Shared infrastructure funding: a vital step for civil society and funders


Sam Grimmett-Batt, Funding Director, City Bridge Trust

Sam Grimmett Batt, a Funding Director at City Bridge Trust, explores shared infrastructure, the opportunities it represents for the sector, and offers ideas for ways that funders could embrace it moving forward

Earlier this year, Careful Industries released a foresight* report called Belonging, Care and Repair. It outlined more inclusive ways for civil society to look ahead, see past the overwhelming present and focus on creating longer-term change.

The report followed workshops with thirteen civil society leaders which explored how important lived and learned experience is for shaping the future. Belonging, Care and Repair poses questions about the role of civil society, both now and in the year 2036, and probes what might happen in the context of technological breakdown. It also reveals the benefits of civil society thinking, working and sharing together to show what the future might look like.

Taking three example future scenarios, Belonging, Care and Repair highlights what is missing now; what is too dominant; and shows that innovation is something driven by people, not technologies. The relational foresight approach used can be applied to specific themes, or to the wider work of the voluntary and community, funding and philanthropic sectors more broadly.

But more importantly, in the longer term this approach can be expanded to create a shared foresight infrastructure – an independent “foresight commons” – that showcases futures that are rooted in communities and shares them in accessible ways, to be used and reused by funders, policy makers and civil society organisations.

Infrastructure funding

 “Infrastructure” – it’s a confusing term and it’s used differently in different sectors and contexts. What I mean here is twofold; firstly “infrastructure bodies” are traditionally organisations, usually charities, which support other civil society organisations. Sometimes referred to as “second tier” organisations, these are bodies such as Inclusion London, which supports Disabled People’s Organisations, NCVO, which supports voluntary organisations and volunteering, or Ethical Property Foundation, which offers property advice for civil society.

Secondly, “infrastructure” as a more general term describes the underlying support networks which allow something to happen within a wider social context. The something is variable – it could be civil society (or an element of it – digital infrastructure for example), it could be society more generally, or something totally different.

Collectively, what I’ve referred to as infrastructure bodies traditionally make up/contribute to civil society infrastructure, but it’s more than that. Underlying infrastructure is also about relationships, culture and people. It’s the web of connections that bind organisations, sectors, and communities (of affinity, geography or interest). It’s rooted in underlying values, assumptions, aspirations, power dynamics, challenges and opportunities.

City Bridge Trust and infrastructure funding

City Bridge Trust has been proud to support London’s civil society infrastructure and infrastructure bodies for many years. As the capital’s largest independent funder, we’ve made it a priority to support people and communities most impacted by injustice and inequality, not just by funding service delivery on the ground, but also by shoring up the sector through capacity building, second tier and voice and leadership infrastructure.

Since 2015, we’ve spent £13.2m directly supporting such work, and on average we now spend about £3m a year on this type of activity through our rolling, responsive grant programmes. We also fund strategically on this theme, including a recent grant to Catalyst for digital infrastructure, and we partner and co-fund with other infrastructure funders like the National Lottery Community Fund, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and Trust for London. We also convene events such as a recent event with SafeLives, the UK-wide charity dedicated to ending domestic abuse.

In response to the pandemic we paused our responsive funding to focus on emergency support, although we continued to fund existing work and to extend grants. I’m pleased to say that our infrastructure funding has recently reopened – applications are welcome for new or tried and tested work, including core funding.

Shared infrastructures

Infrastructure bodies have always worked with a range of voluntary and community organisations, but as in the rest of the sector, those “inside the tent” have been limited – by the membership parameters (or their trustee bodies), by the types of communities accessing support (or not accessing it), and by the type of work undertaken and valued.

It has only been fairly recently that a new type of infrastructure body has emerged. They are somewhat of a hybrid between traditional “infrastructure bodies” like those I described earlier, while also being the glue that organically creates the more general “infrastructure” I previously outlined.

Due to their open-source nature and network approach, these “shared infrastructures” represent new ways of working which are more inclusive and collective, acting as capacity builders, convenors, catalysers and connectors. They also represent a shift in the dynamic between funder and funded: it’s a more symbiotic relationship which challenges the traditional power imbalance. Examples of shared infrastructure are Catalyst (incubated by CAST), 360Giving, and the Civic Strength Index.

Catalyst: a case study

Catalyst’s vision is to collectively realise a digitally enabled and resilient social sector. The network aims to develop an ecosystem of social sector actors creating digital practice, networks and infrastructures to drive systemic and societal change. This work is necessarily a collective effort not simply because its task is bigger than any one organisation can do alone, but because finding ways for humans to work together effectively on huge, complex problems is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century.

As a founder funder and network member of Catalyst, City Bridge Trust provided seed funding of £400k and has recently agreed five years of further support totalling £900k. This isn’t a normal funder/grantee relationship: City Bridge Trust is one part of a wider cross-sectoral network of funders, digital and face to face service delivery organisations, and other “in-betweeners”. Catalyst has been careful to curate a different tone with its funders: one as mutual actors in a broader digital movement. In the image below, you can see how shared infrastructure features prominently in the Catalyst model.

