A Listening Fund case study: Investing in Children

The Listening Fund supports youth-focused organisations to develop their practice of listening to young people and responding to what they hear. The Centre for Youth Impact was commissioned to evaluate the Fund and as part of that evaluation, case study research was conducted with six partners, offering the opportunity for an in-depth investigation of their work. The full case study report, including the methodology and all six partners can be downloaded here. This first case study focuses on Investing in Children.

Investing in Children

Investing in Children (IiC) is a children’s human rights organisation based in County Durham in the North East of England. IiC works in partnership with children and young people to exercise their rights to participate in decisions that affect them. For over two decades IiC has worked towards two key objectives: to create spaces for young people to discuss the issues they face and the changes they want to see, and to persuade those who hold power to listen and to make those
changes. IiC’s aim is to have an impact on youth systems and services to ensure they are taking account of young people’s voices.

Overview of listening at IiC

Investing in Children’s key tool for listening has long been its Agenda Day™ model: the creation of adult-free spaces facilitated by children and young people. In essence, an Agenda Day™ is an event where young people get together without adults, to talk about issues that affect them and to decide what to do about them. At any given time, IiC is working with approximately 15-20 groups of young people, to tackle issues in services such as social work, schools and mental health. IiC also runs a Membership Award Scheme that gives organisations national recognition for the active
inclusion of children and young people in dialogue that results in change.

“What we are trying to do is support kids to be listened to by somebody else.” (IiC Founder)

Understandably, IiC considers ‘listening’ to be its USP. The very reason the organisation exists is to create spaces for young people to be heard, and to promote better listening practices within its partners. But does being an authority on listening automatically denote being good at this practice yourself? IiC wanted to challenge itself on its own listening agenda, and to look more widely at how young people engage in systems, services, and in the community.

Through the Listening Fund, IiC aimed to:

• Learn what motivates its partners to engage in listening and what barriers they face in these endeavours;
• Explore the diversity of listening experiences of the children and young people it works with, bringing this into sharper focus in its everyday work; and
• Better understand the benefits of youth-led projects for children and young people, and in doing so contribute to the evidence base for a rights-based approach that centres on young people as competent decision makers in societal change.

To address these aims, IiC adopted a three-stranded approach in the Listening Fund project, as explored below.

1. Research into motivations for listening

IiC commissioned a piece of research with organisations who have received the IiC Membership Award, to understand their perspectives on and motivations for listening to young people. This has involved IiC improving how it listens to its members, to understand how and where it can support them to listen effectively. IiC wanted to ask itself some critical questions:

“We engage with other organisations who are doing listening, but the questions we asked ourselves are: How do we extend that? How do we make it better? What messages are we giving when we go out to visit members, and are they the right messages?” (Co-Director)

2. Exploring young people’s views around who and who does not listen

IiC opened itself up to consider “in terms of power, who listens to young people and who doesn’t.” The organisation recruited a group of young people to undertake a series of Agenda Days™ to explore their views on which adults listen to them, and where they feel they are not heard. This is referred to as the ‘Listening Project’ and it has involved five Agenda Days™ in total that addressed the following questions:

• How adults do and do not listen
• Where young people do feel or do not feel listened to
• How and where younger age groups are listened to
• How and where older age groups are listened to
• How young people are listened to in (disadvantaged) community settings

3. Longitudinal research into IiC’s impact on young people’s lives

IiC commissioned a longitudinal research study to understand if the experience of being involved in IiC (i.e. to have direct involvement in rights-based and youth voice activities) had impacts on young people’s behaviours and attitudes later in life. This has included an understanding of the extent that young people:

• Have raised political awareness and engagement;
• Have increased awareness of, and were more likely to, advocate for equality, dignity or human rights issues; and
• Have more active engagement as citizens (e.g. at the community or institutional level, face-to-face or online).

This strand of IiC’s project feeds into a long-term strategy to improve evidence of the benefits of engaging young people through a rights-based approach.

What is the key learning and impact of this work?

The three strands of IiC’s Listening Fund project build on already strong foundations, and all have potentially powerful implications for the practices of social institutions engaging with children and young people. To this end, some useful and diverse learning outcomes have been identified.

1. Partner organisations need ongoing support in listening endeavours

In exploring the motivations of membership organisations to engage in listening, IiC has been able to understand how it can improve the Membership Programme to better support its members. The research has highlighted some potential gaps in the programme, including:

  • A question around whether the award captures the voices of enough young people;
  • The lack of a wider support network beyond receiving the award;
    The need for more ideas and advice for members to move their practice forward; and
  • The view that a strong and consistent working relationship with an IiC member of staff was beneficial, but that not all the member organisations currently have this.

These learning outcomes have demonstrated to IiC that effective approaches to listening are not universal, and that services working with children and young people need continued support. It has also given the organisation more confidence to know how to implement this support when developing the Membership Award. As one Co-Director suggested:

“The research findings consolidate some of what we already know, in terms of where our gaps are and, therefore, where we should work on upscaling our Membership Award. But the research has given us a real focus, to know that this is not just what we think but what the people involved are feeling as well”.

