Grantmaking reform is up for grabs; here’s how to make it stick


Gemma Bull and Tom Steinberg


The cat is out of the bag, and the horse has long since bolted. The fact that the profession of grantmaking needs reform is now no longer a secret whispered at the edges of conferences – it’s an open secret. 

The question now is ‘What needs to be done?’ 

To answer this, we spoke with many inspiring grantmakers while developing our new book Modern Grantmaking. People getting their funding organisations to take issues like power and privilege seriously resulting in very different grants being made, as well as those who’ve set up new types of organisations explicitly to call for and fund work on racial justice.

That’s why we believe grantmaking reform is up for grabs – more so now than it has ever been before – but only if more of us are prepared to change how we do things, and challenge others to do the same.

First, we need to recognise that funders are about as useful as chocolate teapot without our partners; the people, communities and organisations that we give money to, so that they can continue doing amazing work to improve people’s lives and to protect our planet. In practice, this means putting an end to enragingly inaccessible application processes and one-way ‘grant management’ to funders instead ensuring that they offer a useful and usable service that’s been designed with partners. 

Thinking of grantmaking as a service is so important to wider reform work because of three main reasons. Co-designing your funding with partners both shows that you value them, respect their needs and helps you to promote equity by eliminating barriers that may be excluding people.

If you want to treat your funding as a service but don’t know where to start, here’s three suggestions that don’t require a large team or enormous budget:

  • Learn more about Human-Centred Design and key principles such as iteration (or always working to improve the service you offer rather than ticking any customer-facing task as ‘done forever’);
  • Commission an accessibility review of your website;
  • Routinely gather anonymous feedback on your grantmaking then act on it.

Second major action, more grantmakers need to focus on improving themselves. Why is this key to grantmaking reform? Well, the more grantmakers that prioritise self-improvement, the more open to learning and adaptable to change our profession will become. 

The problem is that grantmaking differs from other occupations is that external incentives for self-improvement are largely absent. It is not at all like aviation or medicine where there are regular checks to ensure that you are doing your job to the required standards. By contrast, as a grantmaker, you cannot be struck off for not meeting standards because there are no standards, and you cannot lose your licence because there are no licences.

The usual disciplining effect of market forces doesn’t apply either. There’s virtually no chance that bad work within a funder will lead to that organisation going bankrupt, as it would in most businesses. This means it can be easy for grantmakers to go for long periods without taking any active steps to improve their skills and knowledge. Unless you have an exceptional boss, it’s very unlikely that anyone will call you out for neglecting to improve yourself. 

So, grantmakers need to put structures in place to nudge them to keep improving their skills. Here are two tricks anyone can try:

  • Find an ‘extremely critical friend’ and schedule regular catch-ups with them, in which they ask you difficult questions about what isn’t going well with your work, and what you might do or change this;
  • Run ‘safe-space’ meetings within trusted grantmakers, where the main purpose is explicitly to discuss areas of skill you want to develop, and how best to pursue this.

Finally, while we argue in Modern Grantmaking that we need to focus on improving our funding and our own skills, we also strongly encourage any grantmaker to consider joining one of the reform movements gathering momentum right now, like #ShiftThePower, the Decolonizing Wealth Project, #PhilanthropySoWhite, #FixTheForm and the Grant Givers’ Movement in the UK.

This is because some funding organisations that ripped up the rulebook over the last eighteen months, such as by providing unrestricted funding rather restricted, are succumbing to the temptation to revert back to type. Too often, ‘But that’s the way we’ve always done things’ is a far more attractive prospect than doing the difficult reflection and graft required to really shake things up. However, history has shown us time and time again that ‘the way we have always done things’ can be overcome when enough of us join forces and refuse to let the past dictate the future.

Gemma Bull and Tom Steinberg are the authors of Modern Grantmaking: A Guide for Funders Who Want to Believe Better is Possible.

Tagged in: Funding practice

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *