Closed Collective Model – Weeks Four & Five: Standing together

Due to time constraints, I suggested to the group that I combine the blog for weeks four and five given that they covered many of the same themes and ideas around funding. They accepted this suggestion. 

We seem to have settled on using ‘One good/one bad’ as our check-in – this is when you tell the group one good and one bad thing that has happened to you in the past week/since you last saw each other.

What the members of the group have fed back is that it’s been a useful way to get a bigger glimpse into the other members of the group. While they’re all coming together because of a shared interest in helping young people, they’ve not necessarily known a lot about each other beyond that.

This check-in helps round out the people we’re engaging with and also opens up a space for vulnerability, which has proved really useful for the conversations that come afterwards. Given the scope of our conversations around funding, it was really great to see the group bring this vulnerability into meeting with other funders. It helps highlight issues and offers the opportunity to change things because people who make decisions are suddenly confronted with the people their decisions affect!

©chrisharvey - stock.adobe.com
©chrisharvey - stock.adobe.com

We want our work to be included, valued, and respected

The two situations the group were faced with were:

  • Organisation A is currently running a project which has been commissioned by a statutory body. The funding for it will last until March 2022 and looks at how the private sector can support the civic sector to improve outcomes for young people.
  • Funder B is an established funder looking to try a different approach to funding to address severe imbalances that they have identified in their own work. Following a presentation that BD Giving gave at a London Funders event, they approached us to find out more about our work and see if what we are doing in B&D might align with what they are looking to do in the borough.

With the former, the question for the group was if they wanted to take part in a project which was mostly fixed in its scope. For the latter, it was to see if it might be possible to build a collaborative project from scratch with a funder that was looking to test a different way of funding.

While the questions posed were slightly different, the answers that the group provided touched on many of the same issues around power, resourcing and the work involved in accepting funding or other support, which isn’t as value-neutral as is sometimes suggested.

Who has the power?

Both conversations focussed on where the power lies in any discussion around funding.

The groups all had experience where they had been brought into a larger organisation’s project after funding had already been secured by the larger organisation.

This meant that they had little to no say in how much they would receive for their work. It also meant that they they found themselves under a lot of pressure to deliver for bigger organisations who are then answerable to an even bigger funder. It creates a lot of downward pressure on smaller organisations, who are left attempting to satisfy someone else’s priorities instead of their own. 

With Organisation A, most of the project is complete and they need to be able to demonstrate how they have benefitted local organisations in B&D to their funder. This puts pressure on them, which they need to deal with or lose their funding – the closed collective group recognised this but felt strongly about setting clear boundaries around the circumstances under which they’d accept the money offered (which both sides recognised was not a lot).

If these boundaries aren’t acceptable to the upstream funder, then the closed collective members do not want to use their already stretched time and resources trying to meet the needs of that funder.

Once Organisation A had left the meeting space, the first thing the group did was congratulate themselves on the support and solidarity they had shown each other – together, they felt able to turn down money, something that they might not have felt able to do if they had been approached individually.

With Funder B, we were all really grateful to be approached by a funder who seemed genuinely interested in working with communities in a different way. They had identified gaps in their own funding and, because the disruption of the pandemic had caused a break in their funding, wanted to use the opportunity to test out something different instead rushing to return to form.

 

This funder has a limited pot of money to distribute in the borough but they don’t want to exacerbate issues and deepening divides by making it a scrabble for small sums of money that pit organisations against one another. As such, they’re looking to do a more targeted intervention, supported by organisations in the borough.

The group really took to the meeting, and pushed the funder to be open and honest about their intentions. From where I was sitting, the funder also seemed to relish the opportunity to hear what the impact of this funding might be. The funder went away with a lot of questions and duly followed up with some replies and next steps. It’s going to be really exciting seeing where this work might take us, with organisations working with a funder to deliver an opportunity which is quite rare in the borough.

It’s important to note that the group is not guaranteed access to any of this funding, but it’s about including organisations in conversations that impact them and using their knowledge of a sector to imagine new and exciting ways for the borough to develop.

The main takeaway from the discussions was that, where they had less choice in setting outcomes, the groups needed something to justify investing their time and resources into the project. 

