Fund. More than 65 per cent of the organisations that applied to the Phoenix Fund had no previous history with The National Lottery community fund. Many were working with a wide range of people in need or in crisis across the country looking after and supporting all needing it.

Here are seven points of note that came out of this experience that show why ‘consultation’ often fails in achieving real and lasting results. And they don’t just apply to philanthropy:

People are not hard to reach… organisations are.

If as an organisation you cannot connect with those you want to work with then you cannot be effective regardless of your reputation or previous track record. The larger the organisation the less accessible (and more inward looking) it can become. With less accessibility it loses touch with those it purports to serve if it does not evolve a strategy to address its own potential blind spots, shortcomings and introspection, poor choices are made.

All work must be based on inclusive co-design.

Jargon aside, this means that the foundation of the work is built side by side with those most affected or closest to the issue or challenge. No ideas are ‘presented’ to the group at the initial discussion phase. Instead, communities involved lead the discussion starting with articulating the challenge as they see it. The group should not start with a few of the loudest voices but with a diverse cross section of thought. The danger otherwise is that it becomes led by the few with others being pulled in and potentially dragged along. Dragging others along has been the status quo for many years and the risk is that all you do is change those doing the dragging, thus replicating existing frameworks. This approach in itself is a skill.

All work is participatory at its core

Communities and organisation should work in the space as equals which means paying for people’s time where appropriate and not expecting those that are often subject to a lack of support to be the ones acting as unpaid consultants to paid staff. This can be extractive, disrespectful and serve to erode the spaces we seek to build. It also continues a pattern of misplaced credit for ideas at a time when we should be supporting knowledge equity.

All work is relational as opposed to transactional

Working alongside people means building trust by being truly transparent in your shared objectives and intentions across all activities. It also includes moving from discussion to action within short but reasonable time scales. This avoids wasting valuable time and motivates people to remain involved. Prolonged discussion with no tangible action is demotivating and loses traction.

You don’t need to over facilitate or over engineer

Diversity of thinking means there will be a rich pool of intellect, experience and skills. This means that your voice doesn’t have to be the loudest in the space or the one engineering outcomes. Shared ownership means shared responsibility for outcomes and shared responsibility for making it a success. This takes a lot of skill, emotional literacy and patience but the benefits can be truly groundbreaking.

Develop shared language. Ask more, tell less

People who work fields or professions develop a certain language and vocabulary that goes with their job and culture. Over intellectualising concepts and ideas is a form of exclusion often overlooked. In the quest to ‘innovate’ it’s worth remembering that this isn’t dumbing down at all as we created most of these terms and ideas ourselves in a vacuum. It also means that community ideas are often repackaged for a different audience by using impenetrable language. Be mindful of the fact that many communities have spent a lifetime doing amazing work for very little and in many cases no money or credit at all but have had their ideas replayed to them as something else. Based on feedback during this process the real skill is being able to communicate across a wide variety of audiences and be understood. 

Don’t start by filling the space

One of the hardest things to do in grant making is to not decide what most of the answers are before truly understanding the questions. It’s hard to truly provide space for people to create and it is a difficult skill to cultivate at an organisational level. You will only ever enter a space with a single sided view based on your own organisations as well as your own personal experiences. These are valid in their own right and offer one insight but are only ever no more than a side of the coin.

This path is as much about changing your own culture and using partnership as a form of system change as it is about accessing communities you have struggled to reach in a meaningful way.

This means that your organisation must go through the process themselves regardless of how enticing a potential shortcut may seem. To pick and choose the parts of this approach that are the least uncomfortable for your organisation is the hackneyed path that has fuelled ineffective services and wasted resources in the past, it’s a recipe, not a menu so, proceed with care. Need help? It’s all around you, you just have to ask.

Shane Ryan is the Global Executive Director of the Avast Foundation and former Deputy Director of the National Lottery Community Fund In the UK. Reach him on Twitter @shaneryan1.

Tagged in: Covid-19

Comments (2)

Fiona Murray

Yes great article and I hope the Phoenix Fund like other national funds will publish grants equities data to help Baobab as they develop their strategy! Love the points about space, culture and systems change. Long may these changes continue to make grantmaking more accessible to organisations working with those that would benefit and need support the most...would love to see how this learning also starts to improve international development grantmaking too (complex enough as it is in the UK)!

Jake Ferguson

Great article Shane - which is tantamount to those involved. The newly devised Baobab initiative supports all the principles and key learning you mention above. We are keen to ensure we stick to these as we grow funding for global majority communities across the UK. More info from Congrats Phoenix - such an important initiative!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *