Losing Control or Taking Control ? of the funding system

Last week Philippa and I from Blagrave attended the Losing Control network event for funders and commissioners – how we can do more to fund grassroot movements, communities and networks, rather than projects and organisations.  The underlying assumption behind this event acknowledging the power and role that funders have in influencing change and the significant force for good they can be.


During the opening plenary two important things happened.  Firstly, hugely inspiring Uma Mishra reminded us of the bigger picture by highlighting what the stakes are in not funding this work, or doing so badly.  The implications of not supporting work that challenges structural inequality in an intentional, active and coordinated way, the huge personal costs for activists themselves including ‘begging’ for support in contrast for example to organised well-funded right-wing movements in the US.


Secondly in response to the question of whether the funding system was broken, posed by Mary Rose Gunn @MaryRoseGunn from the Fore Foundation with a few exceptions everyone in the room put their hand up.  Not in need of reform, but broken!   Many say this privately and you might say I was a leading question, but to see the willingness to confront this publicly and collectively felt significant and a step towards the tipping point of change that Losing Control is keen to see.


But then the day continued with workshops and discussions, including one led by Blagrave on funding youth activism, and amongst the many rich, always interesting and diverse conversations and fabulous people present, something of the passion and bigger picture got lost.    If we are to move beyond words and acknowledgement of power imbalance, and to real progress and action, then these are my personal take-aways – they are nothing new, but perhaps we need to keep emphasizing until change comes?!


  • Process is not and will never be the answer to these big questions – we may tweak and amend how we work to our hearts content setting up participatory grant-making initiatives and co-production and these are important. But there is a risk that however well-intentioned, we end up absorbing more time and energy of our partners, the beneficiaries of the learning are ourselves and we end up feeling good without actually having driven further significant changes to both how we work (e.g. Board and staff diversity) and what we are funding (e.g. systemic change, voice).   We’ll only know if we try to do things differently, but change within the funding system goes to the heart of culture, leadership, governance and diversity and not just process which can feel like an easier starting point.   I say this, having spent a significant time in Blagrave amending process and driving internal culture change, all of which I firmly believe has been important, but not thinking early and fast enough about the wider systemic change we want to bring about and how that affects our funding strategy and choices.  We are now actively addressing who and where our funding goes to (e.g. young people directly) and changing our approach.


  • There is a power dynamic at play that is less talked about / obscured in conversations around power – that which occurs within funders themselves.   Its striking at these events who attends – rarely CEOs, probably never trustees – i.e. the absence of those who have deep insights, political acumen and longevity of experience, as well as the power to make actual change.   Losing Control is a wonderful community, but we have to think really hard about how to spread the message beyond the converted – our own glorious echo chamber!  The grant-givers movement https://www.grantgiversmovement.org is pushing for change and could be supported to lead further work.


  • This will never be about individual funders. Those of us who are adapting and modifying what we are doing constantly in response to what we hear we have a responsibility to share this more actively with our fellow funders, including what we are struggling with, the tensions and the questions. But, if the problem is systemic, then so too is the answer. We have to work together and invest in problem solving together. I see many amazing pooled funds and collaborative initiatives on thematic issues which suggests a deep willingness to work together and acknowledgement that we are better when we do – but no pooled fund that is about learning and advancing thinking within the funding sector itself.  If 100 funders raise their hand to acknowledge a broken system, then surely we have to consider investing in ourselves to be better and reform, as well as finding ways to give money away more quickly to those that are currently excluded?  Yet we are so reluctant to do so, even when those on the outside our clamouring for it.


The Listening Fund www.listeningfund.org launched two years ago with generous support from several large funders[1], and included an explicit commitment to exploring how funders themselves listen to those they support.  This has included internal organisational self-reflection within each funder and during March will involve several joint funder workshops with the 9 funders involved to delve into: power dynamics and what is needed for equitable listening; who do we listen to and how can we make this more inclusive understanding our own biases?  The final workshop, Re-imagining funders as listening organisations: shared power, greater impact?, is open to other funders – we have 30 signed up. It has always been our hope that TLF could be part of a wider change movement – we know it’s just one piece of a much larger puzzle, but we are trying to use what’s within our power to stretch thinking together.  The next phase of the fund will be led by a diverse group of paid expert young people from across the country, holding us as funders to account to execute their ideas!


So yes we need to lose control of the process and the minutia and details that hold us back to look at the bigger picture, but maybe we also need to take active control of the system we are part of and work together as funders inviting and resourcing our partners to help us, to evolve and build a new one.  As Enver Solomon, CEO of the charity Just for Kids Law said to me ‘Funders need to own it, as it’s ‘your’ problem’!


[1] Comic Relief, NCLF, Esmee Fairbairn, CORRA Foundation, William Grant Foundation, Gannochy Trust, Blagrave

10th March 2020