Shared infrastructure features prominently in the Catalyst model (click to enlarge or download as PDF)

Graphic showing how shared infrastructure features prominently in the Catalyst model

360Giving data

360Giving created an open data standard which is used by a growing number of funders (229 and counting) across the UK, enabling them to publish information about their grants and giving. Over £174bn worth of open grants data can be explored through 360Giving’s tools, including their flagship search engine, GrantNav.

The publishing process enables and encourages funders to consider the information they collect, how they present it, and what might be missing. Once grants data is published (and then updated over time), funders can check their assumptions and monitor their progress and impact. Funders sharing where grants are going also helps to facilitate funder collaboration.

It’s not just useful at the strategic level: at City Bridge Trust we use 360Giving’s tools and our open data regularly in both grants assessment and in monthly data digests which facilitate our internal learning.

“I use data shared in the 360Giving Data Standard regularly to put our giving into context. Using open grants data to compare our spending to others for data digests is so valuable” Dr Emma Horrigan, City Bridge Trust Data Analyst

Open grants data is a powerful asset that facilitates mapping (for example, the brilliant visual below, showing who funds with who) so that anyone can easily find out who is funding what, how much and what for. Saving time and money for the whole sector, and providing intelligence for charities, it lessens arduous funder due diligence, and gives a fuller picture of grant-making in the UK.

Who funds with who? Graphic showing which 360Giving funders have funded the same recipients

A circular graphic showing colourful lines flowing between a hundred or more funders

The Civic Strength index

The Civic Strength index was commissioned by the GLA and developed by the Young Foundation. Published in October 2021, it’s a report and tool that sets out a definition, framework and approach to measuring the distribution of civic strength across London.

The index provides a new lens for communities, policy makers and funders to understand the strengths of communities and how best to build on these. It also identified gaps – including data that is not public, London-wide, robust and/or not yet created. The Civic Strength Data Innovation Challenge (a collaboration between the GLA and Impact on Urban Health ) will finance projects that address these gaps and build the next phase of the index’s development.

Shared infrastructure – the future

All this shared infrastructure, and the concept of a collective, more pluralistic and dynamic “foresight commons” (a resource to support and showcase the expertise of the breadth of civil society in long-term thinking and planning) – have never been more important. As we enter a harsh cost-of-living crisis, it will become increasingly vital for funders to collaborate to see past the immediate firefighting context, visualising what long term systemic change could look like, and understanding how funders can enable and support it.

Reviewing and reimagining what counts as an infrastructure body will also be key – as organisations emerge that provide support to groups serving and led by communities which have previously faced barriers to accessing infrastructure support at all. Some of these organisations will have only recently started to receive funding, following a historical lack of resourcing.

Collaboratives and coalitions such as Collaborative Action for Recovery, LocalMotion, Funders Collaborative Hub, and Participatory Grantmaking Community will increasingly rely on, champion, and participate in collective, networked models of shared infrastructure that traverse sectors. With the right resourcing, this can drive collective and cross-sectoral intelligence and investment and inspire bolder, system-changing, strategic activity in those who are funding work which shapes the future. It will be critical for funders, especially those with a remit to resource civil society infrastructure, to proactively support collaborations and collectives to do this by funding and advocating for shared infrastructure, now and into the future.

As Rachel Coldicutt outlines in her blog Who owns the future(s)? for Careful Industries, collective, inclusive foresight is crucial for strategy building as well as for maintaining an agile strategy. It gives us additional tools (on top of observing the data) for understanding macro trends, and ensures new and different perspectives emerge and can be heard. It also facilitates funders’ ongoing understandings of not just what has happened, but of the emergent picture too.

The task of cultivating, curating, and growing the relationships, culture and networks for civil society to thrive into the future is bigger than any one organisation. It can only happen if funders come together and collectively create, fund and amplify shared foresight infrastructure so that our work considers and plans for the future equitably, effectively, and with creativity.

Shared infrastructure: learn more

If you want to learn more or support the creation and ongoing maintenance of shared infrastructure, you can read Belonging, Care and Repair.  For even more information , check out the previous report, A Constellation of Possible Futures).

You can contact Careful Industries, and you may also be interested in the upcoming New Frontiers in Funding, Philanthropy, and Investment conference, convened by Joseph Rowntree Foundation, on 14 and 15 July 2022.

To find out more about City Bridge Trust’s infrastructure funding offer, visit our website: Infrastructure funding: capacity building and representation.

This blog is part of a series, you can read more in Rachel Coldicutt’s blog Who owns the future(s)? for Careful Industries.

* Foresight is simply the act of looking to, and thinking about the future. Unlike forecasting, foresight does not aim to create accurate predictions of future events, but instead draws on the present to shape what might come next. You can read more in Careful Industry’s blog Who owns the future(s)? and their earlier report called What is foresight? from Careful Industries.

In addition to the Belonging, Care and Repair report this piece is focused on, you can see an example of civil society foresight in action on the London Funders website – Learning, Unlearning and Thinking Scenarios for London’s communities in 2023 and implications for funders.