Programme Award Guidance - Work Pathways

Detailed guidance on applying for our Work Pathways programme award open call.

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We are currently inviting Programme Award applications through an open call on the theme of Work Pathways.

The Robertson Trust is here to prevent and reduce poverty and trauma in Scotland - funding, supporting, and influencing solutions to drive social change. Work Pathways is one of our four key themes.

Within our Work Pathways theme, we have the ultimate aim of developing new and improved work pathways out of poverty, to increase earnings for low-income households over the short-term, and to prevent and reduce poverty and in-work poverty over the long-term. Across the theme as a whole we are interested in:

  • improving employment rates for key population groups facing structural barriers to fair work,
  • driving improved pay, conditions and secure/increased hours for low paid workers,
  • minimising volatile earnings and maximising secure work, and
  • delivering improved career progression for low-income workers.

The Trust is working on these aims across a range of work to fund, support and influence and will continue to do so over the course of our strategy through to 2030.

Priority areas

The priority outcome for this Work Pathways open call for programme award applications is:

Improving job quality to tackle in-work poverty in Scotland.

We use the Scottish Government definition that in-work or working poverty describes households who live in relative poverty even though someone in the household is in paid work. A household is in relative poverty if the equivalised household income is below 60% of the UK median income in the same year[1].

This could include applications for work focused on:

  • We are interested in employer-focused approaches, as well as approaches that have a joint focus on the employer and employee.

Traditional employability models and in-work support often focus on how the individual can adapt to the workplace rather than how employers may need to change behaviour to meet the needs of their organisation and their employees. We are interested in approaches that support employers to adjust business practices and job design to tackle in-work poverty for employees and improve job quality.

  • Supporting employers to apply and embed the principles of the fair work in practice across Scotland

We use the Fair Work Framework to define fair work in Scotland, with five dimensions of: effective voice, opportunity, security, fulfilment and respect. We are keen to see applications that can support adoption and improvement in practice across these five dimensions in Scotland.

  • Improving career progression, skills investment, and job design

Too many people in Scotland are trapped in low-pay jobs. Driving improved career progression, including through increased skills investment/utilisation and improved job design, are crucial to tackling in-work poverty.  We commissioned research through the Diffley Partnership with people with experiences of in-work poverty which found that employees we spoke to linked progression opportunities as being incompatible with caring responsibilities, particularly childcare costs. We are interested in work that can support career progression for low-paid workers in general but in particular for the population groups most likely to be affected barriers and the sectors most likely to see entrenched low-paid work.

Please see priority population groups and sectors section below.

  • Removing barriers to earning more (where people want to)

There are often structural barriers in the way of people earning more. These are often beyond the control of employees or employers and include social security conditions, childcare costs, physical and mental health conditions and/or a lack of community infrastructure such as reliable, affordable transport. We are interested in projects in these areas as long as they have a clear focus on paid work, and on tackling in-work poverty and improving job quality in particular. Strengthening worker power, rights and enforcement

At the core of delivering improved work will be improving worker power and strengthening worker rights. This can be good in the long-term for employers as much as employees, improving wellbeing, retention and ultimately productivity. . However, employees have limited tools, resources, and influence to not only understand and secure their rights but to enforce them which becomes more challenging again for those in low wage sectors and roles. Equally, employers often do not have the support needed to effectively build a constructive working relationship with employees. We are interested in projects that can help to strengthen worker power and worker rights in Scotland, to tackle in-work poverty.

Across these areas we will be particularly interested in work focused on lower-paid sectors such as health and social care, retail, hospitality, administration and manufacturing. We will also be interested in work that focuses on population groups and places more likely to experience lower quality work and in-work poverty.

Why this priority area?

We have undertaken a great deal of discovery work to develop our spending plans for the Work Pathways theme. A key part of our spending plans for this theme will be through this open call. This discovery work has included engagement with our existing grant holders, with policy officials and lived and learned experts in the field of work. We have undertaken desk-based research and commissioned qualitative research to feed into this open call and our broader spending plans within this theme.

