15th April 2020

This is the second in our series of weekly blogs about the impact of Covid-19 on our funded partners and the role of funders in supporting them. This week’s edition focuses on how learning networks can be adapted in response to the crisis - watch this space for more blogs in the coming weeks.


Covid-19 is placing unprecedented strains on the charity sector – for organisations themselves, those that work within them and, of course, those they seek to support. As funders we hold a privileged landscape view across our portfolios, and now more than ever the opportunities and potential of that position need to be utilised. There have been many encouraging responses from funders, both collectively(opens in new window) at a sector level and individually(opens in new window) in countless conversations with funded organisations on their specific activities. 

In the last few weeks we have also been trying to fill a gap between these individual funding-related conversations and sector-wide initiatives. In some of our funding programmes we have existing learning networks which usually include a series of webinars, face-to-face workshops and online discussions around commonly agreed learning questions over the funding period. In response to the Covid-19 crisis we have been pivoting these learning networks to provide the space for open peer sharing and solidarity between the funded organisations. Below are some of our initial reflections on the first few of these conversations:

The value of an open, safe space

Given the current onslaught of virtual meetings and ongoing discussions amongst organisations’ own networks, we were cautious about adding yet another set of conversations to our already stretched funded partners. We have deliberately kept these group conversations optional and with no fixed agenda other than finding out how each other is and sharing experiences. We have been surprised at how positively this has been taken up by organisations and individuals given how ‘Zoomed out’ people are at the moment. Many discussions are happening under the pressure of needing to produce joint responses or agree on project adaptations. There is little opportunity to talk openly in smaller groups, so simply having a space to speak with peers from outside their usual networks, but within a trusted boundary of an existing programme, has been highly valued for people both professionally and personally. 

Acknowledging the power dynamic

Inevitably, as funders and funded organisations, there is a power dynamic involved in conversations. We realised that to make these group conversations as open and supportive as possible we needed to think carefully about our own role in them. Taking a step back, we handed over the running of these conversations to our learning coordinator consultants on each programme, and in some cases have completely withdrawn ourselves from the conversations to enable better peer-to-peer discussions and avoid the natural temptation to focus on questions to the funder about their individual funding. 

Solidarity across differences

These programmes have been both single-country and global initiatives, and each includes a range of organisations and approaches. Given this diversity we didn’t really know how meaningful these conversations would be, but we have been struck by how useful participants have found them. They have provided peer solidarity and appreciation across borders, whilst providing new perspectives and ideas for adapting and enabling those not yet in full Covid-19 response to pick peoples’ brains in preparation for what they may have to face. 

Covid-19 as a lens that brings existing issues to the fore

Many of the organisations we fund are supporting those marginalised and excluded from existing systems, structures or services. The discussions are highlighting how Covid-19 is bringing these very issues into stark contrast– from structural gendered inequalities in the division of labour and how it is valued, to the fragility of the situation of those facing insecure shelter. Using Covid-19 as a lens to examine these underlying issues of discrimination and marginalisation can provide an important connecting thread through this crisis to the longer-term work of these organisations.

A cementing force for learning

We are currently thinking how we wrap these loose group conversations into the wider learning process for each programme. It may be that they are only appropriate now, or we may be able to evolve these conversations into more thematic support structures, enabling space for contextual realities amidst the focus on common learning questions. From a longer-term perspective we hope that such conversations are cementing trust, relationships and connections between individuals and organisations; this will ultimately provide a stronger basis for reflective and collective learning as we seek to build back better from this crisis. 

If you have any questions or comments, please get in touch with Jake Grout-Smith ( in new window))