What we learned from running a seed fund

We share our reflections on how to create an inclusive funding space geared towards experimentation and learning.

Mandy Holden15 Dec 2022

As a team, becoming a funder was all new to us. Inspired by projects like Civic Square’s Dream Fund, we thought we would launch our own catalyst fund and see what happened. We've learned lots, both about our own role and how to conduct ourselves and from the reflections our community organisers have shared. 

Embarking on a learning journey alongside 11 groups, we’ve been surprised by how extraordinary and deeply personal acting as a funder can be.  

Rosina from Black and Green Ambassadors sums it up: "there is so much that funding these projects has brought out, celebrated and nurtured. It goes to show that grassroots is the way. If you want real, meaningful, radical change that will benefit all of us and give us hope, - but more than hope - let us see the change happening, then this sort of thing needs to continue".  

We heard the call from our community organisers to share this approach with both established and would-be funders out there. So, what made the Local Nature Innovation Fund feel different?  

We focused on collaborative learning not outcomes 

When we first met the project organisers we wanted to share two things;  

Firstly, we wanted to set a supportive tone and give them a chance to get to know us as people. It felt important to humanise a big organisation like Friends of the Earth.   

Secondly, we wanted to share how excited we were to go on the learning journey with them – with all its inevitable ups and downs. We weren’t interested in success per se. Darren from Hull Food Partnership saw that it’s a shift towards funding the most interesting ideas without prejudging what the outcomes should be.  

This makes room for genuine experimentation and authentic learnings. We were keen to establish a mindset which welcomed failure and embraced, even encouraged, shifting objectives as groups started to test their ideas on the ground.   

We ditched feedback forms for coaching conversations  

Over the course of six months, we made space for two deep-dive coaching calls, plus a relaxed intro chat to get to know each person and what’s important to them. This helped to draw out deeper reflections and develop strong relationships with our organisers (it’s also much more fun this way).  

Sabrina from Black Trail Runners says she really appreciated having us as an independent sounding board. The calls provided a rare and valuable space for reflection in a hectic world.

But be aware that collaborators are often pushed for time, so prioritise making progress on the project rather than reflecting on learnings. 

We were delighted when JT from The Village said that every call feels like an exciting discussion that’s responsive and interesting and nice to feel that level of support which is not about making money and measurement. It creates the latitude to explore. 

We embraced the mentor role 

Greg from Time to Grow Walthamstow explained that the process forced him to think more clearly about things: What are the team roles? How are they going to organise things? Who are the players? It felt very rare to have elders and mentors around to support and give ideas.  

Amrish from Flourishing in St Paul’s shared that checking in throughout the process gave him structure and accountability, prompting him to turn a seed of an idea into a tangible project. 

We were privileged to share the learning process (and sometimes heartbreak) with the  organisers. Getting excited with them. Making suggestions. Being open to sharing our own experience of organising. Listening and becoming a critical friend.  

We made a big effort to reach beyond our existing network  

We set out to fund groups led by and engaging with people who are currently under-represented or marginalised in nature projects. It was really important to work with others to spread the word beyond our network. We paid the Black Seeds Network to co-host a Q&A about the fund, which resulted in approximately 10 more excellent applications from groups we may not have otherwise reached.  

Don’t rely on advertising via formal or organisational channels. We made heavy use of personal channels and networks and personalised invitations to consider applying. 

Allow applications by video or voice note, as well as written applications. We didn’t do this, but feedback suggested it would have been helpful, and might have encouraged a wider diversity of applicants.  

Spending plans flexed 

We asked for a rough budget but didn’t commit groups to rigid spending plans. Trust their judgement.  

Rose from Mountford Growing Community explains that a relatively small sum does make a difference and being relaxed about how it’s spent has meant they can be flexible and respond to changes in circumstances. 

Small pots helped nurture strong relationships  

One of the most common reflections from the organisers was that having a small pot of funding behind a project helped establish relationships, build connection and open up new avenues. In some cases, the backing of a larger brand like Friends of the Earth helped open doors too.  

Funding has helped people to engage. Dot from Oxford City Farm’s perspective is that "the funding has made it so much more inclusive and such an enabler for a lot of marginalised communities, creating experiences that might otherwise have been difficult to come by or would have required a lot of sacrifice. It been really great to reach out to facilitators of colour that I wouldn’t have wanted to invite without paying. I just want more of that." 

Many of the community organisers expect the relationships established during these micro-projects to grow in the future. We hope our relationships with the groups will be long-lived too.  

We tried to make the process simple – sometimes we came up short 

We used an adapted version of the National Lottery’s ‘Awards for All’ eligibility criteria, which allows for any form of constituted organisation to apply. For due diligence, we required every application to have at least two signatories. We didn’t pay into the bank accounts of individuals (but some other catalyst funds do e.g. Civic Square’s Dream Fund, or the RSA’s Catalyst Awards). 

We wish it had been simpler to get funds across to the groups. Our system is set up for consultants and suppliers and wasn’t very user-friendly for community groups – they needed to follow our compliance process to get on our payment system and send an invoice for the grant. This was clunky and outside of the comfort zone of some smaller groups.  

We created a single point of contact to build consistency and trust 

Although two of us were involved in the mentoring and check-in calls, it helped to have one consistent point of contact. A personal relationship makes it easier to flex and be sensitive when things come up in people’s personal lives - as they 100% will. And it makes the admin more straightforward. 

Many community organisers are working voluntarily and/or alongside other commitments. Be patient and expect to give gentle nudges along the way. 

Whose story is it to tell and how?  

We were keen to share stories from the projects, to inspire others to make change in their own communities and benefit from the learnings of innovators.  We set clear baseline expectations when we awarded the grants, explaining that we would share learnings from the projects on our own channels and inviting groups to send photos/visual content for us to use.   

Through the process, we learned to take a nuanced approach to storytelling. JT from The Village confirmed that knowing whose story this is to tell and how to be supportive and respectful is really important.  

For some projects, amplifying their story wasn’t a priority. Their focus was on making change in their neighbourood. We wanted to respect this and not make storytelling burdensome.  

For others, it was important to consider who tells the story and whose voice is being represented. Phil from Black Trail Runners explains that their story should be captured through the lens of lived experience. It can’t be an interpretation by a White person, because the storyteller needs to know how it feels to go out in the countryside and be stared at and get lots of people wanting to know if you’re lost. It needs to come from heritage to be an accurate representation. 

Always check if organisers want to tell their own story, what medium they would like to use to tell it (e.g. video, audio, written blog) and be completely transparent about how stories/learnings will be used.  

We made time to celebrate and share  

We wanted to celebrate the incredible work of the community organisers and close the fund on a high. We kept it simple, hosting an online evening of shared stories and reflections. It was also an opportunity to make valuable connections between groups. 

Personally, I found it very moving to gather with people that I had grown to like immensely and respect over the months. Many of the stories shared were recognised by others. It felt like we were part of something bigger – a movement.  

My colleague Joanna closed the celebration with a toast. It feels appropriate here too – Margaret Mead said, "never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has."

Let’s raise our glasses to this particular group of thoughtful and committed citizens. To a hopeful and connected future.