Work is no longer a guaranteed route out of poverty

This work has outlined the changing nature of poverty in Scotland over the last 20 years. Over one million people in Scotland are living in poverty in Scotland, with the majority of working age population in poverty living in working households. ONS figures show in 1996-99, around 1 in 3 people in poverty (of all ages) had someone in their family work, in that in 2019-22 almost half of families in poverty, were from a working household.[2] People are working more than ever before, yet working households are still struggling to make ends meet.

Low pay is an issue

Part of this will be linked to low pay. The Resolution Foundation’s ‘Intergenerational Audit 2023’ found that while millennials have made some progress on employment in the labour market, pay progression remains close to zero: someone born in the late 1980s earned, on average, 8% less at the age of 30 than someone born 10 years prior did at the same age.[3] We also know that while the introduction of a minimum wage has seen substantial improvements to the pay of the UK’s lowest paid jobs,[4] it is not enough on its own. The statutory minimum is not equivalent to the real Living Wage, and people experiencing in-work poverty might not be in minimum wage jobs (e.g. they might have hourly pay above the minimum wage but work part-time).[5] We have also seen spending cuts and changes to policy relating to social security working against the increases minimum wage over the last decade in such a way that a couple with three children, where both adults are earning the minimum wage, were worse off in 2023 than 2013, despite their gross pay rising by 27% in real terms.[6]

Too often low-pay jobs can become low-pay careers with people trapped in a cycle of in-work poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that 1 in 10 workers are in persistent low pay, in that they have earned below the real living wage for at least four of five years. They also found that very few people in low pay are able to sustainably move out of low pay with only 1 in 20 moving to pay above the real living wage in the same 5-year period. Women, single people, including single parents, people from ethnically minoritised backgrounds and disabled people are all disproportionately affected by persistent low pay.[7]

But low pay is not the only determining factor for in-work poverty

Insecure work is intertwined with low pay, seeing similar sectors and population groups experiencing not just low pay but insecure work. According to Living Wage Foundation, 6.1 million workers in the UK were in insecure work in 2023[8]. We have seen changes to the quality of work in Scotland and across the UK, including through fewer hours and unpredictable working patterns. Increasing use of short term/high turn-over contracts linked to these issues as well as lack of staff investment and poor workplace wellbeing have driven changes to the quality of work in Scotland.

Research conducted by Professor Patricia Findlay and Johanna McQuarrie at the Scottish Centre for Employment Research, on behalf of GCVS and with co-funding from The Robertson Trust, found that open-ended contracts are associated with more positive responses from employees in terms of their own wellbeing and ability to meet unexpected costs. Where open-ended contracts are not offered, longer fixed-term contracts are preferable to shorter ones.[9]

We also see that structural inequalities are often exacerbated by other barriers such as a lack of quality, accessible and affordable childcare, inflexible jobs, lack of proximity to work, a social care system failing too many and an inadequate social security system.

The Resolution Foundation shows that we have some of the poorest protections across the UK for benefits such as maternity and sick leave, in comparison to other OECD countries.[10] Occupational schemes for sick pay are concentrated in higher-paying sectors meaning that those at most risk of in-work poverty more reliant on state support which is lower in real terms than it was in 1982.[11]

Not everyone is affected equally

Low pay, low hours, other barriers into work, and discrimination are all issues but some people are more at risk than others.

There is a great deal of evidence that shows that disabled people, people from ethnically minoritised backgrounds, women, and lone parent families are all disproportionately affected by the issues relating to in-work poverty, with discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, sex, and ethnicity most common.[12] Organisations tell us that often people do not know their rights, and if they do, they might lack the resources, or the confidence needed to advocate for them. In 2017, people earning £40,000 or more a year were twice as likely to take their employer to court as those earning under £20,000.[13] The EHRC’s budget has also been cut by four-fifths in real terms since 2018-9 so there is less access to enforcement for labour market rules within the UK.[14]

As well as these population groups being more at risk, there are also some sectors affected persistently by high rates of low pay. Published evidence repeatedly shows us that people working in hospitality, retail, and social care are more at risk of low-pay, precarious contracts, unpredictable hours, and fewer opportunities for training and progression.