The group is in the process of solidifying their power and recognising that if they want to expand this model then it needs to be done in a way that positions everyone as equals. As the terms of reference in the first meeting made clear, this does not necessarily mean that every group gets the same amount of money. Instead, what is required is transparency about your own needs and trusting that other organisations will take those needs seriously.

As with all of BD Giving’s work, we see the process of decision-making as – precisely because we don’t directly control grants, it’s hard for us to claim credit for them as “our” work. Instead, we want to measure our success in terms of how much power the communities of  Barking & Dagenham get to use.

Support is not a neutral act

Another key theme that emerged from the conversations was that the group recognised among themselves the cost of being funded. When they reflected on their experience of funding, a commonality was the frustration around completing reports which consumed a lot of their resources and which ultimately didn’t seem to go anywhere – they felt the funder had asked them to do it simply so that the funder could say that a report had been completed. This was not a conversation about not wanting to be accountable for funding but rather for accountability processes to be transparent and for funders to reflect on if they really needed all the information they asked grantees to provide – a good approach to data is to only ask for the data that you are able to justify. If a funder doesn’t have the resources to process data given to them, is it fair to waste the time of their grantees in collecting it?

When the group talked about cost though, they quickly moved on to all the physical, mental and emotional work that is involved in accepting many kinds of support. Because small organisations and charities don’t want to appear ungrateful, they often fund themselves accepting support even if the burden of taking it on heavily detracts or even outweighs the purported benefit:

  • A grassroot organisation needs legal support. A top law firm offers a few hours of their time to help with this – How does the grassroot organisation resource the time it spends in this meeting? The time they need to set aside to read through legal documents?
  • A big corporation offers 15 staff members to volunteer a day to paint a small community centre, which then needs to take on the admin of doing risk assessments, inductions and other task. The big corporation gets a nice photo shoot and its staff feel they have done good but while the centre might have received a lot of free hours of physical labour, they’ve not been given anything to help them cover the costs of looking after the volunteers. In addition, because of the lack of skill of the volunteers, the centre also needs to bring in a professional to fix many mistakes.

For these sort of reasons, the group has suggested to Organisation A that they will engage with businesses if they get to use the funding to resource these hidden costs of engaging, as well as the chance to better understand what they might be and how they can be supported. 

Rejecting a race to the bottom

One thing that really prominently came out of both discussions was a sense of pride among the group – they were proud of themselves and each other for ‘standing their ground’ in discussions with much larger organisations. The more we present a united front on an issue, the less likely it is that any individual organisation will be undervalued.

We don't need 'middle-men' taking a cut and leaving us scraps – we need equal partnerships

As a local funder which is often acting as a conduit for other funds into the borough, the challenge for BD Giving is in showing how we add value to this process – some of the things that this group has suggested is that our role is as a facilitator or convenor, a place to hold funds, a learning partner, an advocate for the borough.

This has had a big impact on our thinking as we want to change the narrative from “If you want to give £X to the borough, we will need Y% of it to distribute the rest in a participatory way” to “If you want to distribute £X in the borough, then you need to provide an additional Y% to support it” – there is always a cost to participation and if we don’t get big funders to carry that cost, then the borough is going to suffer.

It’s a really important part of this work that we continue to learn how we can best respond to being pushed by smaller organisations instead of allowing ourselves to be pushed by bigger one.

What is fair?

One of the things that comes up a lot when BD Giving talks about participatory grant making is the idea of legitimacy, or fairness i.e. what gives you the right to do funding like this?

There's one perspective which is that the most fair thing to do with any funding is to have an open call and hold all applicants to the same standard.

However, what we see time and time again is how this way of doing things favours people who can articulate their work in a way that appeals to the people who tend to read funding applications. Is that fair?

Would it be less fair to do funding in a way which is based on building relationships and trust? To use local knowledge and experience to identify gaps that need to be met and provide resources without anyone needing to 'prove' they need them?

There are examples of this type of funding happening all around the world right now – could it work in B&D? What would that look like?

Next time

The group is still awaiting responses from the various people that have been approached to provide research proposals – once those have been gathered, then a decision can be made and they can move forward with that bit of work.

At the next (sixth) meeting, the group have invited DABD for a conversation about what the potential is for developing work that looks at supporting more disabled young people access local services.

Agenda for next meeting

  • Check-in
  • Meeting with DABD 
  • AOB
  • Check-out