Funders and charities should be equal players in a collective effort


Ben Cairns and Kamna Muralidharan


In response to recent exchanges in Alliance magazine about the nature and efficacy of trust based philanthropy, we join the founders of the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project in encouraging all funders to ‘look beyond the headlines and do a deeper study’.

Covid-19 has been a wake-up call on funding practice. Its key challenges to funders – relieving pressure on charities; freeing them to respond flexibly to the evolving needs of the communities and causes they serve; and facing up to biases and assumptions that perpetuate entrenched injustice and inequity – long predate the pandemic. But the urgency of the situation, and the injustices it laid bare, demanded a response from funders which has shown us all that lighter, more flexible, more trusting processes are possible. There is a clear moral imperative to learn from this experience and to take action.

Trust-based philanthropy in the UK

Many trusts and foundations in the UK are determined to resist the pull of familiar ways of doing things, so that the crisis becomes a springboard for a new culture of funding that puts simplicity, respect, and inclusivity at the heart of everything they do. In February 2021, the first 50 signed up to IVAR’s Open & Trusting initiative. Now over 100 foundations – including the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, the Pears Foundation, and the John Ellerman Foundation, among others – are working actively with each other and with charities to make their commitment to funding charities in a more open and trusting way a reality.

Together, the community make grants totalling some £800m a year. All are determined to make their contribution count. They are far from uniform in their scope, size, interests, priorities, and governance. And they face different opportunities and constraints. Together, we are learning that being more open and trusting does not look the same everywhere. But we are uncovering the principles that frame an open and trusting approach, enabling funders of all kinds to start from where they are and take positive steps to improve.

For example, Texel Foundation’s application form is now even more streamlined, with a view to reducing the administrative burden at the first stage and giving partners the freedom to share their aims and requirements in a less restrictive format. Their Programme Director, Katy Beechey, sees Open and Trusting as an opportunity to not only be part of a network of like-minded funders, but also to adopt a structured framework to ensure continued reflection and evolution with an open and trusting approach in mind.

Open & Trusting funders publicly state how they are implementing eight simple, practical commitments: don’t waste time; ask relevant questions; accept risk; act with urgency; be open; enable flexibility; communicate with purpose; and be proportionate.These were drawn up by funders and charities together and are designed to enable funders to interrogate and make tangible changes in their funding practices.

How does this look in practice?

  • We have stopped setting a tight word or character limits in our online forms because organisations tell us they have to spend a lot of time editing what they write rather than concentrating on what they want to tell us 
  • We have stopped asking questions about how organisations will sustain the work when our funding ends  
  • We have found that giving more conscious attention to equity is a powerful tool in highlighting unrecognised behaviours and assumptions and changing them. Using a strong equity and inclusion lens in our decision panel, we realised that we were setting a higher bar for newer or smaller organisations 
  • We have more conversations with organisations receiving large and longer-term grants but keep our formal reporting as light as possible for everyone  

Action and reflection

Our regular Community of Practice meetings provide opportunities for funders to reflect together and push each other’s thinking. In one session last year some shared concerns that comfort with flexible funding – and especially moving to unrestricted – relies on longer-term relationships, making it hard to reconcile with the imperative to achieve greater equity in access to funding: ‘It’s easier for trustees to trust people they already trust. If you have an ongoing relationship with a group, they find it easier to give them unrestricted grants’. But others in the group give a significant percentage of highly flexible or unrestricted grants to first-time applicants. They argued that trust can and must be assumed from the start of the grant relationship. By sharing their plans and reflecting together in a spirit of positive challenge, all are encouraged to act, learn and do better.

Crucially, funders also sign up to be held accountable for delivering these commitments through a collaborative review, involving charities. We are currently implementing this for the first time, starting with The Funding Experience Survey, which asks people who apply for or manage grants what funder behaviours matter most to them. The survey comes from IVAR, to enable charities to share their unfiltered views, and people have the option to respond anonymously. Findings will inform funders’ self-assessment of progress in the autumn, and we’ll be training and resourcing charity professionals to challenge them to go further. All this is leading to a refresh of how our grantmakers are bringing the eight commitments to life on the second anniversary of the initiative, in February 2023.

We want as many funders as possible to join the Open and Trusting community, and as long as they are taking tangible steps to bring the eight commitments to life – in the context of their own starting points and constraints – they are welcome. As we move through our collaborative review this year, we’ll consult with charities and the community about how to manage any funders who aren’t making an active effort.

A strong, diverse charity voice is critical to the effort to create a more equitable – and, in our view, a more effective – funding culture. But it is hard to achieve. Power dynamics mean charities are wary of giving robust feedback to funders. They have little reason to trust funders. With extreme pressure on capacity and widespread cynicism about the influence they have, many charities see no point in engaging. Part of becoming an open and trusting funder is recognising the depth of this challenge and asking: ‘“Who needs to be trustworthy?” Is it, “we will begin to act as though we trust you.” Or should it be “how do we behave in trustworthy ways?” Who is accountable to whom in this moment? This brings us closer to addressing questions of equity and power’. If funders demonstrate that they deserve trust, we will all benefit from broader and deeper conversations between the charity sector and the funding sector about how best to make progress towards the changes we all want to achieve.

We’ve come far – but there’s still far to go

Open and Trusting is a start – a community of just over 100 out of a possible 1,700 grant-making charities. We’re working hard to build this and grow our work directly, but we also recognise that different approaches work for different people. We believe that deep and meaningful reform to UK grant-making is within reach. Reform that resets the power balance between funders, charities, and communities. And reform that reduces wasted time, effort and stress for all involved. That’s why we’re working with nine other initiatives to avoid duplication; identify opportunities for collaboration; and push our collective, evolving understanding of barriers, incentives and levers for change.

Funders have many skills and assets – including field knowledge, networks and convening power, independent brokerage and leverage, as well as money. But these assets will not be well used unless the system becomes more equitable. The status quo is heavily loaded in favour of funders, privileging their priorities, needs and concerns simply because of the power of money. It is high time for funders to give up the role of puppet master and become equal players in the collective effort to achieve meaningful social change.

Ben Cairns is the Director of IVAR, and Kamna Muralidharan is the Vice-Chair of IVAR.

Tagged in: Trust-based philanthropy

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