Focus on solutions

Overall, across the economy and society, the last 20 years have seen a redistribution of risk to those who can least cope, with risk being pushed onto low-income individuals and households. We know that while preparing people for and addressing individual barriers to work is extremely important, employment is no longer a guaranteed route out of poverty. That is why we want to focus this open call on improving job quality and tackling in-work poverty, including employers and sector networks in the process.

Funding Criteria

What will we fund through Programme Awards?

Programme Awards are The Robertson Trust’s awards for long term change. Through these we will support work which aims to deliver big change that lasts on tackling poverty and trauma in Scotland. There is more information on what we mean by big change that lasts in the next section.

We will not fund direct service delivery through our Programme Awards or funds for onward distribution through Programme Awards, unless they are testing new or scalable approaches with a particularly high potential for big change that lasts.

Through our Programme Awards, we are interested in providing funding and working alongside organisations to drive the ideas and work that can ultimately deliver the change we wish to see on tackling poverty and trauma in Scotland, in line with our priority area outlined above.

This could be through:

  • Feasibility and development projects – work to develop good ideas with high potential for change at scale, including work to build partnerships and participation to design and deliver good ideas.
  • Test and demonstration projects – work to test and demonstrate new approaches to services and work that can reduce poverty and trauma in Scotland, in line with our three priority areas above.
  • Research focused on change - we are not a research funder, but we will fund research where it can clearly and demonstrably connect to action to deliver change.
  • Advocacy, policy, campaigning and influencing projects – to change policy, practice, attitudes, and behaviours.

We want to support work focused on Scotland, with the aim of delivering impact to prevent and reduce poverty and trauma. Organisations do not need to be Scotland-based but do need to be working in Scotland and to display a good understanding of the context here in order to show potential for big change that lasts. We welcome partnership applications, including those working on a cross-sectoral basis and/or with private sector partners. If a partnership of organisations are looking to apply, please note that the lead organisation should make the application on behalf of the consortium and must therefore meet our key eligibility and criteria. Other partners in the consortium do not need to meet our eligibility criteria. Please see our eligibility criteria below.

Learning from our Programme Awards

Through all of our Programme Awards, we want to understand:

  • What are Programme Award projects partners doing?
  • What differences are Programme Award projects contributing to (and what is helping or hindering their impact)?
  • How are Programme Award projects incorporating their learning into what they do (to improve their impact)?

We also want to learn alongside Programme Award projects and subject experts to explore what helps or hinders big change that lasts in different contexts.

All of our Programme Awards should have a clear plan for evaluating the work to help us explore the questions above together. The evaluation should ordinarily be completed independently (unless the scale of the project or skills and capability f the grantholder dictates otherwise) and so we expect to see this in your project budget. We will look at applicant’s evaluation plans during the stage 2 assessments and can work with you to develop them as appropriate.

For our Work Pathways Open Call, we anticipate bringing organisations together a couple of times a year to share learning and consider common themes emerging from the learning of individual projects. Applicants should budget appropriate time within budgets for grant management activity with The Trust in general, and for learning events to be included in the project budget. We would expect this to be no more than five days per year on average.

What do we mean by big change that lasts on poverty and trauma?

Overall, we want to fund work through our Programme Awards that can deliver big change that lasts on preventing and reducing poverty and trauma. We want to fund work that has a clear, thought-through and demonstrable potential to lead to significant impact at scale. This could either be in general, across low-income people and families overall, or for particular population groups and geographical areas. For this Work Pathways open call we are interested in work that can deliver big change that lasts on improving job quality to tackle in-work poverty in Scotland.

For us, big change that lasts means delivering systems change, strategic change and/or long-term change. Put simply we want to fund work over the near-term that has the best possible chance of delivering significant impact on poverty and trauma over the long-term. We want to consider the continuing impact of the work, after the lifetime of the project, and beyond the people directly involved in the funded activities. Applications that can demonstrate a clear link between the proposed work and a long-term impact on preventing and reducing in-work poverty and trauma in this theme and on this priority area will be most likely to be successful. This includes thinking through the links and the logic between the first and next steps of the work and the ultimate aim, the people and organisations that will need to act to deliver that aim, the activities that might enable them to do so, and the partnerships and coalitions of support needed to maximise the chances of that happening.

