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What’s meant by ‘lived experience’?


homeless man in red jacket holding up a sign

If you apply for grant funding, you may have seen this term. Funders are increasingly searching for lived experience as an element of your governing board’s make-up, as the suggested/ideal background of the person delivering the project you’re looking to fund, or as the past reality of a volunteer(s) offering to help.


Lived experience is quite self-explanatory, but perhaps why it’s required is not as clear.


To funders, it adds a layer of credibility. If you have someone on your board or working within the project who has lived experience of the problem you’re supporting, there’s the assumption that they will understand the issue at hand more greatly than the average Joe. They will also be better able to connect with beneficiaries, having gone through a similar experience to theirs.


If you’re someone who’s been in their shoes and come through the other side, you will have a solution that clearly worked, one that may also help those the charity supports. Even if the pathway you chose to get through your problem isn’t suitable for the people coming to you for help, you’ll still likely know of alternative solutions—solutions that those who haven’t been in your position may be oblivious to.


Speaking to someone with lived experience, as a beneficiary, can be emotive. It also helps to build trust. If you live in poverty, for example, and the person looking to understand your challenges is, and always has been, a millionaire, it’s unlikely they will see the world through your eyes, however well-meaning they may be.


homeless man wearing a red top with a beard and black wolly hat

Having someone with lived experience complete a funding application is powerful. They’ll be able to explain the real impact of the relevant issue, rather than base responses on assumptions or random statistics without context or weighting, which can happen.


Lived experience can bring more passion to the table. Charity founders are typically those with lived experience, as this is what led them to start the organisation in the first place. Founders will be passionate about raising greater awareness of the issue, attracting funding, or providing a solution that doesn’t currently exist. If, as a founder, you also have trustees, volunteers and staff that have lived experience…my, you’d all become a force to be reckoned with!


For instance, I know of someone who lived in poverty throughout the years her children were growing up. Though she’s not in the same position now, she has never (and probably will never) forget what being poor felt like. She now works for three charities who focus on issues stemming from low income/poverty and is a trustee on a fourth. If ever these charities want a quote for the media, if they ever need someone to say ‘I get how hard it is’ to someone seeking help, or if they’re looking for assistance to raise funds, she’s there to give her time and lived experience. Her stories make people think instead of judging, her current standing gives beneficiaries the confidence that they may find themselves in a similar position one day, and she knows a lot of solutions people can apply to their situations…solutions that aren’t publicised—as poverty is perpetuated rather than eradicated in Britain today (I got that from her!).


It's not uncommon, when you’ve gone through an adverse situation, to want to change things and give back to society. However, as I said in this article, don’t automatically think that the only option you have is to launch a new charity. There may be other organisations in your wider area that are already serving the same cause, who will be further down the line and with a reputation/standing in your locality already. It makes more sense to join their efforts than compete with them. It’s at least worth a conversation to see how you could help to grow their cause before launching your own; maybe you could deliver a spin-off project or help to train more volunteers.


Lived experience is helpful, but it doesn’t mean that the entire organisation MUST have first-hand experience. As the Non-Profit Times rhetorically asks, ‘Must all staff of a poverty-fighting non-profit be poor themselves? If a non-profit is established to battle racial injustice, does it mean that everyone involved has been the victim of police brutality or housing discrimination or voter suppression?’


The best and most successful charities have a range of people working within the organisation, as well as on their governing boards. A wide and diverse range of skills and experiences are needed to ensure a cause makes the right kind of impact on the lives of those it supports, and so it also enjoys sustainable growth.


If you’d like help to win funding and/or take your organisation to the next level, get in touch with me at wendy@letssave.biz or call 0114 350 3354.