Change is urgent: A year of open and trusting grant-making

On February 10th 2021, the first grantmakers signed up to IVAR’s eight commitments to funding charities in an open and trusting way. One year on, over 100 trusts and foundations are working actively with each other and with charities to make these commitments a reality.

Looking back, we are struck by six imperatives that shape this work and will help drive it forward in 2022 and beyond.

1. Change is urgent

Covid-19 has been a wake-up call on funding practice. Its key challenges to funders – relieving pressure on charities; freeing them to respond flexibly to the evolving needs of the communities and causes they serve; and facing up to biases and assumptions that perpetuate entrenched injustice and inequity – long predate the pandemic. But events of 2020 – the first Covid-19 lockdown and the murder of George Floyd – showed that communities’ needs are evolving; and funders’ responses demonstrated that change is possible. The time for a simpler, more respectful, and more inclusive philanthropy is now. We all need to play our part in building greater momentum.

2. Charities must be the judge of progress

A strong, diverse charity voice is critical to this effort – but hard to achieve. Power dynamics mean charities are wary of giving robust feedback to funders. And too often new rhetoric makes little or no difference to what funders do in practice. With extreme pressure on capacity and widespread cynicism about the influence they have, many charities see no point in engaging. We will all benefit from broader and deeper conversations between the charity sector and the funding sector. But only if these conversations lead to visible and meaningful change.

3. Confident practice comes from deep roots

Even small changes in practice by grantmakers – a more streamlined application form, the opportunity to pick up the phone and ask a question, quick replies to emails – make a real difference to charities. But open, trusting and respectful practice cannot flourish unless it mirrors and is supported by organisational culture, structure and leadership. In a busy foundation, it can be hard to step back and scrutinise – at all levels – how well-established assumptions and ways of working are supporting the commitment to be more open and trusting. But this is an essential step in achieving the best possible alignment between ‘how we do things’ and ‘what we are trying to achieve’.   

4. ‘Making our thinking visible’ is a powerful mechanism for change

Thinking out loud with each other provides an opportunity for people to offer alternative perspectives or identify the powerful questions that enable action. By working together, sharing ideas, difficulties and experiences in a spirit of positive challenge, we are all encouraged to act, learn and do better next time.

5. Acting like a partner, not an auditor

Open and trusting grant-making calls for a new mindset – one that starts from the assumption that charities know their own business, and will make informed judgements about how to adapt and adjust as things change. They can be trusted to be thoughtful and reflective, to know what ‘success’ looks like, to collect useful data, and to share it as part of their own commitment to improve the quality of what they do. A trusting relationship is ultimately about shifting power, not shifting paperwork. And the single most powerful thing funders can do to be more trusting is to give charities greater control over their own spending and reporting through unrestricted or highly flexible grants.

6. Making good progress means ‘starting from where we are’

Independent grantmakers are far from uniform in their scope, size, interests, priorities and governance. They face different opportunities and constraints. Being more open and trusting does not look the same everywhere – one size does not fit all. But, together, we are uncovering the principles that frame an open and trusting approach, enabling funders of all kinds to start from where they are and take positive steps to improve.

Now is the moment for transformative change in UK grant-making. To achieve this, funders, charities and their learning partners will all need to be persistent, determined and in it for the long term.

IVAR Trustees and staff are committed to supporting this momentum for change. Please join our Open and Trusting grant-making community by signing up through our webpage or getting in touch. Charities can  hold funders to account by signing up here.

With thanks to Shaady Salehi at Trust-based Philanthropy and to our community of open and trusting grantmakers for helping to inform and develop our thinking over the last year.

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