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BD Giving Notes #33 – ‘The trouble with funding (Part 3)’

The joy of making something collaborative and participatory is that you never have to be ‘done’ because you’re always open to the possibility of someone new making improvements and changes that are literally beyond the system’s current ability to make.

This is the third of a three-part series of blogs in reaction to the cost of living crisis. This series looks in particular at the impact of this crisis on the voluntary and community sector in more deprived areas of England, and the role funding agencies can play to protect them and the vital services they provide to local communities from disappearing. As a funder and a small charity that relies on fundraising, BD Giving is well placed to feel the resource-intensity of grant applications.

In this, our last Note of the year, we share our own approach to funding and take notice of some positive developments that are happening in the world of funding, which challenge the way in which funders hold power, and which we wish others to emulate.

Last time, we wrote about some of the challenges we saw in the funding landscape. To take us into 2023 with a bit of optimism we wanted to highlight some positive things that we see happening and how our own thinking has emerged.

We’d like to celebrate and raise awareness of some funder approaches in the hope it will lead to greater changes in the sector. This is by no means an exhaustive list and we would encourage people to also check out the Participatory Grantmaking community for heaps of examples from all over the world.

The Tudor Trust has been around since 1955 and earlier this year they made the brave decision to pause their grant-making. This has been done to give them the time to rebuild a more equitable system. This work is set to include their learning around racial justice, accessibility, and power dynamics. It will be interesting to see what the outcome of this work looks like.

Turn2Us has existed since 1897 providing practical support for people in financial need. Their Local Programmes Strategy that launched this year is part of an ongoing shift in how Turn2us thinks about and tackles financial hardship, including by bringing people with personal experience into the conversation and giving them the resources they need to shape new ways forward.

London Marathon Charitable Trust recently sought to redress so-called ‘cold spots’ in their funding by taking a more participatory and direct approach. We were really pleased to be heavily involved in this work, where they put in a lot of work engaging with local organisations before opening the fund. The fund itself prioritised consortium bids and you can see from the successful applications that these hopes have started to materialise.

London Funders, as mentioned in the last piece, tested the idea of a ‘universal’ grant application as part of its Community Response Fund, which saw 67 funders use a single portal to distribute grants during the pandemic. While the circumstances were not ideal, and there were enough challenges to keep the community in conversation for decades, the effort proved that a single application system was possible.

Trust and system design

The joy of making something collaborative and participatory is that you never have to be ‘done’ because you’re always open to the possibility of someone new making improvements and changes that are literally beyond the system’s current ability to make.

As Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “the way to make people trust-worthy is to trust them.” If we design funding systems that suggest that people are trying to deceive us out of money, such as by asking for evidence well above what is reasonable for the amount on offer, then we engender feelings of distrust in those who apply. We put out the message that we care more about stopping some person’s potential misuse of funding than enabling their excellent use of it. Note that we say ‘care more’ not that we do not care at all (like when people choose to misinterpret prison abolition as meaning to do away with all notions of justice). 

If instead our energy and resources are concentrated on providing support to communities to make decisions and enact change then we will see systems that reflect this desire. Cameron wrote a few months ago about “money trauma” and why people might have a difficult time trusting around money – rather than allow this fear to shape our funding, we made a decision to unpack people’s fears. By demonstrating trust in our community, we created conditions that allowed people to trust others.

We would venture that participatory grantmaking has the ability to be more trusting than traditional forms of funding decision-making because there’s an added element of community accountability. 

Will such an approach mean that we will never see bad decisions made or be deceived out of funding? Of course not, but if we put our energy and resources into building communities rooted in trust and solidarity then not only is the possibility greatly diminished but we will have a community to fall back on when we are inevitably let down. The recent report detailing the first year of Mackenzie Scott’s “trust-based philanthropy” shows encouraging results in this regard, though not without its criticisms.

It’s also a problem of only looking for a solution based on our current interaction with the world. In many attempts to address inequity, there is a tendency to make those who are disadvantaged more like the people who are advantaged. While by no means an easy feat, it is far easier than deconstructing the very system that gave those people their advantage. 

The Equity Commitment tool by Creative Futures is an exciting look at how funders might take action. As detailed on their website, there are a number of similar examples out there that all point towards recognising that we need to change systems to fit people, not change people to fit systems. 

In his book, The Panda’s Thumb, Stephen Jay Gould wrote that “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” The freedom that participatory approaches offer is that you do not need to have all the answers, we can find solutions together and genius is everywhere.

Ultimately, BD Giving is driven by the idea that the only way change happens is to do something differently. It’s always encouraging when funders say that they want to change their systems but without action, we’re literally not going to see anything shift. 

Bring on 2023 and more change than we can handle – we’d love to have you there with us!

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