Funders, what are you communicating with your grant systems?


Mendi Njonjo


Social justice movements consistently work, sometimes at great risk, to make this world a better place. Funding that promotes movement building is one of the best ways in which funders can advance social and environmental justice. The recognition for funding that advances movement building has however not always translated to grant systems that are fit for purpose.

A close look at grant systems will sometimes reveal systems that are misaligned with funder mission and strategy which is concerning, as grant systems are arguably one of the most important ways in which funder culture is conveyed. Grant systems that compete, or perhaps even contradict funder values create dissonance in the organization and the communities, and they can sabotage movement building.

The values that funders prioritize will invariably make their way into the grants systems. For instance, funders that prioritize access might have grant systems that offer multi-language funding submissions or have low-bandwidth websites that cater to communities with internet challenges. Or for say, funders that are working with threatened communities, a due diligence process that by default collects personally identifiable information about at-risk grantees and community members for audit purposes, is inadvertently communicating that they value probity over safety and security.

It’s clear from analyses of the funding landscape that there is not enough funding to support all the good work that needs to be done. Competition for scarce funder resources has unfortunately led to fragmentation of movements as organizations compete amongst each other for donor resources. Some grantmaking practices which may further fragment movements include competitive calls for proposals, especially those targeted towards organizations that work with a specific population or issue. Particularly egregious is the ‘Grand Prize’, or winner-takes-all grantmaking when it is targeted towards solidarity movements due to its capacity to whip up competition. Another way in which grant systems might fragment movements is when they are not tailored to fund collaboration as it happens e.g. where organizations collaborating in a non-hierarchical way are funded through the ‘Prime and Sub recipient’ approach with the donor delegating the policing of the grant to a lead recipient (typically the ‘larger’ one), as this can sour relationships between previously collaborative organizations.

Funders will often strive for the tantalizing possibility of scaling up success. A commitment to justice suggests that as funders, scaling should be focused on eliminating the systems and practices that give rise to the injustices, as opposed to merely supporting an increase in the claiming of economic and social benefits. Funder systems that seek to understand why movements were successful, as opposed to trying to distil the elements of why a certain change happened, are perhaps more suited to a socially just agenda. The latter instrumentalizes organizations, depoliticizes struggles and potentially delivers only token reforms and surface change. The former on the other hand, lends itself to the long-term and deeper work of supporting organizations working on a systems-change level.

Funder accountability systems that are derived entirely from audit and accounting systems with no consideration for funder mission can also lead to misalignment. For instance, it’s very common to see ‘cheapest’ being used as a shorthand for ‘value for money’ and with grant systems being built around this principle. This undermines the efforts of funders with an interest in economic justice and ends up shortchanging organizations that are paying fair wages, or smaller organizations that may not have economies of scale.

Often, ‘formalized’ will be conflated with ‘functional’, with nonprofit health measured with metrics borrowed from the corporate world. This can lead to an orientation in grantee systems towards formal accountability (e.g. audits, statutory and donor compliance) and away from community accountability (e.g. rootedness to the community) if due diligence metrics are built around measuring the corporate governance of organizations instead of community relevance. Related, grant systems that can recognize and fund non-formalized community groups and associational life would go a long way in promoting the full and beautiful diversity that people organize within to promote justice.

While the above is not an exhaustive list, some lessons for funders include the need for regular audits of grant systems to see where they deviate from the mission and adjust (or re-build!) accordingly. For instance, funders who are passionate about supporting proximate leadership could have metrics that privilege grantee-led organizations in their due diligence processes. Or for example, funders who work with communities with seasonal work (e.g. teachers, farmers, etc.) should have grant calls that coincide with grantees’ slow season etc. These audits and course correcting is admittedly not easy to do, especially for intermediary organizations, but recognizing the contradictions is a useful first step.

And finally, funders can build more ownership for their grant systems within the organization by incorporating the grants function into the entire organization. The outsourcing of the design and maintenance of grant systems to a person, or department that rarely has decision-making authority is perhaps something that needs to be considered by funding organizations, to ensure that all decision-makers – including HR, finance, operations etc. are all invested in this important mission of getting money to movements in affirming and self-sustaining ways.

Mendi Njonjo is a feminist and a fervent champion of environmental justice, with over 20 years’ experience supporting non-profit and grant-making organizations in their fund management, strategy development and policy formulation.

Tagged in: Transformation on the agenda

Comments (1)


Excellent points. As you said, the emphasis on artificial scarcity and forced competition is very harmful to movements and positive change. I believe the accumulation mentality of some foundations leads to this. They claim to want to sustain their support over the long term to have more impact, but I often think of one of the last scenes in the movie Schindler's List when Schindler realizes that he was still wearing an expensive watch and rings, and had other items of value that he could have traded to save more lives.

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