A research centre working to understand and combat the scourge of child sexual abuse believes that involving victims and survivors is crucial to its grants assessment process.
Formed in the wake of a royal commission, the new National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse has a mission to build awareness, better protect children, and help survivors heal. It’s doing that by commissioning research, evaluating interventions and therapies, and sharing survivors’ knowledge.
Formed in late 2021, the charity is a joint venture of the Blue Knot Foundation, The Healing Foundation and the Australian Childhood Foundation, and won seed funding from the federal government.
Recent figures from the Australian Child Maltreatment Study show that 28.5% of Australians have experienced child sexual abuse.
Centre’s focus on practical research and survivors
About 18 months into its operations, the new National Centre expects to release a first tranche of grants in May 2023.
It’s a slice of $3.38 million committed over five years for practical research and projects that lead to better policies, better services, and more enlightened community attitudes.
The National Centre has laid out clear guidelines for the kinds of applications that will be supported, identifying seven “challenge” areas that fit its strategy. Funding supports research grants worth up to $250,000 and quality improvement grants of up to $35,000.
At the very top of the organisation’s research principles is the ethos that funded research must be “participatory and collaborative”, which means engaging victims and survivors.
National Centre chief executive Leanne Beagley told Grants Management Intelligence that involving victims and survivors in decisions was critical to everything the organisation did, including handing out grants.
“What’s unusual about our centre is our commitment to victim-survivors. This is at the heart of everything we do: all of our project work, and our research program,” Dr Beagley said.
“There’s no use coming in at the end, having designed your process, and then say, ‘Okay, now we’re going to plug victim-survivors in.’ That’s disrespectful and inappropriate. It needs to be upfront from the beginning, and before you even get to the review panels.”
Inducting panel members, acknowledging expertise, is critical to good decisions
The organisation uses a peer assessment process to decide on funding, with the most recent round using seven panels of at least five members each.
Every panel includes a member with lived experience of child sexual abuse, alongside researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. To recruit panels, the centre draws on its networks, including internal networks it has established to provide input on its overall strategy from victims and survivors. These take the form of three colleges: the Survivor-led Adult College, the First Nations College and the Children and Young People College.
As part of the panel mix, the centre also takes into account diversity in terms of cultural and linguistic background, disability, gender and sexuality.
Importantly, the National Centre familiarises adult victims and survivors on those panels with the assessment process to ensure they are comfortable with their role in the decision-making.
This familiarisation allows participants a preview of the kinds of panel members they will be dealing with, and issues likely to be raised, and aims to “equalise some of those power imbalances that could potentially play out at panel meetings where you have professors who have 20 years’ experience in research, versus someone with lived experience,” the manager of research and evaluation, Alexandra Shriane, explained.
Mrs Shriane said the preparatory meetings were very effective in allaying concerns.
“I would strongly encourage other people to do that, particularly if you're working with peer assessors in those sort of vulnerable population groups,” she said.
Dr Beagley said the National Centre believed it was equally important to “engage with the people in power so they know how to listen”. “I think that’s almost as challenging and just as critical.”
Research director, Associate Professor Dominiek Coates, who supervises the assessment process, said the centre had avoided traditional grants assessment processes in which each panel member is expected to rank applications on several criteria – even those that are not areas of expertise or knowledge. “I think that’s a big issue in these kinds of processes.”
The National Centre’s peer assessment approach allows panel members to play to their strengths and make assessments in areas where they are most confident and knowledgeable, in areas as diverse as cultural safety and statistical analysis.
Assoc Prof Coates said that in some assessments, it meant people with lived experience of child sexual abuse were able to say “‘this is not a priority area from a lived experience perspective’, and that was enough for us to say, ‘this is not the right project for us to fund’.”
“It’s important that people let themselves nominate what they feel comfortable in assessing, even if that means you need to have a bigger panel to assess the application.
“It's less about finding one assessor that has all the right skills and expertise. It's about finding the right panel, so it's the right makeup of people on the one panel.
“An academic peer assessor is not going to bring a good understanding of what people with lived experience consider research priorities, and a policymaker might not have a good understanding of research and design, et cetera.
“They all bring an important piece of knowledge around what is going to lead to impact. We feel very confident that each panel had the right mix of people.”
To avoid overloading those panels, each panel is allowed to assess a maximum of 10 applications.
Independent centre has ‘room to move’ with change agenda, process
Dr Beagley said the organisation had been very happy with the panel representation and the interest shown in the latest grant round, which attracted 49 applications seeking about $9 million for the $3.38 million on offer over its first five years.
Those research ideas target different points on the centre’s strategic agenda, she said, with deliberations now in the final stages.
But she stressed that the centre would fund only “highly recommended” applications, and would not compel itself to spend the full quota if the applications weren’t right.
“We’ve got this funding to distribute over five years and not necessarily all at once. We have room to move,” Dr Beagley said.
She said formal feedback from panel members about the process was “highly encouraging”, but said the centre hoped to continue to improve on the process in future iterations of its grants program.
“Whatever happens, we want to be informed by the people who were part of it, and by victim survivors,” she said.
Participatory grantmaking quick tips
- Do involve beneficiaries in funding decisions. They know what’s needed.
- Recruit diverse panels by making good use of your networks
- Familiarise peer assessors with your processes so they are comfortable when it comes to decision time
- Build assessment panels with an eye to depth. Don’t expect every panel member to understand every aspect of every application. Just make sure that between them, they’ve got it covered.
- Value the knowledge of your panel members, allowing them to rank applications according to the criteria they know best
- Use the panel experience to encourage peers and “experts” to share knowledge and educate each other
- Give your panels a chance to suggest improvements to your process for next time.