Some refer to this as a theory of change and/or logic models. We don’t mind what you call it, we just want to know you have thought through how you need to act, with whom, and who you need to influence, to deliver the change we both want to see, and why this proposed work has the best chance of succeeding in doing so.

Priority population groups and sectors

We are particularly interested to see applications from organisations working in a focused way with at least one of our priority population groups within low-income families and/or those at risk of poverty, which are:

  • Workers with low levels of qualifications.
  • Women – particularly in part time work and/or with caring responsibilities.
  • Formal or informal carers.
  • Parents including lone parents.
  • People from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
  • Disabled people or people with a long-term health condition.

Or a particular focus on the following high priority sectors including:

  • Hospitality
  • Retail
  • Health and Social Care
  • Manufacturing
  • Administration

The Robertson Trust is increasingly aiming to build participation with people with experience of poverty and trauma into our work. This includes what we fund and who we work with. Meaningful and ethical co-design with people with experience of poverty and trauma will be one of our key criteria for assessing applications through our Programme Awards.

What we will not consider funding through this open call?

We will not fund work through Programme Awards that could be funded through Our Funds, including Large Grants. The Large Grant guidance is here.

Overall, we will not fund work unless it can demonstrate a high potential for delivering big change that lasts, beyond the funding term and beyond the direct beneficiaries of the work. This will need a well-thought through plan for how the proposed work links to delivering long-term change on poverty and trauma in general, and on Work Pathways and the priority areas for this open call specifically. As outlined above big change that lasts could be for low-income people and families as a whole or for population groups, places or sectors most likely to experience poverty and trauma.

The following is not an exhaustive list but provides broad examples of the type of work we would be unable to fund within this open call for Programme Awards:

  • Projects that would be eligible for support through Our Funds.
  • Work that is not relevant to our Work Pathways theme in general and our priority area for this open call in particular.
  • We fund a range of employability projects through The Trust. We are therefore not interested in employability approaches, focused only on getting people into work, or that end when people get into work, through this open call. Our interest is in improving job quality and tackling in-work poverty for those already in work through this open call.
  • Direct delivery of services, unless this is testing and demonstrating a new approach or scaling an approach which has a particularly high potential to lead to wider change in line with our priority area.
  • Funds for onward distribution unless it has a particularly high potential for big change that lasts.
  • Work that has a low potential for impact beyond the funding period or beyond the direct beneficiaries of the project.
  • Unrestricted funding, though we do encourage full cost recovery and will fund a proportionate share of organisational overheads through Programme Awards.
  • Wider interventions and approaches which do not have a clear connection to delivering big change that lasts on tackling poverty and trauma in Scotland.
  • Applications which are about improving or changing internal organisational capacity, capabilities or structure (unless there is a clear link to how this will improve outcomes for people experiencing poverty and/or trauma).
  • Work which solely seeks to build understanding of the causes and/or consequences of poverty and trauma as opposed to delivering solutions on poverty and trauma.
  • Restricted funding for capital projects.

If you have questions on what we will not be seeking to fund, please ask us by emailing:

Who are Programme Awards for?

This open call for Programme Awards is available to organisations working in Scotland with an annual income of more than £100K.  Annual income is based on the money you received in the last financial year, as presented in your most recent set of audited annual accounts. 

Programme Awards are open to:

  • Organisations working in Scotland with an annual income of more than £100,000.
  • The following types of organisations:
    • Registered Charities active in Scotland
    • Asset Locked Community Interest Companies (you must be able to demonstrate a satisfactory asset lock demonstrating how they do not distribute assets or profits to individuals or third parties)
    • Housing Associations
    • Credit Unions
  • Partnerships led by one of the organisations above can include other types of organisations (such as companies or public bodies) – see In Partnership? Below.

