Lessons from the Listening Fund (Part 2): Barriers to Listening

Over the past two years, the Centre for Youth Impact has been working with the funders and youth organisations involved in the Listening Fund, a collaborative effort to support organisations to listen and respond to young people – and make this the norm. The Centre is evaluating both the England and Scotland Fund, and this week is reporting on the findings from England. This blog by Sarah Williams and Jo Hickman Dunne, who are part of the Centre for Youth Impact’s research team, explores key barriers to meaningful listening practice based on the evaluation findings.

This is part of a series of blogs exploring the findings from the project. The rest of the series will appear here.

The level of progress made by the organisations that received grants from the Listening Fund (referred to as ‘partners’) varied. Overall, the findings suggest that dedicated funder support for organisational listening can result in significant positive change to organisational delivery and strategy, with an improved focus on and response to young people’s needs and preferences. However, some partners also experienced challenges and delays in their projects that had not been anticipated. Indeed, a key learning from the evaluation is that listening to young people meaningfully is a challenging and time-consuming process. Some factors that can play a role in limiting progress in listening are explored below.

1. Staff turnover

The partners in the Listening Fund often reported that they had one or two staff members who were key in championing listening, and if those individuals left it was easy to lose motivation and to slip back into tokenistic forms of involvement. In particular, a key learning has been the importance of making listening a priority at the senior level. This is to ensure proper resources are dedicated to enable listening to happen effectively (such as opportunities for staff training) and to secure buy-in for an organisation-wide approach to listening to ensure that it is sustainable, while recognising that a having dedicated staff member is beneficial.

2. Unstable funding environments

Some partners were unable to develop their listening as intended because of challenges maintaining steady organisational funding throughout the duration of the Listening Fund, which, in some cases, resulted in reduced service provision, heavy workloads, and staff redundancies. This highlights that listening will often come second to core service delivery – very often because it’s not specifically funded – and if the conditions are not in place for this to thrive then listening can become deprioritised.

3. Managing competing agendas

Where young people’s needs or ideas for service development do not align with the projects the organisation was already commissioned to do, finding the funding to translate listening into responsive action is challenging. Some of the Listening Fund partners told us that, in general, they apply for pots of funding that align with the values of flexibility and responsiveness to overcome

this challenge. However, this is not always possible given the competitive funding environment that exists in the youth sector.

4. Disconnected services

When there are many distinct services within one organisation, approaches to listening were sometimes inconsistent and disconnected from one another. This made it difficult to get an organisation-wide picture of listening and limited internal learning. Once again, to overcome this, it is important to have someone prioritising listening at the senior level who makes an effort to coordinate and share approaches internally.

5. Limited time and resource

Many partners acknowledged that, while the grants from the Listening Fund have been valuable, they were also “quite a small amount of money for achieving tangible changes at different levels of an organisation, and over a relatively short period of time”. Many partners felt they had low resource to develop their listening prior to the Fund, so they had a low starting point, and that the grants that were provided were fairly modest, which impacted the level of progress that could be achieved. This highlights further how listening meaningfully requires dedicated (extended) time and resource. In line with this, there was a sense that the partners who made the greatest level of progress were those who were able to find additional sources of funding for their listening projects.

More detail about the evaluation findings can be found in the full learning report, and the accompanying case study report that takes an in-depth look at six partners’ projects.

Image of lots of raised hands