2. Not all young people are listened to equally

Capturing the different experiences of different cohorts of children and young people has been a challenge for IiC. However, through its Agenda Days™, IiC has gained some important learning in understanding how particular groups of young people experienced barriers to being listened to within particular services. Specifically, this learning has included:

• Within the education system, young people often do not feel they are listened to or that their views are taken seriously;
• Younger age groups do not feel they are listened to as much as older age groups; and
• Both of these factors can be compounded by a young person’s social environment, whereby young people living in socio-economically disadvantaged areas feel that this negatively impacts on who listens to them.

3. Impacts of empowering young people extend beyond a single project

The Agenda Days™ have also demonstrated the empowering nature of the process of providing dedicated spaces for listening. IiC found that young people took a high level of initiative in the Agenda Days™ and “just did them the way they wanted to”. While IiC provided administrative and logistical support, such as with writing follow up reports, the entire process was driven by young people.

The Agenda Day™ approach was also endorsed by young people, who felt that it is an effective process that allows them to voice their views and to facilitate tangible change in response to those views. As reflected by one of IiC’s Young Directors:

“At IiC everything is taken on board. In meetings and stuff, it’s like ‘what can we change?’. We have a discussion and notes get taken, reports get written, things get changed.”

What changes have been made as a result of listening?

IiC has made some changes to its membership offer to better support its members with their listening practice. The biggest of these changes is the creation of bronze, silver and gold ‘packages’ that reflect how long an organisation has held the IiC award. Different packages have different associated benefits, including discounted Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses and learning resources.

The delivery team is also looking to build more consistent relationships with its membership organisations, as this has been identified as an opportunity for IiC to embed its systematic approach to listening more widely. These changes will be showcased in a launch event in summer 2020. As one member of staff noted:

“We have to change the way we have relationships with other people if we intend to have a greater impact on young people’s ability to engage in decision making processes and to be taken seriously. Improving relations with our members is big and is going to be really beneficial.”

Additionally, IiC is acting on what it has learnt from the Agenda Days™ in the following ways:
• Focusing on younger age groups within its work: for example, through increasing the focus on and activity of its existing Under-13 ‘Children in Care Council’, to improve mechanisms for them to engage;
• Building stronger relationships with schools who hold the IiC membership, and using this network to trial a peer mentor programme;
• IiC has recently recruited a Volunteer Coordinator, who works one day a week, to help support young people to develop their ideas and to manage the time of those who want to be involved with IiC beyond existing groups. This is a first step towards conducting more focused listening with particular communities of young people; and
• IiC has recently opened a Residential Care Home for young people. Through this it is aiming to create a financial surplus that will be directed to provide unrestricted funding for young people engaged in IiC to take action on issues important to them.

Ongoing challenges and next steps

Engaging membership organisations

IiC staff do not view ‘listening’ as an easy task and did not expect the listening projects to be plain sailing. Ultimately, there have been some key challenges, both in getting to this point and moving beyond the life of the Listening Fund. The initial challenge for IiC was getting membership organisations to engage with its research: over 30 organisations were contacted to take part, but only seven responded. It has also been difficult to engage organisations who did not fully buy into the IiC approach and therefore who had not renewed their membership beyond one year.

Meeting and managing the enthusiasm of young people

Throughout the project, IiC has developed a “core group of young people” who have become highly connected with the organisation through co-designing and leading the project. The project has “lit the fire in the belly” of these young people, who are consequently spending more time at IiC offices without necessarily having a defined project or purpose. IiC has found that the issues and ideas raised by young people often relate to projects that IiC “is not commissioned to work on”. In other words, staff face challenges in translating young people’s ideas into action if the ideas do not align with the existing requirements and demands of their funders. The competitive funding environment in the youth sector, and lengthy funding application processes, heighten this issue as it can make it difficult to find new pots of funding to
implement young people’s ideas and respond to their issues. IiC had already recognised the need to provide a pot of unrestricted funding for young people to develop their own projects, but the Listening Fund has created urgency around this in order to harness their enthusiasm. As mentioned above, this will be implemented through the financial surplus generated through the recently opened Residential Care Home.

Challenges with capacity

For IiC, capacity has always been, and always will be the biggest challenge to this type of work. As one Project Worker highlighted, the Listening Fund provided the resources “to be able to take stock of what is going on and the capacity to capture that information”. Specifically, the Listening Project has shown that not all young people are listened to equally, and IiC is taking actions to address these imbalances. But finding the room and resources to undertake these actions is the most challenging part.

Practical challenges with longitudinal research

Finally, although the longitudinal study is still in its infancy and the potential evidence it will provide is exciting, it will not be without its difficulties. Practically, the challenge will be in maintaining contact with participants to minimise drop-out and non-response rates, as well as the continuity of staffing and resources to manage the research. IiC staff are also aware that it is difficult to demonstrate causal effect in longitudinal research, given the array of influences on
young people’s lives. As suggested by IiC’s Founder and Co-Director:

“We’ve got kids who have been with us for seven, eight, or nine years, so there is something that we’re doing that they obviously place quite a lot of value in, but actually trying to separate it out is a challenge.”

IiC will continue to adapt the research in its longitudinal study as it progresses beyond the Listening Fund, in order to measure and draw out these assets as effectively as possible.

Read more about the work of Investing in Children on the organisation’s website.