Blog: Learning to Change

Housing and Homelessness

9 December 2021

Photo by Douglas Griffiths, Oak Foundation

The following blog post was written by Raji Hunjan, director of the Housing and Homelessness Programme at Oak Foundation.


In November 2021, the Housing and Homelessness Programme held our annual team retreat to get us ready for our new strategy launch in January 2022. It was an important moment for us. It was the first time we came together as a new team made up of our lead Trustee, long-standing staff members, and others who have joined as recently as only a few months earlier. In addition, we were pleased that Oak’s President, Doug Griffiths, was able to travel from Geneva before further travel restrictions hit the UK, meeting some of us in person for the first time because of the pandemic.  

Systems thinking 
Over a period of two days, we based ourselves in Brixton, in South London, to interrogate the emerging strategy we have developed and build a learning framework around it. We are very much committed to taking a systems approach to our grant-making strategy, and we were keen to spend time together to develop a shared understanding of what this might mean in practice. We were delighted to have Helen Sanson, a systems change thinker, with us. Helen is working with our team as a learning partner over the next 12 months. 

Helen reminded us about the interconnectivity of people to systems, and the role people play in developing and changing systems. She urged us to stop seeing systems as something that is ‘out there’, but instead something that is all around us and how we are a part of it.  

This resonated with us, because our programme is about people, and at the heart of our new strategy is a deep commitment to the perspectives and voices of people with lived experience of homelessness and housing insecurity. In our approach to systems change, we want to prioritise work that ensures long lasting outcomes that directly benefit people furthest from housing opportunity, to meet the immediate needs of people in ways that prevent further homelessness and reduce housing insecurity; and identify longer term approaches to achieving change. We believe, by working like this, we can address the root causes and identify strategies for change in ways that reflect the experiences and aspirations of people with the greatest housing need.  

A team approach 
In deepening our understanding of systems thinking, it became clearer to us that we need to be more intentional in our individual and collective roles in relation to systems. As a grant-making team, we value our role in supporting ambitious organisations and the communities that they work with and recognise our responsibility to be as strategic and effective as we can. It is important that we have confidence in our ability to work as a team to interrogate our decision making and choices, and that we remain aware of our own unconscious bias. As a programme with a grant-making model that is primarily by invitation only, it essential that we are able to hold each other to account.  

In line with Oak’s programme staff more widely, all of us in our team have worked in the field – from frontline service delivery, case work support, to policy advocacy, campaigning, and small charity leadership. Our collective experience of working in the field informs our commitment to people with lived experience of housing and homelessness problems, and as grant-makers, we are focused on organisations with deep knowledge and ambition to address root causes and challenge systems. We understand what it means to work in organisations committed to ending homelessness and housing insecurity, as well as the day-to-day challenges faced by committed staff. 

Engaging with the sector 
In addition to working effectively as a team, we were reminded about the importance of listening to a diverse range of perspectives. We are mindful of wider debates led by other funders and charity leaders in the field about the power dynamics between funders and organisations, and in particular, criticisms of extractive approaches to engagement. With this in mind, we will direct our listening to spaces we are invited to join. Where we convene conversations, it will be because we have a genuine interest in funding on a particular topic or because we have been encouraged to convene by our grantee partners. 

We are looking forward to sharing our new strategy in the new year and working towards an ambitious grant-making programme that challenges systems that cause homelessness and enables strategies that create more housing opportunities for everyone. 

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