This week in the Digital Fund’s weekly Monday morning team session we started discussing how difficult we’re finding it to hear stories from grantees about the challenges they are facing right now. This is rarely about the precarity of their own organisations though they have every reason to be worried about that too, it’s the accounts of what’s happening on the ground, amongst the communities and individuals they work with and for. As a grantmaker this alone is challenging to hear day in and day out, but we also do so in the knowledge that we just can’t support everyone.
Grantmakers are used to having to make difficult decisions, and to saying no, but it’s rare to experience such immense need, at this scale and with such insistence and relentlessness.
Of course this is not difficult in comparison to those living it on the frontlines, and I wouldn’t want to suggest that it even comes close, but I can see it taking its toll on colleagues, and we each too have friends, family and relatives that we’re worried about or caring for. In response to this my new team, the UK Portfolio, has set up a fortnightly session internally to create space for sharing how this all feels, and to find ways to take care of each other. Here are some of my thoughts in case useful for other grantmakers.
Connect as human beings
That may sound really obvious but with the power dynamics that exist within funder/grantee relationships it can often feel like there is a performative element to conversations. I’m trying to do all I can to level conversations, to openly share anything that may be helpful to our grantees, to acknowledge and recognise how we’re all affected by this pandemic in some way, and to show my gratitude for anyone doing work on the frontlines. I’ve also found that Zoom with the camera on is much better than a call — connection through a screen is better than none.
Pay attention and listen well
I’ve done about 60 calls now in the last few weeks with people and organisations on the frontline of the crisis — not all of whom we will be able to support, but I think being present for them, actively reaching out, and then being attentive and listening deeply can make a huge difference. Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks. It’s also about asking good questions that show you’ve not only heard but have understood too. Good questions also open up alternative paths to consider, which people are looking for at the moment.
Be generative and generous
I’ve written before about how privileged grantmakers are for the landscape view they have. Now is the time to actively connect people up with one another — those in similar situations, those asking the same questions, those facing the same difficult choices and enormous challenges. This is why listening is important because the insight you are gathering through those conversations can be made available to others. If we don’t have unlimited financial resource at this time, we can be useful in doing this kind of work well.
Keep your word
This is standard good practice for grantmaking but feels even more important at the moment. If you say you will call back, call back. If you say you will connect someone to another foundation or other help, connect them. If you say you will let a grantee or potential grantee know about the outcome of a decision on a particular day or date, do so — and if you can’t then still make contact.
In a fast-moving, ever-changing, complex situation like a pandemic, which is having a huge impact on the survival of our civil society, organisations need to know where they stand as much as possible. If you know that the funding they are asking for is unlikely to happen, tell them straight, so they don’t waste any time. It’s always hard giving an outright no for a funding request, but not having the courage to do so could be really costly — organisations and groups and individuals on the frontline of this crisis do not have any time to waste.
- Is there anything that you’d want to reveal about yourself here? Part of what keeps work honest is acknowledging why we care about it and who we are in relation to it.
- What resources could you make available here?
- Can you build in any connections or interdependencies here with others in your network?
- Who is doing the work here?
- What would transparency look like here?
- What could you grow here?
- How can you uplift someone here?
- Is there any additional research, insight or access to other contexts, that you could provide here?
And for yourself?
- Shift the expectations you have of yourself to match the current context. You won’t be able to do as much as you might be used to. You won’t be able to be as responsive as you are used to being because there is so much more demand. You may not be as patient, or as supportive, or able to do relational grantmaking in quite the same way right now. And of course you aren’t as productive.
- Let yourself ask for help, support or connection. Hopefully you have a good set up where you work and colleagues that you can turn to, but reach out to other grantmakers too — you will find many of us are feeling overwhelmed at times and also unsure of what to do in an ever changing situation. We are all managing this completely new experience.
- Be willing to not know. Nobody knows exactly what to do right now, or exactly what’s coming ahead. Clinging to certainty amidst so much uncertainty is exhausting — one way of easing that is to be honest and open about not knowing.
- Recognise when you can’t do anything at all, or not at the scale that is needed, and know that is okay. After all, the annual spend of the top 300 foundations in the UK is 0.4% of Total Managed Expenditure from government, and the top 300 foundation’s assets are worth about 7% of TME. In terms of GDP that means the assets of foundations are only worth about 0.01%.
The one thing that you can do in all of this is ask yourself the question —
Who, as a grantmaker, do I want to be through this time?
Cassie Robinson is Senior Head of UK Portfolio at The National Lottery Community Fund