Grantmaking for social change?

Dawn Austwick

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.’

The universal factor of success – willing partners

My second reflection is on the importance of having willing partners that will help deliver change. Grantmaking on its own is not enough.

The universal factor of success is passionate, inspiring and effective people. This is what delivers social change – funding is an enabling factor. Successful funding interventions and projects require good people to lead, agitate, enthuse and ultimately deliver. In this instance, I recognize the example provided by Avila Kilmurray in Northern Ireland, of how grantmaking can help build trust across divided communities. This resonates with our experience in Northern Ireland and some of the great projects our grants support: much of Kilmurray’s success is driven by her and her team at Community Foundation for Northern Ireland. Grantmaking is only as powerful as those that manage or use that grant funding.

So Mark Kramer is right to note that social change does not happen just because of money; it requires a coalition of the willing and the influential. I think what Kramer is getting at is that the grant is a catalyst for change around which all the key players can coalesce. I’m often mindful that the impact of grantmaking is not just in the money and the obvious difference it makes, but rather in the conversations and confidence it creates. It gives people the permission to do something to make a difference because they have one of the key tools that will enable them to do that, and in doing so it opens up access to other tools, networks and resources.

Whether you call this grantmaking plus or funder plus or some other name, it does place a responsibility on grantmakers to think about their impact, evidence and wider support for the projects they fund.

What was missing: our tolerance for risk and failure …
Some of the examples of ‘successful grants’ in this edition of Alliance are truly inspiring; they provide a compelling list of what is possible. But perhaps what is missing is what fails and what our tolerance for failure is.

As funders, we do need to take risks, to test ideas as a means to social change. Are those who are primarily grantmakers more or less willing to fund riskier projects than those using other approaches to philanthropy? Do venture philanthropists offer a more disciplined model for evaluating risk? ‘Best’ is probably a bit of both. Knotty problems sometimes need messy, loose funding over sustained periods of time. But too long in the ‘messy area’ can lead to inertia, while moving too quickly to a controlled environment can lead to over-engineered solutions that won’t stick.

The challenge is partly reflected in Andre Degenszajn’s analysis of the development of philanthropy in Brazil: ‘Private social investors should take advantage of their flexibility and freedom – compared to governments – to take risks in supporting social groups in realizing their missions.’ In the UK, the Big Lottery Fund is in a privileged position to do this. Our funding is not driven by the annual budget cycles of government departments, nor restricted by the five-year electoral cycle. Much of our funding is on a five-year basis; on some of our larger programmes we stretch to 10 and, exceptionally, 15 years. This gives us the opportunity to learn from what we fund and to share that learning with others. We are also able to test models and ways of working and help celebrate the learning.

… and how we can work together
There is one other question that perhaps remains unanswered in the articles. Given the urgent need for us all to maximize the positive effects we have, how can we work together?

This is a crucial question and technology now offers a new set of opportunities to address this. Perhaps the potential and power of open data, social apps, media and data analysis can allow grantmakers and philanthropists to share information better and to learn more proactively from each other. This could help inform, for example, where and why we fund, and transform both how we work together and how we work with beneficiaries. It might also help us consider a blend of funding interventions, whether it be grantmaking, funder plus or indeed some form of loan finance.

As ever, Alliance articles raise as many questions as they provide answers. We are asking ourselves many of these questions as we think about our future strategy. So if you are interested in what’s on our mind, please do visit and feel free to add your thoughts and ideas.

Dawn Austwick is chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund. Email

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