In my last Note, I wrote about how I go about trying to keep people safe in participatory processes and how safety is something with a wide meaning. Here, I want to hone in on a particular aspect of that and what it looks like in our work. I’m going to talk about money.
When I describe my job to people, I tell them that it’s about helping communities to make decisions about money where everyone feels that their input has been valued. The response I get is usually along the lines of imagining that being about as easy as convincing several cats to occupy the same enclosed space. It certainly has its challenges but nothing that can’t be reasonably managed using a range of facilitation tools and communication skills to make people feel that their needs are being understood and met.
A few months ago, I attended an online meeting about safeguarding in grant making, as arranged by the fabulous Participatory Grant Making community of practice. One of the topics that got brought up was the issue of what was termed ‘money trauma’. It is a way to describe how experiencing not having enough money makes it difficult to engage in conversations about money. It goes beyond a British distaste for discussing money and strikes at a deeper, complicated relationship with finances that a lot of us can’t put our finger on until it stares us in the face. Even now, with a growing cost of living crisis, it remains difficult for people to discuss money. As funders, we have to do something about that because money is the medium we work with.
One particular topic that was raised was the language we use to discuss amounts of money, with funders sitting on tens of millions describing themselves as ‘small’ because they are comparing themselves to funders with hundreds of millions or even a billion on their accounts. From the perspective of someone in a community earning even a decent wage, this disconnect can feel very alienating. A feeling that only increases the closer someone gets to poverty.
Waste not, want what?
The biggest area I think I see money trauma rear its head is in the expression of fears about ‘wasting’ money. I put it in quotes, not to suggest that it’s impossible to make bad decisions about spending but to explore all the painful feelings that are tied up in that word.
As a local funder, I see these issues all the time. Where one group might make £3,000 last a whole year because they’re a community gardening group only needing money for snacks and basic supplies, another may have that as their operational spend for a fortnight. Who is making the ‘best’ use of that money?
When waste comes up in discussion, I ask people to unpack what they mean by wasting money and checking with others to see if they have similar ideas. For one person, buying any new equipment was a financial waste for charities but when asked what happens when second-hand equipment fails sooner and needs repairs or replacement, they were a little bit stumped. The incredible (and sorely missed) Terry Pratchett managed to sum up this false economics very succinctly in his Boots Theory. Eventually, they started talking about how, growing up, they were never allowed new things because they didn’t have much money. They weren’t acting out of spite now but from a reflexive feeling that wanting something new was painful and they, understandably, didn’t want to lean into it. The more the group talked, the more others opened up. The discussion was then about how the group had the opportunity to make decisions that meant that other people wouldn’t have to feel as they had once felt.
The long-term impact of putting avoiding waste as the top priority of funding means decision-makers (in participatory and traditional) grant-making put more time and resources into designing systems to weed out fraud than on whether or not a proposal is actually wanted by a community. The result is that lots of amazing little projects get funded because they’re safe and don’t feel risky but the community is almost exactly where it started a year later.
If we are to see the long-lasting positive changes that our communities want to see, then we need to get better at talking about money and what it means to us. We need to create spaces for decision-makers to see themselves as enablers – people with the power to break cycles of scarcity – and for applicants to be able to ask for what they need without fear of being accused of doing something wrong by asking.
It’s incredibly difficult to ask for what you need and get a no but it’s impossible to get what you need if we’ve made it impossible to ask.