If the proposed project is being delivered by a subsidiary company with a different legal structure to that outlined above, the application (Stage 1 application) should be made by the parent company, which must meet our published eligibility criteria.

Organisations already in receipt of another award from The Robertson Trust are eligible to apply through Programme Awards. However, the proposed work should be different and/or additional to what we already fund.

Who can’t apply?

  • Organisations with an annual income of less than £100K.
  • Other types of organisation which are not listed above.

What can I apply for?

We will usually look to make awards for up to five years, with a total award amount usually between £50,000 and £500,000, up to £250,000 per year. We expect feasibility and development work to be at the smaller and shorter scale of what we will fund through Programme Awards, with test and demonstration work more likely at the larger and longer scale of our Programme Awards. Programme Awards are open to registered charities, asset-locked Community Interest Companies, Housing Associations and Credit Unions. The total budget available through this Programme Award open call will be up to £2m, subject to level of demand and the quality of proposals we receive.

  • Project restricted revenue funding usually for up to five years, for a total award ordinarily between £50K and £500K and up to £250k per year. This can include staffing costs and direct delivery costs. We will look carefully at the amount of funding requested in proportion to  the existing size and income of the organisation. It is unlikely that small organisations will be successful for larger awards, unless they are part of a bigger partnership application.
  • We encourage applicants to include within their project budget full cost recovery (i.e. direct project costs and a proportionate share of organisational overheads), in addition to evaluation costs. We are happy to consider both part funding and fully funding the costs of Programme Award proposals.
  • Given current and projected levels of inflation it is important proposals for more than one-year include a realistic assumption for cost-of-living and price increases.
Application Process

What do I need to apply?

  • A minimum of three unconnected Trustees on your organisation’s Board. By unconnected we mean not related by blood; married to each other; in a relationship with each other or living together at the same address. We will ask this at Stage 1.
  • Recent audited annual accounts. We will ask for these to be uploaded with your Stage 1 application.
  • A safeguarding policy. If your organisation directly supports infants, children and young people or vulnerable adults, we would expect you to have an appropriate policy document which sets out how you will keep them safe. We will seek this at Stage 2 if you are successful at Stage 1.
  • A policy on equity and diversity. We want to know that your organisation has a written agreement detailing how you will avoid discriminating against people, and how you will take action to create a safe and inclusive environment both within your workplace and for the people you support. We will seek this at Stage 2 if you are successful at Stage 1.
  • A Living Wage policy or an outline of progress being made towards paying the real living wage. We will seek this at Stage 2 if you are successful at Stage 1.
  • A Fair Work policy including all dimensions of the Fair Work Framework (effective voice, opportunity, security, fulfilment, and respect) and especially around effective employee voice. We will seek this at Stage 2 if you are successful at Stage 1.
  • A Climate Commitment Policy or an outline of how the core work of the lead organisation is responding to the impacts and/or causes of the climate crisis. We will seek to discuss this at Stage 2 if you are successful at Stage 1.
  • An evaluation plan. We will seek this at Stage 2 if you are successful at Stage 1.

In partnership? If you’re making an application on behalf of a formal consortium of more than one organisation, please be aware that we will require a signed copy of your Memorandum of Understanding if you’re invited to the second stage of our application process, which includes the contact details for all partners and covers all key aspects of the partnership (including for example GDPR arrangements). Please note that the lead organisation should make the application on behalf of the consortium and must therefore meet our key eligibility and criteria. Other partners in the consortium do not need to meet our eligibility criteria.

How will applications be assessed?

