An open enquiry: How can we multiply the collective impact of funding for youth mental health?

Nick Stanhope
6 min readNov 24, 2020


The Foundation Design Lab is launching an open enquiry to find opportunities for greater collective awareness, interdependence and action amongst those investing in better youth mental health outcomes in the UK.

In short

The Foundation Design Lab, working closely with the Funders’ Collaborative Hub, will work intensively over the next 4 months to help answer the question:

As more and more grant funders step up to respond to the crisis in youth mental health, which has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, how can we make the most of their collective investment, by finding and taking forward opportunities for:

  • More mutual awareness of the objectives, priorities, processes and activities amongst funders
  • More proactive collaboration, such as joint fund design; co-investment; joint research; joint investment in shared infrastructure, data or evidence; and joint lobbying and policy development
  • More implicit interdependence, such as common processes, standards and approaches; collective learning; mutually reinforcing forms and stages of capital; open decision making and investment data

We are running an open learning and design process that aims, in this initial phase, to include a broad and diverse range grant giving bodies in building a rich, up-to-date picture of who is playing what roles and where the gaps and opportunities are for greater collective awareness, interdependence and action.

If you are a funder with existing or planned work in youth mental health (or a related area) and would like to participate building a shared understanding of the landscape and help increase mutual awareness, interdependence and collaboration — please register your details with us using this short sign up form here.

Context: the youth mental health crisis in the UK

The Covid-19 lockdown has aggravated an already alarming and gut wrenching youth mental health crisis in the UK.

The Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2020 report, published in late October by NHS Digital, estimated that mental disorders amongst children and young people has increased by almost 50% since 2017. One in six children aged five to 16 are now identified as having a probable mental disorder, increasing from one in nine in 2017.

That means that in every primary school class of 30 kids, there are estimated to be around 5 that are experiencing issues like anxiety, stress or depression.

This is, of course, intertwined with many other issues that reflect and compound deep inequalities and has been badly aggravated by the Covid-19 crisis. For example, the report found that, children aged five to 16 with a probable mental disorder were more than twice as likely to live in a household that had fallen behind with debt payments (16.3%).

The need for effective action to tackle the root cause, and effects, of youth mental illness has never been greater.

The response from grant funding

Child and youth mental health has been a growing priority for UK grant giving institutions and bodies, including at local and national government level, for some time.

The commitment from funders is broad, diverse and longstanding, with around 150 funders listed by 360Giving as having invested in youth mental health outcomes since 2000. In recent years, commitments by the UK’s largest Trusts and Foundations have accelerated. 2019 saw the UK’s biggest grant funder, Wellcome Trust, announce a five-year, £200 million commitment to transform how we understand, fund, prevent and treat anxiety and depression in young people. In the same year, St Guy’s & St Thomas’ Charity made a major commitment to preventing and supporting young people with mental health issues as the focus of their next urban health programme.

And youth mental health has appeared prominently in funding that supports the response to the Covid-19 crisis.

For example, DMCS, DHSC, Comic Relief and Mind have collaborated to launch Coronavirus response funds in Wales and England. The National Lottery Community Fund has provided Headstart with an additional £8.7 million to support young people’s mental health in local places and schools and, at the start of November, the Scottish government made an extra £15 million available to help with the impact of the pandemic on children and young people’s mental health.

How mutually aware, interdependent and collectively minded is the current landscape of youth mental health funders?

Grant funding operates within system-wide challenges, gaps and failures. There is a massive shortfall in NHS funding for youth mental health and, as a result, up to 70% of young people who have a diagnosed mental health disorder are receiving no evidenced support at all. These aren’t gaps that grant funding can or should fill and this isn’t a system that grant funding can fix.

However, this only makes it more important for every grant funding body to play its most effective role with this wider system, alongside other Trusts and Foundations and in relation to the NHS, public health and other big state actors. So the question of whether this grant funding is, in the aggregate, as effective as it could be is an important one.

In theory, there is almost unlimited potential to maximise the collective funding impact in such an important area. There is no role or remit for competition amongst funders.

However, our experience and research suggests otherwise. And many grant funders have, during the crisis, shown considerable honesty, humility and ambition in their assessment of current levels of mutual awareness, interdependence and collaboration. Drawing on a series of workshops for the Funders’ Collaborative Hub that Cassie Robinson and I ran, we have some useful insights on this, including:

Mutual awareness amongst grant funders investing in similar or overlapping communities, systems and outcomes is often low — Despite more conversations, we have little ongoing clarity around where others are prioritising (UK grant funder)

There is a shared frustration about the obstructive elements of independent thinking and action amongst grant givers There is a lack of information sharing, a lack of strategic collaboration, and a lack of willingness to give up individual foundation agency and devolve decision making to a group of peers. (UK grant funder)

Grant funders have strong ambitions to understand and play their best role alongside those that share their aims — Can we develop a collective sense of where the gaps are and recognition of how the pieces of funding can fit together? (UK grant funder)

There are fundamental questions and challenges that funders cannot understand or respond to on their own — Can we figure out more of the big questions together, like: how do we have tough conversations about race and social justice with our boards etc? (UK grant funder)

Collaboration during the crisis has demonstrated the potential and there is a strong appetite to build on and accelerate this — How do we take the willingness to collaborate in times of crisis and employ in “normal” times? (UK grant funder)

Immediate aims of the enquiry

During this first phase of the enquiry we aim:

  • To build a rich, up-to-date and increasingly open picture of the landscape of funding priorities, activities, approaches and roles in youth mental health, using existing data (e.g. 360 Giving) and new data (consultation and surveys)
  • To identify and pursue immediate opportunities, for increasing mutual awareness, interdependence and collaboration in response to Covid-19, building on and connecting with existing efforts, such the Funders’ Collaborative Hub and Catalyst Data Collective, whenever possible

Longer-term aims

Over the longer-term, the Foundation Design Lab aims:

  • To demonstrate not just efficiencies within ways of working, but increased potential for transformational collective action amongst funders, as well as greater shared capacity to identify and address structural inequalities and injustices.
  • To build a more diverse and inclusive view of all capital and resource providers for youth mental health, including commissioners and impact investors, and support multiple cycles of work to increase interdependency and collective potential.
  • To help build open learning, practice and models, through our own work and as part of a network of like-minded efforts, that support thriving, interdependent landscapes of funders and other other capital providers in particular communities and systems.

To participate or find out more about the project, please please register your details with us using this short sign-up form here or email



Nick Stanhope

Designer & Breathwork Instructor. Co-Founder &Breathe. Founder & formerly @shift_org. Co-founder & Board @Historypin @BfB_Labs @shift_co.