Funders know how to rebalance power, so why are we still not acting?


Chrissy Cattle and Ciorsdan Brown


A survey from the Grant Givers’ Movement is the first of its kind to collect insights from those working within grantmaking on their perspectives around power and trust. With more than 140 responses from those working within the sector, the findings from the Sector Pulse survey provide a unique insight into how funders themselves perceive their own power; the dynamics within grant making organisations; and the power balance between grant makers, grantee partners, and the communities they seek to serve.

The findings reinforce what we already know: that a power imbalance exists in UK grantmaking, however almost 80 per cent agreed that better redistribution of power would lead to more impactful grant making. Once again, as a sector we know that things need to change, and we know what these changes look like – yet there remain real or perceived barriers to action.

Reevaluating ‘tradition’

Respondents to our survey repeatedly referred to the barriers upheld by ‘traditional’ philanthropic structures. These traditional structures, which include an overwhelming lack of diversity on trustee boards and rigid hierarchical decision-making structures, mean that power continues to reside in the hands of those with the ultimate say, most often trustees who are not representative of the affected communities they are often trying to support.

In order to restore power, we must move away from these traditional philanthropic structures and systems and shift decision-making and strategy design into the hands of grantee partners and communities. Whilst respondents can highlight examples where this is done well across the sector, it is by no means the norm. Meaningfully shifting power into the hands of communities means placing trust in organisations, unconstituted groups and communities. This requires that we fundamentally alter how we fund; such as making unrestricted grants, collaborating with, trusting and listening to grantee partners and redefining reporting requirements. Examples of ‘good practice’ are known and often celebrated across the sector, but they remain just this – examples, with relatively few organisations adopting them and instead continuing with often-harmful processes instead.

As one respondent said, ‘I have power to influence but that can be removed easily. The main benefactor has the power to remove my influence as he has greater influence over the rest of the trustees’. The report highlights that grant makers feel accountable first and foremost to those at the top of governance structures and beneficiaries emerged as the group respondents feel their organisation is least accountable to. This response highlights the gap in perceptions not only around accountability but also around expertise – with the power held in communities who have the knowledge, networks, and understanding of local needs often overlooked.

‘Foundations have enormous freedom; we can do this if we want to. The problem is the drive and desire to do so – those holding power are consciously or unconsciously committed to keeping it so there is no push for change.’

Responses reflect a sense that the structures which are in place mean that a bigger fundamental ideological and cultural shift is harder to achieve. But for some respondents, an unwillingness to share power is a much more of a personal dilemma – ‘If I give away power /decision-making rights then what’s the point in my job, I think this is emotionally difficult even for people who really want to do the ‘right’ thing’.

This honesty around job uncertainty is refreshing – but highlights that barriers to change are not only reserved for trustee boards. Another finding from the report highlights the high levels of trust grants staff have within their organisations, and although not ‘direct’ power, the high levels of influence they have when it comes to funding decisions. This candid self-reflection should provide an opportunity for a shift in power.

For others rebalancing power feels a herculean task, which they don’t feel they have the capacity to deliver. It was repeatedly stated that rebalancing power meaningfully requires a significant investment in resource and those who want to maintain the status quo and uphold this power are unlikely to support such investment.

Philanthropists must recognise that power is deliberately broken down in certain communities, through structures of colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and capitalism, and that our responsibility as funders should be to restore power in the communities that have been impacted by these wider systems of oppression. The time is now, to start acting and stop talking.  

To read the full report go to

Ciorsdan Brown is Head of Charitable Partnerships & Strategy at The Goldsmiths’ Company Charity, on the Young Professionals Board of Missing People UK, and a founding member of the GGM. Chrissy Cattle is the Grants Officer at the Old Dart Foundation and an organising member of the GGM.

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