Big on opinions and tight on core funding?

Sylvia Borren

Social change happens because an individual stands up, and says:
This should change.
I can change it.
This is what I will do.

These three sentences carry the should of values, the can of skill and confidence, and the what of strategy and products. When this individual manages to convince others, that is the beginning of a social organization or movement. This step, getting beyond inertia, is the hardest. Vision, mission, strategies, activity plans, funding – all follow from there.

Funders, with their money, can support or break social organizations. They also have opinions about the should, the can and the what. The trouble is, many have not actually tried to start an organization or movement from scratch. How many funders have even started a local table-tennis club, and noticed what kind of hard work and social energy are needed to get it off the ground?

So their opinions are often not based on personal movement-building experience, nor unfortunately on rigorous evaluation of good, bad and new practice. Why else is it that so few funders give sufficient money or attention to core funding? They like their own opinions, they have the money/power to decide, and too often they don’t have the humility to recognize that they don’t have the courage or capacity to become social change agents themselves. Their opinions become bureaucratic criteria that have to be met before funds flow.

Funders need social change agents and social organizations/movements need funders. It should be a transparent and equal negotiation but it seldom is, because too many funders are big on opinions and tight on core funding. They want to pay for products and quick results – but not for the effort that it takes to build social relationships, to build organizations, to build democracy.

Supporting the hard work

If I go from gallery to gallery to look at modern art, I will be impressed, and I will develop my personal taste. If I become a funder of modern art or artists, I will have the power to promote or discredit certain work. If I am not careful, I may forget that I am not and cannot be the artist, even if I have a large art collection. Will I look for new artistic talent? Will I support the early years of doubts, hard work and products that do not sell, that do not (yet) receive recognition? Will I see opportunities, and back the artists trying, while shouldering the risks? Or will I support the safer, established artists, because that way my investments are safe?

The issues are no different in the world of development, NGOs and social movements. Support for the early years, investment in the foundations, respect for the social energy, values, skills and organizational needs of the ‘prime movers’ – all this is too rarely found among funders. Negotiations about core costs are a way of funders saying they know better what combination of strategies and activities will work. The cutting back on overhead means the social movers are expected to work for little money, with no health insurance, no pension schemes, few holidays, little social or work security, no leadership training, and insufficient emotional support. Most funders invest much more in their own staff than in the staff of the NGOs they support. Worse, there is then little space for NGOs to invest in staff skills, strategic work and organizational development themselves. The poor NGOs are jumping back and forth to meet the demands of different opinionated funders, who don’t have the energy to harmonize their own activities. Why? Because it would mean having to share and be challenged on their own opinions, which are often too big, and their own funding generosity, which is often too small.

Giving social leaders space

Is this very different from the labour exploitation we fight against in the chain of command and control within multinational corporations? If funders don’t give space to social leaders to develop their own strategies and organizations, they are not building autonomous social movements but bureaucratic service delivery organizations. These organizations in turn may do good and cheap work, but will they have the space and social energy to empower the participants of their programmes? Or will they logically be part of the donor-driven power dynamics?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I do not believe intelligent funding is about giving a blank cheque. I do not agree that partners who receive funding from Oxfam Novib should see this as job security for the rest of their lives. I do think it is always possible to find result indicators which are quantitative and qualitative, and which can help NGOs to learn and to improve their performance. I passionately believe organizations should be efficient and effective, should try to be lean in their overhead costs. I know there are some NGOs that do excellent work and others that have lost their sense of direction, their drive, their innovative energy. As funders, we have to negotiate about values, about strategies, about results, with our partners.

Support social entrepreneurs, not social bureaucrats

My plea in this article is for funders to recognize that they should support social entrepreneurs and not social bureaucrats. They should recognize that they are facilitators not social leaders. In other words, we as funders are not ourselves the artists, and we need to have humility and respect for those who work in the field of social transformation – because it is hard work, which takes tremendous vision, passion, patience and organizational skill.

This article is about encouraging funders to recognize that sitting on a bag of money gives you power, and this can so easily make you stupid. Having power makes you think you are right, and makes you naturally tight-fisted. If we are not very careful, we all end up sitting in our own expensive buildings, full of our own opinions, but finding it hard to give good, quick, clever and sustainable support. In other words, there is a natural tendency for intelligent funders to become pompous and stupid.

Core funding is, for me, the litmus test of the trust we have in certain social leaders and their organizations. Of course we need to share critically our views on values, competencies and results, on opportunities and risks. We have to talk about transparency and accountability, about reporting and financial audits. But having had all these discussions, and having established common purpose, we could let the social leader/organization/artist get on with his or her work. We could give them enough multi-year finance, enough money for overhead, to build a responsible organization, with sufficient investment in staff, systems and innovations. We could give social leaders and managers the space to get on with the job, and not spend too much time having to follow our opinions and instructions.

Only then can we have a good, critical discussion, helped by annual reports and evaluations, about the effects and impact of the work. Only then are we intelligent funders, who recognize our own role as important facilitators of social change and development – without pretending to be the social transformers ourselves.

Sylvia Borren is the Executive Director of Oxfam Novib. Email

Comment Alan Fowler

‘It is like putting fire in box.’ This statement was quoted by a donor staff member as the response of a social movement leader who was trying to negotiate a grant. Satisfying funding requirements would require the movement’s ‘professionalization’ – conformities that would extinguish the flame of civic energy and drive that attracted the funder in the first place. Sylvia Borren’s critical commentary on donor behaviour reflects a paradox: that so often agencies providing development financing stifle the civic activism and social innovation that drew them by their inability or unwillingness to adapt.

But I don’t think that her arguments about donors rethinking their roles, exemplified by attitudes towards providing core costs, fully surface what Mike Edwards has referred to as ‘the elephant in the room’: a question of why northern funding agencies have been collectively incapable of financing in ways that ensure at least a minimum level of economic security as an important aspect of empowerment for ‘partners’ in the South. Why has the sustainability imperative languished as rhetoric with so little practice? My view corresponds to Borren’s observations. Perpetuation of this inconsistency is fed by anxiety about loss of control implied in a real sharing of power – a fear masked by ostensibly reasonable arguments, the coup de grace reserved for immutable demands of financial accountability to auditor generals and back donors.

But it is surely not beyond the wit of (wo)man to design ways in which the resources tango can take place on a more horizontal dance floor. For example, variations on the theme of co-governed trust funds located in the South have been around for a long time, but remain a footnote in the story of aid architecture. Why?

An answer may be that current debates about core financing and sustainability do not really matter. It could be argued that a deeper game plan is signalled by a belated commitment of many donors to increase aid to 0.7 per cent of GDP. Why now? Perhaps because the emerging perspective is one in which social dysfunctions of global economic integration – increasing inequity, human insecurity, migration pressures and so on – can be placated by a global social welfare system, with aid as a key source and channel for redistribution. The aid amounts involved are paltry when compared with international non-concessionary flows, including what is extracted as profits from developing countries. If this scenario is a real possibility, intelligent funding will be about remediation, efficient targeting and delivery. Farewell to aid for true civic empowerment.

Alan Fowler is an adviser, analyst and writer on international development and aid, particularly from the perspective of civil society and geo-political relations. Email

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