Did it work?

We think so, but judge for yourself.

To get a more thorough answer we worked with researchers from Nesta’s Innovation Growth Lab, Eszter Czibor and Teo Firpo, to conduct a formal evaluation. We compared the new randomised funding approach (Round 4) to previous years where applications were reviewed by senior staff (Rounds 1-3).

The evaluation considered two things:

  • Did we reach a more diverse pool of applicants?
  • Did our applicants propose more diverse outputs and partners?

Did we reach a more diverse pool of applicants?


The share of women among applicants was around 15 percentage point higher in Round 4 than in the previous rounds, up from 58.3 per cent to 74.5 per cent. As a comparison, about 70 per cent of Nesta’s workforce identifies as female.

We also reached deeper into the organisation.

The share of applicants who work in the Explorations Team (the team who run the programme) dropped from 25 per cent in Rounds 1-3 to just 2 per cent in Round 4.

What’s more, the share of applicants usually based on a different floor from the Explorations Team in Nesta’s head office increased from 50 per cent to 68 per cent.

We think that if we’re engaging more people from outside the Explorations team, who we are less likely to interact with on a daily basis because they are based on different floors, then we’re more likely to be involving different staff who might bring new ideas.

Did our applicants propose more diverse outputs and partners?

Again, yes.

Round 4 saw an increase in the share of proposals involving external collaborators – over 20 per cent, up from just over 10 per cent in all previous rounds. By chance, this was even higher among successful applicants in Round 4 (60 per cent).

Applicants were asked to specify what outputs would result from their work. As the graph below shows, Round 4 saw a diversification of output types away from reports, towards articles, blogs, prototypes, videos and other media.

To complement the formal evaluation we did a quick anonymous survey of our explorers to find out their views on the scheme.

  • Many enjoyed the freedom, agency and empowerment.
  • They also valued the support provided by the Explorations Team (thanks guys).
  • One mentioned that their team is planning to take forward their idea as part of efforts to support staff.
  • On the downside conducting the Initiatives in the middle of a pandemic made things trickier, although in one case it did help bring the project into focus.
  • The tight timeline after funds were committed was also seen as challenging. This could be tackled with a longer lead in time and perhaps by conducting the scheme away from the end of the financial year which put pressure on administration.
  • We might also have planned communications further in advance, although part of the ethos of the project was to build the plane while flying it. Conducting the scheme outside a pandemic and strategy review would make this easier, alongside more planning.
  • Two other suggestions were even greater sharing between the Initiatives and pairing Initiative leads with random internal and external experts in the topic.

What did we learn?

  • On creativity and cohesion: As our virtual exhibition shows, schemes to harness the innovation and creativity of staff such as Explorations Initiatives can generate impressive and unexpected outputs. The programme has been hugely popular with participants and staff from across the organisation, even those who didn’t receive funding. It therefore seems a good way of fostering a culture of creativity, building cross-organisational cohesion and alliances, and attracting and retaining, smart, creative people.
  • On diversity: Under the new model, we saw an increase in the number of applicants and diversity of proposals. This is probably due to a combination of randomised funding, a lighter touch application process and the lower commitment required of applicants.
  • On evaluation: Before we could conduct the evaluation of the old and new funding schemes, we had to retrospectively collect the data required for the analysis. We could make future evaluations easier by proactively collecting the relevant data on applicants and proposals at the time of application - that way, we could incorporate other interesting characteristics and relevant aspects of diversity into our analysis.
  • On support: Sustained creative and administrative support before, during and after the programme from the Explorations team significantly improved the success rate, delivery and quality of outputs. There’s more to be done in terms of planning and mapping the process, so that future Explorers are aware of limits and expectations.
  • On collaboration: In this round of Initiatives, we saw teams being established after funding had been allocated, meaning that the pool of people involved in the projects was even more diverse. The teams have worked together successfully so we should encourage this approach going forward, though not require it.
  • On time: One barrier the Initiatives needed to overcome was securing Nesta staff time, which is as important to delivery as money. We should consider a way of formally securing this time as this will strengthen the Initiatives and likely increase the number of applications.

We’re an innovation foundation. We need to live and breathe that idea by being brave enough to test new ways of doing things and encouraging creativity, exploration and experimentation inside the organisation. Explorations Initiatives have proven to be a good way of doing that.

View our virtual exhibition to find out more about the Explorations Initiatives

The Initiatives