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Posted on Mon 30 May 2022


Watershed as a funder

Jo Lansdowne reflects on Watershed's role as a funder of research and development, what we have learned so far and what new questions we are asking.

Person drawing an image in chalk

Image © Beto Figueiroa/TragoBoaNoticia 2014

In this post I want to talk a little bit about what Watershed has learned about funding others to make new work (not comprehensively of course, I'm talking from my perspective in the Pervasive Media Studio). It’s a role that we have taken on increasingly over the last 10 years, and one which (outside of promoting opportunities) we haven’t talked about very much. Perhaps because being a funder doesn’t feel very edgy or glamourous. But we are entrusted to give out public money to a community that we love and so it feels important to be open about what that means.  

Among many other things, Watershed acts as a funder of creative technology research and development - enabling individuals and small companies to explore early stage ideas. Last year we ran programmes that invested over £385k of funding with awards ranging from around £300 to £50k.

Within Pervasive Media Studio and in the projects that orbit it (e.g. Bristol+Bath Creative R+D, MyWorld), the money we give always comes as part of a wider offer of support – professional advice and pastoral care, connection to people with different perspectives, opportunities to share process and outcomes, and commitment to a long term relationship.

We produce Pervasive Media Studio as a place for experimenting with new ways of doing and being. We seek to create space for people to imagine and try out a different future, to think and to make as part of a community. We enable people to participate in that in a number of ways, some of which involve money. For a long time we have talked about keeping ‘money at the margins’ of Studio life but, while it remains true that being a Resident here doesn’t involve money changing hands, there is a lot of it flowing through the system.

Our intention is to be a funder of work that is full of wonder, discovery, change and care. Work that is an experiment in something that doesn’t yet exist, but might turn out to be brilliant. We want to create an environment where we can spot those sparks, fan their flames and keep them burning. We describe this as being a funder of the Third Horizon (explained below) and we don’t think many people are doing it well.

We definitely don’t always get it right and are indebted to those who tell us when we make mistakes, but our funding methods are informed by the following beliefs:

 

  • Making new things is hard, really hard. This is especially true if the stuff you are making doesn’t fit easily in existing structures (financial systems, audience expectations, publishing models etc). Lots of things don’t work, or take time to work, or work in ways that you didn’t expect. We try to minimise barriers to success and celebrate multiple forms of value.

 

  • Being equitable means recognising difference. We are all working in wider contexts that advantage some people over others and as a funder we have to be proactive about making things more fair. Knowledge and experience comes in many different forms – lived, felt, academic, artistic - and we aim to create systems and processes that enable that expertise to express itself.

 

  • Building the community comes first. Inclusion work begins in the culture and relationships that you nurture within and around your organisation, not at the point of application. It takes time and investment and it makes the work that you support much better.

 

  • Ideas exist in networks. Talking to other people about ideas helps to develop them (find new collaborators, attract new funding, stay inspired) in all sorts of ways. Ideas are also fragile and different levels of feedback and challenge are helpful at different stages. We plan in staged moments of sharing with our team, other makers and wider audiences.

 

  • Start from a position of trust. While structure, deadlines and time for reflection can be helpful to move things forward, self-serving reporting requirements from funders create an unhelpful power dynamic and can lead to compromises that make the work poorer. Also, we pay people a decent amount up front and don’t do any silly things with IP.

 

  • Embracing risk doesn’t mean being irresponsible. We use consequence scanning to explore the intended and unintended consequences of our programmes and increasingly ask those we fund to do the same as they develop new work. We are also creating resources for helping creative SMEs think about social and climate justice in their work.

 

  • Public funding exists to support things that the market won’t already fund. Don't try and mimic the market.

 

With all this in mind, we want to think differently about what good governance and decision making means. About how we create structures that reflect our beliefs and intentions while also offering reassurance to those that fund us.

Watershed often uses the Three Horizons Model developed by the International Futures Forum to structure how we think about our role in the world. Three Horizons describes the relationship between business as usual (Horizon 1), a vision of a possible new future (Horizon 3) and the seeds of change found in the present (Horizon 2). This video describes it really well. Inspired by this blog by Cassie Robinson, we have recently started to explore more explicitly what this way of thinking might mean for our role as a funder.

Our plan is to invite a group of people to come together as some kind of not quite-Advisory Board to help us. They will work alongside our research and development programmes to investigate, challenge and inspire us and each other - to explore how we ‘give vision a seat at the table’ (see Graham Leicester in Cassie’s blog above) by exploring the following questions through a process of action enquiry.

  • How do we recognise transformative potential, particularly while working in structures that are invested in the status quo?
  • What does good governance and accountability mean when you are trying to support change?
  • How does the work that we support get harnessed for a better future rather than captured for more business as usual?
  • If we support early ideas that don’t fit the existing patterns, who supports the next stage?
  • How does us being a funder impact the ecosystem that we are a part of? What does it mean to put competitively awarded money into a collaborative community?
  • How do we balance responsibility and transparency with being responsive to opportunity?
  • How do we know if our funding models work well for a wide range of people and support work that makes the world a better place?

If you are asking the same questions, or have better ones, we would love to hear from you.