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Philanthropy is having an identity crisis

GGM Report Launch - Beyond Words: Power & Trust in UK Grant Making

On Wednesday 27 May we launched 'Beyond Words: Power & Trust in UK Grant Making'. This report, based on a survey of 140 sector professionals, provides unique insights into how those working in the sector perceive power in relationships with grantee partners, the communities they seek to serve and within foundations themselves.

Our mission, as GGM, is to increase awareness of the inherent problems within philanthropy, for instance the power imbalance and lack of trust within grant making as evidenced in our report. We hosted an open Zoom call to coincide with the launch, offering an opportunity for the 90 attendees to listen and raise questions about these issues with the organising group and the speakers.

Roxanne Nazir, part of the core organising team and one of the authors of the report, introduced it, drawing out its key conclusions. One of the important findings included sector professionals acknowledging that a power imbalance exists and crucially, believing that rebalancing power leads to better grant making. Whilst this is promising, they also concluded that there is a long way to go in redistributing and restoring power in communities and touched on some ways in which this can be done. Guest speakers were then invited to discuss their impressions of the report findings and their own reflections on the topic, before answering questions from attendees.

The panel included: Jenny Oppenheimer (Action Inquiry Manager at Lankelly Chase, and member of Future Foundations) who provided insight from a decade of experience working in the philanthropy sector; Peter Lewis (CEO of the Chartered Institute of Fundraising) who broadened the conversation with a professional fundraisers perspective; and Heather Salmon (Funding Officer at the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation) speaking from her experience of working in the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors and as recent graduate of the 2027 staff programme.

All three guest speakers highlighted the report finding that respondents felt foundations were most accountable to their board and least accountable to grantee partners, with only 4% stating their organisation is accountable to ‘end-beneficiaries’. Central to the discussion was the fact that sector professionals feel the least responsibility toward the people foundations seek to serve, which raises questions about the kind of change funders are seeking to pursue.

Peter Lewis highlighted the lack of diversity as a systemic weakness of philanthropy which has parallels in the fundraising sector. Indeed, this isomorphism was something which GGM highlighted in their first report on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion which can be read here. These sentiments were echoed throughout the survey responses, including an overwhelming 80% of respondents, who agreed that a redistribution of power is desperately needed. #BeyondWords captures existing frustrations within the sector, adding to the growing calls from several perspectives, to rebalance power. Jenny Oppenheimer built on this by echoing the report’s assertion that the philanthropy sector is built on oppressive structures of colonialism, racism, patriarchy and capitalism. Jenny said that philanthropy is going through an identity crisis, particularly as it's under the spotlight to do better. She emphasised the need for change but warned that the people deciding on these changes have the luxury of time and money to commit to this. This in itself risks the unbalanced cycle starting all over again. Jenny has written an excellent blog which expands on these points.

Speakers identified that these longstanding issues often feel insurmountable and can lead sector professionals in grant making to experiencing burnout - feeling like lone voices in their (most often small) organisations. A fundamental goal of GGM is to connect like minded peers and enable them to share these frustrations in a supportive environment. We want to create a community and use our collective voice to amplify those seeking change.

One benefit of this event was that we were able to have an open and honest discussion about building trust and power within communities.

Heather Salmon suggested that, as grant makers, we have a valuable role in bridging the gap between custodial power (those controlling funding decisions) and stewardship (those in frontline delivery). She argued we must push towards a more responsive relationship between grant makers and those in communities that are driving change. Peter Lewis, acknowledging that the issues identified were not exclusive to grant making, highlighted the fundraisers role as an essential component in increasing open communication between the two groups, and asked whether more work could be done to analyse the role of fundraisers in this power imbalance between funder and funded organisations..

Throughout the conversation there was a clear desire to employ more radical tactics to achieve change, by spotlighting the actions of organisations and holding them accountable for their practice. Tools like Grant Advisor UK, where third sector organisations review their experience with foundations, provide a much needed opportunity for two-way communication and more productive philanthropy.

Despite both the evident desire to rebalance power and the tools available, only 50% of respondents believed their organisation is taking steps to follow these good practice examples. There was recognition during the discussion of the myriad barriers prohibiting change, discussed in the report. However, as Jenny stated “we must demand more”. We must fundamentally alter how we fund by pushing for unrestricted grant making, collaborating with, trusting and listening to grantee partners. An attendee working at the Local Trust was able to speak first-hand about the success of giving decision making powers directly to leaders that reflect their communities. #BeyondWords includes a bank of good practice that further highlights the importance of participation at all levels.

A key takeaway was that there is the ability and the resources to rebalance power in grantmaking and a strong desire by a movement of grant makers to make this change. An important message was for us as individuals to become activist philanthropists and use privilege constructively to generate change from within organisations and within the sector. This speaks to one of the fundamental strengths of the Grant Givers’ Movement, that is - change from within.

As was shared during the zoom call, achieving change is part strategy and part alchemy, we need to share and build the political and social capital of others, but step aside in order for affected communities to lead the way.

Please visit our website to read the full report ‘Beyond Words: Power and Trust’ and keep up to date on the movement and our aims. To become part of the conversation - join our next meeting, connect with us on Twitter or sign up to our mailing list.

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