Breaking new ground through joint learning and evaluation

11 Apr 2023

The premise of The Wyatt Trust’s Capacity Grants Joint Learning and Evaluation is partnership in its truest sense.

“It’s based on an understanding that we’re equals, actual partners,” explains Keren Sutton, Wyatt’s Data, Insights & Learning Lead.

“It’s not about Wyatt asking these seven partner organisations to report to us and then we assess that; instead, it’s all of us coming together in the same room and doing it together through conversation, identifying what worked, what didn’t work and how we can adapt the model as we go.”

The genesis of the program was a long-held wish to test a new type of granting that gave individual grant recipients the agency to decide their needs and what would help them move forward.

“Each of the grant recipients are working with a financial counsellor,” Keren explains. “We know that there are incredible benefits in terms of financial outcomes and financial education, and we wondered whether giving greater freedom to the counsellor to truly tailor their work as a guide would bring even better outcomes.”

The early results from the pilot program which lasted a year, and the ongoing results from the program’s second year, have been extremely encouraging.

“What we’re seeing is a marked improvement in the reduction of financial stress the individuals were experiencing and also a greater capacity to make long-term decisions and see the bigger picture,” Keren says.

“But much more than just a type of grant or an approach to granting, as a group we’re modelling an incredible amount of shared learning and collaboration between partners.”

The depth of collaboration has taken both Wyatt and many of the service provider partners themselves by surprise.

“It was the partner agencies that told us after the pilot how valuable they’d found the experience of learning from one another when coming together to discuss the evaluation,” Keren says.

“Whether that was hints and tips in the way they were dealing with payments or working through HR issues or just discovering new ways of working with a client, the overwhelming feedback was that these were extremely valuable conversations.”

The conversations take place in person every six months, with all seven partner organisations present, amounting to roughly a dozen people in the room.

The discussion begins with a general conversation about challenges the teams have faced over the last six months, as well as the successes.

“We talk about whether there has been significant learning or whether they’ve needed to adapt or change and if so, what have they seen come out of that,” explains Keren.

Alongside the meetings, the joint evaluation process also includes a ‘most significant change story approach’ through which recipients are given the opportunity to share a significant change they’ve experienced as a result of the grant.

“Story sharing is completely voluntary. Stories can be shared by video, or they can tell it to the financial counsellor, or if they prefer, they can have an appointment with me,” Keren says. “We want participants to have choices about how, or even if, they share their story.

“We collect stories from everyone and bring those to the workshops too and share them with the partners, meaning organisations get to hear from clients of their peers about the impact and change that is being created,” Keren continues.

“It’s an opportunity to hear what is changing for people and what we can do differently.”

The grants of around $1,500 per individual can be used over the course of 12 months or all at once. The financial counsellor provides all the supports they would usually offer to individuals on low incomes experiencing significant financial stress, while having these funds ready for deployment as “an extra tool in their toolbelt”.

“In the beginning, having the freedom to decide how these funds could be used was something that took the financial counsellors a bit of getting used to,” Keren says.

“I would get a lot of phone calls saying, ‘I just want to check something with you, what if we used the money for this or that?’ and I would explain that it was entirely up to the individual. If it’s going to benefit the client and it’s not illegal then they could go for it.

“It was an interesting experience because it showed just how much our partner organisations had become used to having to work within parameters set by us and others. It hadn’t allowed a lot of creative working.

“The whole point is that the client has the decision-making ability to say this is what’s going to move me forward. For the financial counsellors this isn’t about just providing a charitable service, it’s about building the individual’s capacity to make choices for themselves.”

The grants have been used for a range of purposes, including new car tyres to help a client get their kids to school and attend medical appointments; cataract surgery that enabled another client return to work; and even dental surgery which helped a survivor of domestic violence recover the confidence to rejoin the community and continue her business enterprise. Others have used the funds as leverage to renegotiate outstanding debt obligations.

“It gives people that sense of power and autonomy to be part of their own solutions,” Keren says.

“One of the most common responses we hear is that it has given people an enormous sense of relief. That they have the headspace available to think again now that the immediate stressor has been taken care of.”

The financial counsellors are also reporting a deepening of relationships with the clients, with more opportunities for learning and self-advocacy.

“Many of the financial counsellors have reported that the deeper relationship has meant that clients are accessing support earlier next time, which is the first step towards preventative action with an eye on the bigger picture of their life and not just the immediate presenting need,” Keren says.

For The Wyatt Trust, the success of the joint evaluation of the capacity grants has deepened its own strategic commitment to a bigger picture approach.

“For us, this is the test case for the way we want all our grants to move,” Keren explains.

“People with lived experience of financial stress know what their needs are and know what will help them move forward. It’s not for us as funders to set the parameters for what somebody might receive.

“How people define moving forward is not for us as funders to define. Our role is to listen and help them make that possible.”

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