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No room for complicity: fighting racism within funded partners

Updated: Feb 12


If 2020 reminded us of anything, it’s that charities can often face bumps in the road that risk disrupting even the best laid plans. Many responsible funders acknowledge that rather than jumping out of the car at the first sign of trouble, the most effective response is to stay and help re-route the journey. But what do you do when it goes beyond bumps in the road? What do you do when instead, the charity you fund faces massive ethical and safeguarding potholes – potholes that risk harming your fundamental charitable purpose? As a funder, can you stay in the car without being complicit?


In October 2020, Third Sector revealed multiple allegations of racism and bullying at the charity Versus Arthritis. It was a disturbing read. Here are just a couple of the allegations:


One employee’s account described an exchange in which a colleague “discussed the reintroduction of slavery to the UK, arguing that it would improve the economy”, and refused to stop after they expressed their discomfort with the topic.

In another testimony, an employee described being told that they should make themself “more palatable to white people”, and “needed to be mentored on how to communicate with white individuals”

Whilst deeply abhorrent, this isn’t the first and won’t be the last time racism rears its ugly head in our sector. It may be tempting to view internal toxicity as a lesser issue than external safeguarding incidents, but the reality is the two are inextricably linked. When racism and discrimination fester within a charity, it inevitably seeps into service design and delivery. One-size-fits-all services, culturally insensitive comms, or altogether disregarding whole communities as “hard to reach” are just some of the insidious ways a racist culture manifests externally.


With that in mind, what can funders do to prevent such incidents happening in the first place? And how should funders respond when significant harm has already been inflicted?


With great power comes great responsibility


“… funders, regulators, membership and infrastructure bodies, and recruiters influence the conditions for DEI and the pursuit of race equity in the charity sector."

Dr Sanjiv Lingayah, Kristiana Wrixon and Maisie Hulbert


Small, large, local, national, collaborative, Trustee-led, staff-led – funders come in all different shapes and sizes. Despite their many differences, one thing all funders have in common is that they yield enormous power and influence in the sector. Though it’s true there are serious problems with this power dynamic, whilst the scales are firmly tipped in our favour, there is no excuse for not using this power for good in the fight for racial equity.

Before we explore this further, let's acknowledge the elephant in the room: 99% of foundation trustees are white. There is much work to be done to ensure a truly diverse, equitable and inclusive foundation sector. What we’ve seen unfold at Versus Arthritis shines a spotlight on the importance of funders baking anti-racism into every aspect of their work.


Do your homework


“Passive racism is more insidious and pervasive [than active racism] … It can be demonstrated by biased behavior, lack of empathy towards another group’s hardships and, in the case of philanthropy, awarding foundation grants to organizations advocating white supremacy or discriminatory principles.”

Mark Hurtubise


As external stakeholders, there will always be a natural limit to what funders can know about their funded partners. This means we can’t always prevent harm from taking place. However, what we can control is whether appropriate checks and balances exist to mitigate safeguarding risks. To ensure a safe and inclusive workplace or service for people of colour, it is vital that funders incorporate an anti-racist lens to due diligence checks. By implementing a preventative approach as default, you can actively minimise the risk of your funding unwittingly perpetuating racial inequity.


Depending on the capacity of your operation, these checks could range from a small yet thoughtful change such as adding additional anti-racist questions to your application form. Alternatively, funders with more resources may choose to meet with the charity to discuss the organisation’s anti-racist action plan in depth. Whatever the approach, the ultimate aim here is to probe in a way that helps reveal any potential safeguarding and inclusion red flags.


Here are a few prompts to help shape your due diligence and monitoring checks:

  • Go beyond the D&I policy; does the organisation have a genuine understanding of anti-racism?

  • Is there an anti-racist action plan with clearly defined SMART objectives?

  • Have the voices of people of colour been centred in anti-racist work? Effective interventions are rooted in lived experience #NoWhiteSaviours

  • What does representation look like at all levels of the organisation? Who does and does not hold power?

  • What do news and employee review sites such as Glassdoor tell you about the organisation?

  • Has the organisation carried out equality impact assessments on their work? What mitigations have they taken as a result?


Some charities may be further along on their journey to anti-racism than others. The point here isn’t to immediately dismiss charities who aren’t getting it all right. Incorporating an anti-racist lens to due diligence checks helps build an informed picture of your prospective or current funded partner’s understanding and commitment to anti-racism. This process enables funders to identify charities who have a genuine desire to do better, in turn opening up an opportunity to work together and build skills and resources.

Interrogate crisis comms


"Blanket and abstract statements... sound more like a politician trying to get votes than an institution prepared to take action"

Kira Hudson Banks & Richard Harvey


In cases like Versus Arthritis, where staff have already experienced significant harm, funders must be ready to interrogate. Supporting an organisation that does not take the safeguarding of their people seriously is a risk to your investment, reputation, and at odds with your responsibility as a charitable funder.


Following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, we all saw just how easy it is to release PR-friendly, performative messaging (even easier for large charities with a dedicated comms function). Funders must be equipped to cut through the BS to truly understand the realities of the issue, as well as how meaningful and robust the organisation’s proposed solutions are.


