Final reflections on The Listening Fund Scotland
What does it mean to listen actively? At what point does listening shift from being part of high quality youth practice and something we need to specifically and separately plan for, train our staff team in, and develop various tools and mechanisms to achieve?
The short answer, I have come to conclude, it that it is never a separate ‘thing’ from high quality youth work practice, but that doesn’t mean that it happens automatically. Both the act of listening and acting on what’s heard needs to beintentional and central to organisations aims for and with young people. At the same time, we must recognise that this work is hard – something I have heard time and time again over the course of the last year working on The Listening Fund evaluations in both England and Scotland.
With the launch of the final learning report for the Fund in Scotland imminent, I wanted to share a few things I have learnt about listening in ways that enable young people to have a greater say in shaping the provision in which they participate, and funding organisations to do this work.
- We should not assume that we can listen and respond well, all of the time! Whilst on the surface it can sound simple, there are many facets to listening. Whilst we can often be confident that a particular method for gathering the voices of young people is effective, we also need to regularly challenge ourselves:
- Do we always act on what we are hearing? Do we make time to act?
- Do young people know when or how we act on what we hear?
- Are the young people we are hearing from representative of the young people we work with more broadly?
- Are there any biases in our listening practices?
- Do we have multiple ways for young people to use and raise voices, to make sure there is ‘something for everyone’?
- Listening, as with so many other aspects of youth work, is all about relationships. For the funded partners in the Listening Fund Scotland, relationships occurred on various levels. They developed a strong peer network, facilitated and supported by the funders, where they had space to discuss their challenges, find solutions and share advice and learning. Many partners also found that building stronger support relationships with their staff teams – giving them the skills to actively listen and the confidence to act on what they were hearing from young people – was critical to effective listening practices. Finally, the evaluation has shown that for young people to share their voices, particularly face-to-face and require a time investment, they need to feel safety and trust, and know that their individual voices are valued by their organisations. These are markers of high quality relationships more broadly. Listening well, therefore, both includes young people in shaping their provision and enhances human relationships between staff members and young people.
- The Listening Fund adopted quite a novel approach, with funders supporting flexibility in projects and drawing on light-touch reporting and evaluation processes, without a focus on specific outcomes. As one partner suggested, a key benefit of this approach was that they were afforded ‘balcony time’, to take a step back and reflect on what they are doing, which they don’t often get the chance to do. The partner self-assessment that formed part of the evaluation supported this reflection, and the combination of self-evaluation alongside light touch external evaluation created a highly valued learning environment for both funders and funded partners. The take-away is that enabling this type of exploratory work requires a fund that is flexible and equitable, and listens to grantees to allow learning to happen on multiple levels. For funders, key questions that should ground their funding models might be:
- How do we create safe spaces for our grantees to share, fail, grow and learn?
- How do we build flexibility into our funding package?
- How can we support grantees on their journey of change?
- How do we share power with grantees and create more equitable funding practices?
You can learn more about The Listening Fund evaluation here, including the final learning reports alongside other evaluation outputs and resources. As one funded partner concluded, “I think this is the most valuable project I've been involved in since I joined [organisation]. it's about being relevant to young people.” I couldn’t agree more, and would go one step further. This Fund has been about understanding how to stay relevant to young people. Throughout this project the partners, funders and I have been challenged, and inspired to understand how to do this better. Watch this space – we’re looking forward to shouting about what we’ve learnt!