Power and vulnerability in the charity-funder relationship

A CEO, who wants to remain anonymous, challenges social sector funders to own their power and use it to improve the system.

Well this is rather nice. Being anonymous means that I can speak my mind. I don’t have to tiptoe around, terrified of saying the wrong thing and causing offence. Because, as a potential funder, you have the power when we meet. I’m generally only in your presence because you are appraising or assessing me. I can feel the weight of my beneficiaries need, and my staff’s mortgages, all resting on me. And whether we get money or not depends on whether I make the right impression – because let’s face it, you’re seldom making decisions based solely on facts or objective assessment.

I say that mainly because the sector’s evaluation systems to enable objective assessment are woefully inadequate. Therefore, almost every proposal that crosses your desk requires some amount of “hunch”.

Why do you ask us to mark our own homework?

Let’s talk about ‘evidence of outcomes’. I’m going to be blunt. I have never, in nearly two decades of fundraising been asked for the raw data or evidence that the claims we are making are true (for example, around employment). I could honestly have made the whole thing up – and I sometimes wonder whether other organisations do.

Why do you ask us to mark our own homework? Where is the sense in every separate organisation in each sector having their own evaluation processes? It renders meaningful comparison impossible.

While we’re on the topic of evaluation, are your staff well enough versed in the reality of operations to recognise how organisations can hand pick ‘beneficiaries’ and how that can skew outcomes data?

For example: I run a programme for care leavers. I ask the leaving care team to suggest young people to take part in a project and invite those referred to an initial meeting. I deliver the project and then compare the outcome of those individuals against the outcomes for the average care leaver. I do a Social Return on Investment calculation and extrapolate the savings across the entire care population of the UK. It looks great! However, what I have ignored is (1) that those deemed “too chaotic” won’t be referred to me for the project in the first place and (2) by working with the ones that showed up, I have selected those motivated and able to get somewhere independently and on time.

It may still be a great project that’s worth funding but it certainly is not as great or as cost efficient as it looks on paper – regardless of which research institution has done the “independent evaluation”. In the drive to prove a project’s worth, the real losers are the care leavers whose complex needs create a unit cost figure that now appears too high.

But I also have to take some responsibility – I’ve never had these conversations with you. Where could they happen I wonder?

How do you feel about your power?

In my experience, you each have very different relationships to this power you have. Some of you relish and enjoy it, while others of you are embarrassed by it, wringing your hands and asking questions about how you can share power with the marginalised and the oppressed.

With those of you that relish your power, I play humble, careful not to upset the rules of patronage by exposing myself as an upstart. With those of you steeped in (usually) white and (almost invariably) upper middle class guilt about both your personal and professional privilege, I play along.  I nod when you ask rhetorical questions such as “How can I possibly know what it’s like to be them?” My hidden truth however is somewhat more combative – you can know. You can enquire deeper into your own experience of being human, face your wounds and fears, your childhood trauma (however comparatively benign they may seem compared to the ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ (ACE) criteria). You can look at how you construct the world, how you hold yourself back and get in your own way and realise just how hard it is to change habits of body and mind that do not serve you. To get an experience of what it’s like to try and intervene in a complex system, you can start trying to shift the way your family, friendship group or own organisation operates.

I recently had a conversation with a director of a large grant making body about a proposal I had made. “That’s not something we’d be able to do,” they said. What they meant was: “It’s not something I’m interested in making happen”. Which is fine, I can accept a no, but please be clean about it. Tell me you’re not willing to – and tell me why. And when you give us feedback on an unsuccessful grant application, be honest. Don’t just say: “Yours was a great application and there’s nothing that could have made it better, we were just inundated with good quality proposals”. In other words, own your power.

Let’s find new ways to work together

Now I’ve said all that. I’m feeling a lot calmer. What I’m left with is a sense of just how tired I am. I chose to be in this sector to make a difference in people’s lives and to disrupt the way our client group is served. However, as the years go by, my fire becomes ever more diminished by the drain of income generation – something that’s true for a number of other CEOs I talk to regularly. I want you to know how vulnerable I am.

I know you’re vulnerable too. You’re afraid of making wrong decisions, afraid of being taken for a ride, afraid of the pressures from “the family” or the board. And, you’re afraid of the same thing as me: that you might be spending your life in a way which does not have the greatest impact. My want would be that we come together and find new ways of working.

How you can use your power to change the system

I have some specific asks. Please look at the wider impact of how you do business and the positive power you have to change things. For example:

  • Charities do not collaborate, merge or share resources to any meaningful extent. You could change that by collectively creating the right incentives.
  • Professional bid writers frequently over-promise on behalf of organisations that then cannot deliver. You could bring in greater accountability by asking who has written the bid and on what basis.
  • The charity sector has a diversity problem, especially at the senior levels. ACEVO and others are trying to address this, but could you speed up change by evaluating organisations on their approach to diversity? You might also want to consider diversity within your ranks and lead by example.
  • You could lobby Government to make information available to charities to help impact be measured in more meaningful ways.  You could be pushing for initiatives such as the Justice Data Lab to become as sophisticated and robust as they should be in this information age
  • Use your convening power, support the personal and professional development of charity people and create networks that cross organisations and sectors. Involve yourselves and your staff in those learning cohorts too.