Prioritizing Openness and Trust between Funders and Social Movements


Quime Williams


Let’s start by recognizing that we have a responsibility to acknowledge and engage with how power shapes our organisations and the flow of financial resources to social movements. Yet, to discuss power we need to feel safe and comfortable. We need to have trust. Oftentimes, and paradoxically, we trust others more when they show us their vulnerability. If this is true, why is it that openly sharing struggles as funders is so uncommon?

In the role of accompanying progressive funders on learning journeys over the years, we have been witnessing tectonic internal shifts as the social movements and funding landscapes continue to evolve. It’s a welcome and long over-due moment of disruption in philanthropy, but it raises questions of how we show up and communicate what happens to us – our (much needed) existential reflections, our work in progress – throughout such transformation.

We learned a lot about vulnerability as part of ‘What Moves Movements’, a year-long inquiry process commissioned by the Lankelly Chase Foundation. Originally, the inquiry brought together eight UK-based organisations to better understand how to strengthen cross-movement solidarity. It was intended to identify ways to support emerging resourcing models.

However, the inquiry began just as Lankelly Chase navigated the not-yet-public decision to close down. This elephant in the room made the process with partners tricky. As we learned to observe and name the challenges within this inquiry, we inadvertently began pointing to difficulties that have long been present in funder-movement relationships.

So, what do we know about building relationships within philanthropy that are based on trust? For one, there is meaningful research pointing to the positive effects of providing long-term core funding. By having the agency to decide how they want to spend money granted, organisations can be more emboldened to pursue a model of sustainability rooted in their vision and needs, instead of reacting to a string of project funding.

But money isn’t everything.

Organisations also give their (typically unremunerated)[1] time and energy to countless learning spaces where they are asked to reflect on their needs, challenges, and hopes. Unfortunately, many organisations have grown sceptical about the value of donor-initiated reflective spaces because of failed past experiences.

This is because funders ask organisations to be vulnerable, while they rarely open-up about their own struggles in front of their partners. We talked about this lack of equal participation as a failure in mutual accountability.

When we take a further step back to look at the sector, we understand that organisations and funders alike are steeped in a toxic hyper-productivity culture – the breeding ground for this non-permission towards vulnerability. Social movements are oxygen for at-risk communities all over the world, yet the people behind the organising and resourcing of these movements are too often over-stretched and burned out.

We could dismiss this as an unfortunate by-product of capitalism. However, it’s in our collective interest to talk about and actively resist a work culture that expects us to consistently perform and avoid weakness at all costs, obliging us to keep our struggles, personal and organisational, a secret.

However, we know from studies on organisational change that failure and moments of disruption are an important and natural part of organisational life. Even so, there is rarely permission or safety to own these difficulties. Organisations fear that vulnerability could cost them their funding. Meanwhile, for funders the prospect of being seen by the organisations they support, and fellow funders is unfamiliar terrain. In avoiding vulnerability, we all lose an opportunity to learn and grow together.

The good news is that naming the breaking point can also be the turning point. As we also learned through the inquiry with LCF and their partners, once we named the elephant in the room, i.e confirming the rumours of LCF’s not-yet public decision to close down, it was easier to have an uncomfortable conversation between organisation and funder. The encounter proved to be an important act of witnessing and piecing together the story of where things went wrong, and what needs were overlooked in the chaos of change.

Yes, this was a difficult conversation – but also necessary and refreshing. This invitation to show up despite the messiness became the real lesson from this inquiry. In our publication ‘What Moves Movements’, we offer tools and tips for engaging in difficult discussions in a way that welcomes vulnerability.

So while funders navigate change, grapple with their own challenges and investigate their own opportunities for learning, what seems to be most important is the quality of the communication and the possibility of forging deeper and more trust-based partnerships.

What other world could we create if, together, we could break through the false myth of productivity so that people can form real authentic bonds built on co-creation, trust and empathy? What could our organisation-funder relationships look like if we practise mutual vulnerability? These are not just daring ideas but key skills we will all need to navigate the currents of uncertainty and change ahead.

Quime Williams is a participatory action researcher, facilitator and the Director of Community Engagement at Recrear.

[1] Note that in the What Moves Movements inquiry, participating organisations were compensated.

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Jonitta Potsane

This article craft a momentum of relearning new habits that can really work for a sustainable organized movement within the wider World of social movements across donor sector and community. This type of content express truth cutting the roots causes of over longtime hunger of human development in all social movements operation.

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