Collaborate’s mission and work is focused on helping create a more collaborative and equitable society. In partnership with The Social Change Agency, Collaborate co-convenes the ‘Losing Control in Funding’ peer learning network which explores how reimagining grantmaking can contribute to this vision.

In this blog we speak to two group members, Edd Fry of the Blagrave Trust and Joe Doran of Lankelly Chase, about their personal views on how funders can shift power and resources towards a more equitable future.

The 20th century Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe said “While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.” This requires a fundamental shift in our understanding of how change happens, and far reaching changes to the distribution of power and resources.

Edd Fry and Joe Doran are grappling with these questions in their work at charitable funders The Blagrave Trust and Lankelly Chase respectively. Both are committed to unpicking the ways in which charitable funding can propel a shift from ‘philanthropy to solidarity’.

With a varied background as an asbestos stripper, musician and in the social sector, Joe was drawn to working at Lankelly Chase because,“they had systems change in the bumf, and I’m always banging on about the system — the intersections of systems that perpetuate inequity.” Equally, what attracted him to Lankelly Chase is that “we’re sweating with the people doing the work”.

With a background in the charity sector and fundraising, Edd was attracted to the youth-focused Blagrave Trust as they were “examining who took decisions and which voices and opinions were centred.” Improving on who and how decisions are made is “undoubtedly welcome” says Edd, but also “at times feels like giving philanthropy a paint job”.

So what are the stumbling blocks to far-reaching change?

New voices: Vital, but insufficient for deep structural change

In recent years, there has been an important drive to bring new voices into grantmaking — from shaping overall strategies, through to decisions about what gets funded. But Edd says, we need to be conscious of the structures new voices are brought into. “When we bring young people into decision making roles, they definitely ask different questions and bring different perspectives but we end up shaping them into existing structures and ways of working”. New ideas are hemmed in by legal and practical restrictions, as well as the cultural and sectoral norms of how risk and change are understood.

This is exacerbated by a frequent mismatch between the lofty intentions and scarce resources available to address the issues at hand. It’s not fair, Edd says, to be “asking people to change entire systems or offset their most negative impacts by inviting them to co-design funding strategies with relatively small amounts of money attached”.

This resonates with Joe who identifies that the act or mindset of charity “perpetuates neediness and maintaining a certain power dynamic” and merely nibbles at the edge of systemic issues. “On the one hand we exist solely due to the vulgar accumulation of, and maintenance of, money” and on the other “the little flecks that come off it [in grants] work to mitigate the very systems and mindsets that allow that wealth to build up”.

To begin to address these big questions, Lankelly Chase has been confronting the fact that the fund’s endowment originates from colonialist and exploitative practices, and is currently invested in the stock markets. They are considering mechanisms such as reparations and redistribution to address this, as well as working to reinvest their funds in more ethical ways. “Changes in grantmaking so far have been cosmetic and will remain that way” Joe says, “unless we truly examine the charity mindset — what it is, what the money is and what it does. Accepting a charity mindset unexamined will prevent any proper power shifts.”

Funding the foundations for community power

They both agree that funders are not just going to cease to exist tomorrow. The question then is how to carry on Chinua Achebe’s ‘good works’ while working for a world that doesn’t need charity to remedy its ills.

For Edd, it’s essential to resource the building blocks of genuine social change, including the basic infrastructure for people to meet and make change together. But a decade of savage cuts to funding has left many communities without a table to sit around. “There’s a large number of young people who want to discuss complex issues and get elbow deep in that”, he says, “but the lack of physical and digital space to get together — the kind of places where movements are built and change happens — is startling”.

Moving away from restrictive project funding that constrains the ability of communities to work together is another priority. Funders can alleviate this by working on the basis of a more radical form of trust. As Edd puts it, simply saying “here is the money: run with it” creates the freedom for communities to work out what is needed, as opposed to having to meet funders’ pre-determined assumptions. Joe agrees, saying that “project funding is like kettling people while at the same asking them to collaborate”. Lankelly Chase are currently reorienting funding away from single organisations, and towards networks, collaborations and even individuals. “Those sorts of steps will help to enable power shifts to happen”, Joe says, “simply to sustain themselves”.

When funding is struggling to meet basic needs, how can power be meaningfully devolved further and faster? Both Edd and Joe reflect on the need to fundamentally shift who has the luxury of time to think and consider the complexities of the issues we’re trying to address. “We as funders have this privilege at the moment, but we need to give different people this opportunity, particularly those with an intimate knowledge and experience of the issues we’re trying to address.” People need the time and space to actively engage in community matters, but this is rarely resourced properly — from access to childcare to having the scaffolding to help communities develop their ideas. Joe explains that, “we need to do this properly, equitably, on people’s own terms — liberate people so they can actively engage.”

For him a “Universal Living Income” would enable people to actively engage with community matters beyond hand to mouth activities. Referencing the basic income trial underway in Wales, Edd says he feels “a deep sense of shame we [UK grantmakers] haven’t taken those risks. If we’re not doing stuff that is deliberately provocative given the last 10–15 years, what are we doing?”

Being brave together

With communities facing crisis after crisis — from austerity, to the pandemic to the cost of living — there is a deep sense of urgency for funders to have a more coherent and collaborative strategy. “I feel like we’re running out of time. All of the big foundations could club together. What are we hanging about for?” Joe says.

Is there anything inspiring happening in the funding sector? Edd is not particularly enthused beyond the vital steps towards improving diversity, equity and inclusion in the sector. Inspiring ideas are present elsewhere though. Indigenous communities in Canada are inviting funders to apply to fund them, instead of the other way around. “That mental shift is really exciting”, Edd says. Generally frustrated by the pace of change, Edd is buoyed by “a desire to do what increasingly feels like a morally complex job as well as we can” and recognises that “small changes are still better than traditional, inflexible ways of working”.

Expanding on this theme, Joe says “we [funders] need a massive reimagining of our purpose. Our purpose is too often to be ‘still around’, dribbling out bits of money”. Part of what’s needed is for funders “to stop seeing the little pot of gold they are sitting on as their money and start thinking about it as the system’s money in the wrong place”.

Could such a mindset and practice shift to a more permissive, collaborative and system-wide approach help funders bring about a world in which they no longer are needed?

This article was based on a conversation with Edd Fry and Joe Doran, hosted by Dawn Plimmer and authored by Adam Cantwell-Corn.

Edd and Joe are members of the Losing Control in Funding network convened by Collaborate and The Social Change Agency. Find out more here.

For more ideas and inspiration on the topic of Losing Control in Funding, listen to this podcast from our partners at The Social Change Agency and British Science Association.