Change demands innovation – and, for people developing new solutions to both emerging and age-old problems, it can be an emotional rollercoaster. Thinking creatively about the efficiency and impact of sector norms and established processes can mean soaring with the joy of unlocking a new solution one minute only to crash with the fatigue of repeated problem-solving. It’s a hectic, heady experience. 

‘Learning in the open’ 

Applicants to the Heritage Innovation Fund know this well. The pilot scheme, which launched in July 2022, is a new funding initiative, supporting organisations as they develop ideas to shape the future of the heritage workforce. Applications and assessments are now complete, and our role as learning support partner – working in partnership with the National Lottery Heritage Fund – shifts into gear. 

Through this process, The Young Foundation has committed to ‘learn in the open’, sharing reflections as we deliver a structured programme of support and coaching with the grantees. As one of the programme facilitators, I began with many questions. What will the level of take-up be? Can the Heritage Fund’s internal systems enable innovative but untested ideas to emerge? What stage are applicants at in the development of their ideas? How much variety will there be – in terms of spheres of heritage, scale of organisation, experience of innovation, and in the themes that people want to focus on? In identifying answers, we’re just scratching the surface. 

So far, so strong 

While The Young Foundation didn’t have a formal role in deciding which applications were taken forward, our team poured over the applications – and we noticed that the strongest tend to hold certain things in balance. First, they include a clear scoping of the problem or opportunity they want to address, with curiosity to probe it further and a willingness to test and dismantle assumptions. They also show the courage to propose one or more solutions (once they’ve nailed the right problem). And finally, they include a robust plan for reflection and research – without pausing action.   

With some applications, I found myself wishing we could unpack the proposition further. Perhaps there was a brilliant germ of an idea waiting to be flipped, for example; reframed to the perspective of the end beneficiary. Or an exciting proposal exploring what happens when new technology meets an existing workforce. Time and resources are always challenging, but this sector might, in future, enjoy and benefit from a ‘sandbox’ approach in a pre-application phase, playing more freely with ideas before navigating the application process. 

‘Willing and excited’ 

Overall, it’s clear that applicants are starting in different places and are likely to work at different paces, so the support we provide must offer both flexibility and structure. As a pilot, part of our task is to find a replicable model for the future – so maintaining this balance is key. And our focus is learning by doing, working out how to test ideas and assumptions in the real world, directly with the people most affected by the challenges identified by applicants. 

We’ve learnt that people are not only willing but genuinely excited by this opportunity to explore novel solutions to workforce issues – notwithstanding the day-to-day pressures and challenges of the current environment, which impacts both partners and applicants. People in the Heritage sector seem ready to work with their peers to discover common ground. 

There are challenges, however. The Heritage Fund’s systems are built to deliver vast amounts of core business grant-giving efficiently and effectively, rather than via outlier pilot programmes. This new Heritage Innovation Fund demands a great deal in terms of openness to risk coupled with public accountability. Thankfully, staff across the Fund have made it work.  

Buckle up 

This process reminds us that a new funding approach is a challenge for both funder and grantee. We’ve seen, in the application forms, colleagues engage with new questions, letting go of their expectations of, and assumptions about, funding schemes. This is difficult. None of us can ‘unlearn’ practice in one bound, so the sector needs continual demonstration that taking this step will be rewarded. 

Trying something new – nervously preparing for a new adventure – demands courage and a willingness to be vulnerable. But it can be a joyful process too. And, as this process is proving, taking that leap of faith is so much easier when you do it together. 

Find out more and follow our collective journey with the National Lottery Heritage Fund on Twitter using #HeritageInnovationFund


Innovation and Investment Social innovation Systems change YF Heritage Collection Posted on: 3 February 2023


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