Now free to read: Grantmaking for social change?


Alliance magazine


Dawn Austwick

First published 18 April  2014, by Alliance magazine.

I’m going to lay my cards on the table: I believe that grantmaking can help achieve social change. But I also agree with so many of the excellent contributions to this edition of Alliance: it cannot achieve it alone.

Grantmaking for social change – it’s not an oxymoron, is it? All grantmakers are surely agents for some form of direct or indirect social change … or at the very least helping to build civil society. If not, why are they doing it? Even the least prescriptive, light-touch, enabling funders are looking for something – improved quality of life, better local environment, raised awareness of issues, building greater community cohesion or social capital. Funding of people and projects will necessarily bring about some form of social change. I guess the key questions are how you define it, what you demand of it, and how you deliver it.

Three themes struck me from reading this edition of Alliance. First, the debate between the merits of grantmaking versus various other forms of philanthropy; second, the importance of having willing partners to help deliver social change; and third, a couple of areas that perhaps should have been considered: funders’ appetite for risk and the need to consider more cooperative models of working, sharing and collaborating between funders.

Grantmaking versus other forms of philanthropy
So to the first point. Maybe I’m bucking a perceived trend but I’d challenge Barry Knight and Jenny Hodgson’s assertion that ‘Increasingly, the practice of grantmaking as a tool for bringing about social change has fallen out of favour, replaced by newer, snappier-sounding forms of philanthropy.’ Maybe those that ‘do’ grantmaking need to shout louder about its benefits?

In fact, I’m not sure it’s an either-or. Rather, it’s about the funding route which best fits what you are trying to achieve. Surely the key as an effective funder is to offer a blend of funding that responds to need or opportunity. I think this is what Phil Buchanan was driving at in his article. And while there is a lot of talk about new forms of philanthropy, I wonder what the statistics look like and indeed whether, when we unpeel the onion, this might sometimes reveal an old practice in new clothes or vice versa.

I recognize the ‘scattergun’ reference made in Knight and Hodgson’s article in relation to the perceived random nature and impact of open grantmaking. This apparent randomness is responsive and often bears fruit. Random acts of kindness are a strategic choice based on a view that change that sticks is often generated by those closest to need. By responding in a fairly unhindered way to the needs of local communities, we at Big Lottery Fund often unearth some real gems of what works. For example, a key public policy concern at the moment is to increase the resources going into ‘early action’, which helps to prevent problems from occurring rather than picking up the pieces. When we carried out an analysis of how our funding programmes support early action, benchmarked against those of other UK funders, we found that the funding programme which was doing most to support what experts call ‘primary prevention’ was our open, demand-led, small grants programme called Awards for All. In this sense, grantmaking is a strategic tool.

I was interested in what Barry Knight and Jenny Hodgson critically refer to as: ‘the top-down, planned use of resources … with the goal of bringing about large-scale social change that can be measured.’ But the devil is in the detail. The underlying philosophy for all our grantmaking is to enable others. Our money is the oil that fuels other engines. With some of our larger strategic investments, too, design, delivery and ownership lie with the relevant community of interest. Our aim is to be the light touch facilitator. This is of course a learning journey for us and for those we work with.

So I can do no better than quote Helen Monteiro’s words:

‘Grantmaking is an essential strategy for bringing about social change. It represents the organizational building blocks of civil society. It provides resources for a large and diverse range of non-profits to build institutional capacity and to undertake their activities. It also provides resources for grassroots initiatives, social movements and individuals to improve the lives of communities and tackle the most intractable social problems. It can support a wide range of interventions, from community mobilization and participatory research to capacity building and income generation.’

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