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Hacking Away at the Practice of Philanthropy

Earlier this week I attended a ‘hack’ in which a wide-ranging group of funders, plus taggers-on like me, came together to address a problem collaboratively. The problem posed was, “How might you enable trusts and foundations to better serve the organisations they support?”

To help inform the conversation, the organisers had surveyed trust and foundation grant recipients. While they took great pains to emphasize that their sample size was neither big nor random enough to render the data statistically sound, some of the results were nonetheless arresting:

• Less than a quarter of those who responded felt that their funders totally trust them. In fact, one in four (of the 59 respondents) described their relationship with funders as dependent, begging or abusive.
• Over a third of those responding said they pretend what they do is innovative, when it really isn’t, in order to secure funding.
• A majority (68 per cent) of those receiving funding from trusts and foundations thought funders should take more risks. Only two per cent thought they should take fewer risks.
• And finally, almost half said grant-making practice encouraged them to compete with peers and potential partners rather than collaborate. Fewer than one in five said funders’ practices encouraged them to collaborate.

I imagine none of this is news to you. This wasn’t the first time a group of funders had come together to try to figure out how to fix what isn’t working, and EFN itself has asked both funders and grant recipients to share their ideas on how to address some of these problems in the past. (See ‘A Splendid Torch’ for donor perspectives on the value of giving out core and unrestricted funding, the need to fund what works rather than only what is new and shiny and the need to take more risks; see also our “Fostering Collaboration: What Trusts and Foundations Can Do” briefing, informed by NGO leaders.)

Further setting the scene for the hack were ‘interventions’ from leaders in the sector – including the chief executive of one of the largest grantmakers in the UK, who said, strikingly, “If you’re in the game of amelioration, the system is fine. If you’re interested in long-term systems change, the fundamental mechanism of grant-making is not fit for purpose.”

The provocations were set up to inform small group discussions of answers to the question at hand (again, “How might you enable trusts and foundations to better serve the organisations they support?”). We then poured forth our collective ideas, our facilitators grouped them together, and we coalesced around those we found most interesting or promising, spending the next day and a half working in small groups to create products or processes that would help turn those answers into action. The ideas ranged from the broadly applicable, such as a ‘club’ for foundations abiding by mutually agreed-upon principles of best practice, to the more specific, such as an approach to grantmaking that eschews application forms and allows applicants to connect with a foundation in different ways. My group developed a draft version of an online tool to help foundations with a particular interest in becoming teaching and learning organisations to do so. We had great facilitators and fantastic assistance from artists and tech gurus who helped make our ideas more tangible.

At the end of the two-day hack, we gathered to listen to ten groups pitch their ideas for making grantmaking more responsive to the needs of the organisations that trusts and foundations support. I have no doubt that a few of them will have legs – from what hatched in Oxford this week, I think we will certainly see the hack’s influence on grantmaking to end poverty in Hartlepool, and we may well wind up with a declaration, code of practice and club, of sorts, for exemplary ‘Foundations for the Future’.

But I couldn’t get the words of our early speaker out of my mind. “If you’re in the game of amelioration, the system is fine. If you’re interested in long-term systems change, the fundamental mechanism of grant-making is not fit for purpose.”

I think she’s right, and I wasn’t sure the solutions we came up with over the two-day hack were in any way responsive to this; rather, as with the majority of charitable initiatives, most of them attempted to make changes within the established system (in this case the grantmaking system) rather than changing the system itself.

Don’t get me wrong: I know we are in desperate need of the forces of amelioration. We urgently need funders who support initiatives addressing the symptoms of poverty; funders who support those fighting the relentless forces degrading our forests, rivers and oceans; funders who can help meet the immediate needs of refugees in crisis. And we need their grantmaking to be as effective as it can be; they must serve the organisations, individuals and initiatives in ways that best help them achieve their missions.

But we also need (and have, to a certain degree) funders who are thinking about the new structures, the systems, that will help make sure that one day, poverty, inequality, injustice and environmental degradation are somehow a thing of the past, or at least far weaker forces in our society.

This is the hack I’d like to go to next: For those foundations looking to support long-term systems change that addresses the root causes of the issues we all care about, what does the practice of philanthropy look like? Is it the same grantmaking model with different recipients, or does the loftiness, the interconnectedness of the goal require a new model altogether?

Jen Morgan had some ideas on this at the end of her piece on systems change in this blog last December, and I encourage you to read them. I would love to see more explorations of what philanthropy looks like in the context of systems change on this blog, along with pushback on the very notion of systems change and the idea that foundations can somehow effect it. Please be in touch if you have thoughts to contribute.

Florence is EFN’s Director.

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