Our assessment processes will include assessors from across The Robertson Trust staff team and will include external assessors for some applications. We are interested in applications that can demonstrate a high level of quality across a range of areas. This includes:

  • An understanding of the causes and consequences of poverty and trauma in Scotland and how change can drive improvement of the fair work dimensions– does the application display a strong understanding of The Trust’s strategic aims to tackle poverty and trauma, and our thematic area of work pathways (and any links across our other themes)?
  • Strong potential for change and scale – does the application have a well thought through and persuasive theory of change with sufficient scale of impact on poverty and trauma, for specific population groups/geographical places/high priority sectors? This will be particularly important for our assessment.
  • A strong focus on communities and stakeholder? engagement – does the application show it has plans in place for successful engagement from other relevant people and organisations that can help to maximise the chances of delivering big change that lasts?
  • A clear priority placed on participation and relationships – are people with experience of poverty and trauma meaningfully and ethically at the heart of design and delivery of the work or, if not, has a strong case been made as to why not?
  • A clear focus on impact and delivery – does the application have the organisations and staff team in place with the skills and experience necessary to deliver the impact desired?

How do I apply?

The application process for this open call will be in two stages: an initial Stage 1 shorter application followed by a full application for those who reach Stage 2.  The application period for Stage 2 will run from mid-July to the start of September (approximately 6 weeks). Applicants that are successful in reaching Stage 2 will be eligible for a small award of funding (usually around £5k depending on development work needed) to help cover the costs in developing the application further for the second stage.

To apply through this open call, please complete your Stage 1 application by Friday 7th June at noon. A link to the application can be found here Please contact us at to discuss alternative ways to apply.

What happens next?

We’ll email you to let you know that we’ve received your Stage 1 application. This will then be reviewed, together with all proposals we receive, and we will let you know the outcome of our decision by w/c 29th July.

If you are invited to proceed to the next stage, we will send you a link to our Stage 2 application form which opens from 25th July to 4th September. . This second stage of the process will involve a more in-depth conversation between applicants and members of our Programme Award team here at the Trust to explore in more detail the nature of your proposal. We’ll aim to let applicants know the outcome of Stage 2 by the start of December 2024.

Feel free to get in touch.

If you have any questions about applying for a Work Pathways Programme Award, please contact us at We’ve done our best to make sure the above guidance is clear, however, if you have any feedback on this, we’d welcome the chance to talk to you about it.


[1] What do we know about in-work poverty in Scotland? Interim findings Scottish Government Communities Analysis Division February 2019

[2] Joseph Rowntree Foundation, ‘Poverty in Scotland 2023’ (October 2023), p.26

[3] Resolution Foundation, 'An Intergenerational Audit for the UK 2023' (13th November 2023)

[4] Resolution Foundation, 'Labour Market Outlook Q2 2024: Happy 25th birthday to the minimum wage' (27th March 2024)

[5] Resolution Foundation, 'Labour Market Outlook Q2 2024: Happy 25th birthday to the minimum wage' (27th March 2024)

[6] Resolution Foundation, 'Labour Market Outlook Q2 2024: Happy 25th birthday to the minimum wage' (27th March 2024)

[7] Joseph Rowntree Foundation, ‘Poverty in Scotland 2023’ (October 2023), p.6-7

[8] Precarious pay and uncertain hours: Insecure work in the UK Labour Market. Joe Richardson August 2023

[9] Prof Patricia Findlay and Johanna McQuarrie, ‘Fair Work in the Third Sector in Scotland’ (5 July 2023), p.77

[10] Resolution Foundation, 'Labour Market Outlook Q2 2024: Happy 25th birthday to the minimum wage' (27th March 2024)

[11] Richard Partington, ‘Why the UK’s dire rates of sick pay bode ill for the economy’ (14 May 2022) [We should quote the source evidence rather than a newspaper article where possible].

[12] Prof Patricia Findlay and Johanna McQuarrie, ‘Fair Work in the Third Sector in Scotland’ (5 July 2023), p.54 and Resolution Foundation, 'Policing Prejudice: enforcing anti-discrimination laws in the workplace' (8th November 2022)

[13] Resolution Foundation, 'Policing Prejudice: enforcing anti-discrimination laws in the workplace' (8th November 2022)

[14] Resolution Foundation, 'Labour Market Outlook Q2 2024: Happy 25th birthday to the minimum wage' (27th March 2024)

Feel free to get in touch.

If you have any questions about applying for our Programme Award, please contact us at

We’ve done our best to make sure the above guidance is clear, however, if you have any feedback on this, we’d welcome the chance to talk to you about it.