Turning insight into policy – how trusts and foundations in the UK approach influencing policy and practice

In late 2019 I worked with the People’s Health Trust to support the development of a policy influencing strategy for their programmes. The foundation of that strategy was a piece of context setting research which explored how other UK based trusts and foundations approached influencing policy. I interviewed 18 individuals working within funding organisations in the UK to understand more about how they had approached developing their own policy and influencing strategies, and reviewed some of their published and unpublished policy strategies, theories of change and impact reports. The majority of the organisations I interviewed were England focused, although a small number were actively funding work and seeking to influence policy in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

This blog summarises the different approaches to influencing policy that came out through the research and the rich variety of tactics being used by trusts and foundations to innovate and creatively influence policy.

What is policy?

‘Policy’ is a term which is widely used, and definitions vary. The Cabinet Office describes policy as:  ‘’the process by which governments translate their political vision into programmes and actions to deliver ‘outcomes’ – desired changes in the real world.’’[1]

The policy work done by many outside Government – including trusts and foundations, charities and campaigners, will most often seek to inform and influence this process using a variety of methods. To structure the strategy process that the People’s Health Trust developed, we broke policy down into the vision for change, the problem they are trying to solve, and the potential solutions. This is one simple way to consider where to place the emphasis when developing policy work. Throughout the research for this work we looked at both policy development, and influencing tactics – the activities that trusts and foundations were using to influence policy makers at local, regional and national levels of government.

Starting points

For the trusts and foundations interviewed in this research, their policy work had commonly been developed through a considered discussion about the overall purpose of the organisation, and how important (or not) influencing policy was to achieving this purpose. Some interviewees described this purpose as a ‘first order’ question, from which programme funding and policy objectives flow. The vast majority of organisations had thought quite deeply about the role they could most usefully play in the ecosystem of change that surrounded the topics or places they wanted to fund and influencing policy was not always a feature in this, particularly if they felt that other organisations were doing this effectively already.

Working to influence policy didn’t always equate to having a policy strategy, or detailing policy objectives. In fact, relatively few funders interviewed had set out the detailed policy change that they were seeking. Of the 18 interviewed, around a quarter had written strategies that captured their policy objectives. For example, one funder had recently gone through a strategic review of their policy work and developed specific objectives on each of their programmes. Each objective is underpinned by a programme framework with a theory of change, a headline goal and a set of five or six activities (e.g. funding a pilot, bolstering evidence, partnerships with private sector to do product innovation, campaigning, awareness). For many others, their policy work was formed through programmes of work or research that were linked to thematic priorities within the organisation, rather than being organised around specific policy or influencing objectives.

The actual policy and influencing work being done across these trusts and foundations is varied: for some it is weighted more towards research and evidence reviews, while others have a much stronger communications and public affairs focus. The vast majority of organisations interviewed had at least some of their funding and work-plan dedicated to understanding the ‘problem’, which primarily involved research and analysis. An increasing number of organisations were focusing on developing policy ideas and solutions, which tends to involve more local programme and practice work, engagement with government and other stakeholders, and public affairs activity.

Influencing tactics

The diagram below sets out the wide range of policy and influencing activities that those organisations interviewed were engaged in. These are very broadly categorised into four areas of activity: work being done to build evidence and develop solutions by individual funders; activities that have a more explicit partnership or collective advocacy purpose; work to influence the civil service – or ‘policymakers’; and work to engage directly with elected officials.

Commissioning research and building the evidence base was the most common activity, though an increasing number of funders talked about ‘policy and practice’ together as important dimensions of change. Only a handful of trusts and foundations were engaged in more formal political processes, such as attending party conferences or meeting with ministers and special advisers. Political engagement was becoming more common at a regional and local level, and this level of policy change was seen – along with the devolved governments in Wales and Scotland – as a window for change.

Some funders have used all of these tactics at different points during a programme of work on a particular issue – particularly if it is an issue they are working on over a long period of time. For example, this blog on Barrow Cadbury’s ‘Transition to Adulthood’ campaign is a useful review of the work they have done to achieve change for young adults in the criminal justice system over the past decade. This work has included ‘front stage’ work and engagement with police and crime commissioners at party conferences; trying to create a new concept within the criminal justice world around the experience of young adults; building the evidence base; running campaigns; funding pilot work and more.  

Measuring impact

Most of the organisations who took part in this research weren’t any formal methods to monitor the impact of their policy work, though they could speak to examples of where they have seen their impact and some capture case studies and examples of their influencing work through annual reports. Two strong examples of impact reporting were highlighted in the Lloyds Foundation Impact Report and the Centre for Aging Better annual impact report. There was an acknowledgement that working on influencing and policy is complex and that attribution of any change would be very difficult to capture in any meaningful way. The policy context can also change quite quickly: for example, many funders working on migration policy have had to respond quickly to the changes in context created by the EU referendum.

In summary

Overall, the picture was of a sector that is increasingly confident in its role in influencing policy, and creative in the methods it uses to do that. In addition to the well worn paths through the hallways of Westminster’s civil service, they are working in creative ways with devolved governments to test new policy ideas; partnering with towns and cities to effect place based change, and using their expertise to take stronger, more detailed positions. The deep subject expertise and knowledge of place being developed by trusts and foundations is also sought after by government, and many of them now face the predicament of how closely to work with government to influence policy, or whether they will effect more change maintaining their independence.

[1] Cabinet Office, Modernising Government, 1999

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