When assessing your funded partner’s response to a racist incident, ask yourself:


  • How quickly have they responded to the incident(s)?

  • Are you talking to people who are invested in highlighting the truth, or hiding the truth?

  • Are the people you’re talking to representative of the people that have been harmed? (Or are they in fact more likely to be representative of the perpetrators?)

  • Look out for accountability (or lack thereof); a sombre tone and hopes for an inclusive future mean very little without genuine accountability for what has happened

  • What immediate measures have been put in place to reduce the risk of further harm and look after those who have been hurt?

  • How are staff feeling? Is there a way to engage with those beyond leadership, whilst prioritising their safety?

Take action


“When you have resources and influence and power, you have already stopped being neutral, you are already part of the problem or the solution"

Emily Collins-Ellis


Having done your homework and interrogated the response of the funded partner, it’s time to act. By this point you have hopefully begun a meaningful dialogue with the funded partner. Using information gathered from these conversations, a helpful first step is to assess whether there is a need to invest additional resources to help build the organisation’s capacity and safeguard the wellbeing of people harmed. This could look like additional funding to cover the costs of anti-racism training, an anti-racist Programme Manager, or support focused on diversifying the board.


In addition to this, one of the most immediate and impactful things you can do as a responsible funder is to set meaningful conditions to your grant. Conditions could look like asking your funded partner to commit to an anti-racist action plan, ensuring that the internal race equity network has adequate protected time and budget, setting a clear expectation for anti-racism training. It may also be worth talking to other funders who support the organisation with the aim of ensuring a joined-up approach that supports the charity to focus their resources in the right way.


Grant conditions can be an effective way to accelerate progress. The fact is what donors ask for often immediately becomes a priority for fundraising organisations. As mentioned previously, this power dynamic is problematic, but if there were ever a time to wield your power for good, this is it.

Constant accountability


“It’s up to all of us – Black, white, everyone – no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out. It starts with self-examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own. It ends with justice, compassion, and empathy that manifests in our lives and on our streets.”

Michelle Obama


Continuously holding funded partners to account is the only way to achieve lasting change. Ideally, tracking progress would consist of regular check ins. Grant renewal milestones also provide a helpful opportunity to carry out an in-depth assessment, which can inform whether renewed support is appropriate. And for more serious incidents, like those seen at Versus Arthritis, it might be necessary to carry out regular spot checks to ensure not only progress, but also the safety and wellbeing of staff and stakeholders.


When monitoring an organisation’s progress towards anti-racism, it’s important that the central narrative is one of truth, not corporate spiel. To seek out truth it is important to prioritise:

  • The voices and experiences of people of colour: It is naïve and potentially dangerous to assume an all-white leadership team are willing and/or able to accurately reflect what people of colour in the organisation are experiencing. The reason racism has run rampant in our sector for so long is because too many of those in leadership positions are wedded to/benefit from the status quo. That’s why capturing the voices of people of colour is so important. Though it is crucial to note that this needs to be done in a way that does not put people of colour in harm's way e.g. ask to see key themes from staff surveys, invite staff to send feedback to you directly.

  • Comprehensive reports: If it’s not measured, it won’t be improved. Ask your funded partner for key reports that will help paint an accurate picture of the organisation’s culture e.g. the number of people of colour at every level, rate of turnover amongst staff of colour, ethnicity pay gap, key themes from staff surveys and exit interviews, the make-up of people accessing services, regular and updated equality impact assessments. These indicators should be consistently tracked and reviewed for progress.

  • Conversations that go beyond the sanitised and ineffectual language of “diversity and inclusion”: To truly examine progress towards anti-racism, funders need to be equipped with the language and knowledge to initiate uncomfortable and critical conversations with funded partners. Move away from the tired script of “diversity and inclusion” and start interrogating issues of power, privilege, white supremacy, and negligence.


If not us, who? If not now, when?


“Systemic racism received much greater national attention in 2020, but it will take much more than months of conversation for things to improve; it will take a life-long commitment on the part of foundations to help move the needle.”

Ellie Buteau


And if, after all this, your funded partner continues to cause harm, withdraw funding. By knowingly supporting an organisation that consistently jeopardises the safety of its people, you yourself become complicit.


2020 must be a lesson to us all. From the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, to the disproportionate impact of COVID on communities of colour; systemic racism has deadly consequences for people of colour. And it starts small. It starts in our homes. Our schools. Our workplaces. From dismissing a pro-slavery comment in the office, interchanging one Black person’s name for another, staying silent when others are being bullied, or dismissing people of colour as shouty and unhelpful when they expose racism. All of these behaviours are incompatible with our fundamental purpose to nurture a just civil society.


Over the past year it’s been incredible to see more funders prioritise racial equity in their work (albeit belatedly). As we continue to see the sector invest directly in Black-led groups and communities of colour, let’s bring all our funded partners with us on the journey toward racial equity. And as we raise the bar, let those organisations who are unwilling to fight injustice fall away. There is no room in this sector for complicity.





This piece was written by Aanchal Clare on behalf of the GGM. Aanchal is an organising member at Grant Givers Movement, part of the Learning and Fund Design team at Comic Relief and a Trustee at Peter Minet Trust and the Association of Charitable Foundations.


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