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Beyond Words: What UK Grantmakers are Learning About Power and Trust

Philanthropy has to confront its contributions to maintaining systems of oppression if it ever is to contribute to the kind of systemic change needed in our society. State-sanctioned violence and anti-Black racism is urging deep reflection on how to build power effectively in this moment to bring justice and change with and for affected communities. The Grant Givers’ Movement, a non-hierarchical gathering of those working in the UK grantmakers who want to push for positive change in how philanthropy is done, recently releasedBeyond Words: Power and Trust in UK Grant Making.” Based on more than 140 responses from UK grantmakers, the report provides unique insight into how funders themselves perceive their own power; the dynamics within grantmaking organizations; and the power balance between grantmakers, grantee partners, and the communities they seek to serve.


Not surprisingly, most respondents acknowledge a power imbalance exists. More importantly, almost 80 percent believe that better redistribution of power leads to greater impact. Encouragingly, 50 percent reported their respective organizations were taking steps to rebalance power, but there is clearly a long way to go. While several efforts are being made to take steps to adjust grantmaking practice towards building power in communities, fewer initiatives to create more fundamental changes are in place. Such measures include; funding social movements and informal/grassroots groups, and investing in those from underrepresented communities with the tools to become staff and leaders in grant-giving organizations.

Participants cited the lack of racial, ability, gender, and class diversity among staff at grant-giving organizations as a key barrier to rebalancing power. Respondents felt greater diversity and inclusion at grantmaking organizations enables a range of voices and experiences to contribute to decision making, leading to a more equitable distribution of resources and, ultimately, greater impact.

What inhibits trust?

We found a range of factors inhibiting a trusting relationship between grantee partners and funders. Respondents cited issues such as funders creating a “race to the bottom” in terms of low pay in the sector; funders applying punitive measures when things didn’t go according to plan; grantee partners not wanting to “bite the hand that feeds them”; lack of lived, thematic, or even sector experience on boards; one-directional learning, flowing only from grantees to funders; and a lack of accountability amongst funders, which creates an environment in which funders are not being motivated to do better.

Worryingly, we found respondents felt they were most accountable to their boards and least accountable to the communities they seek to serve. This sentiment is important because it relates to what drives change. Lack of accountability to serve communities better leads to questions about the change that funder is seeking to pursue. This reality of the board’s significance on funder practices also underscores the importance of grantmakers prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts that improve community representation on their own boards.

The measure of a grantmaker is what it does with its power

Rebalancing power within the grantmaking context on a practical level means recognizing that UK grantmakers (and others who hold ultimate decision-making powers) are not always the best people to make funding decisions.  As funders, we need to enforce a greater level of participation and an understanding of equal partnership between grantmakers and communities. We need to recognize and value the expertise we miss out on when we do not put affected communities in the driver’s seat.  Philanthropy has the power to change its own practice, but we often stand in our own way. We need to be asking ourselves and our colleagues to demonstrate how we are redistributing and restoring power in our grantmaking strategy and practice.

Achieving greater equity is about restoring power and resources to affected people and communities, and recognizing the existing power already held within them. It is also necessary to recognize that power is deliberately broken down in certain communities (e.g., through structures of colonialism, racism, patriarchy, capitalism), and to understand that the majority of time, those who benefit from these structures are the ones who hold the power and the resources to enable change. It is therefore our responsibility to intentionally restore power through philanthropy in the communities that have been historically impacted by these wider systems of oppression. Restoring this power will go a long way toward ensuring philanthropy perceives its existence as the pursuit of justice, rather than mere charity. It’s about connecting our grantmaking practices and values with organizational missions.

Our collective inaction only delays change. Now is the time to act. Social movements present in the UK, such as #shiftthepower (which emerged from the first Global Summit on Community Philanthropy held in Johannesburg in December 2016) and #charitysowhite, are creating a groundswell around power and trust. We are observing a rise in sector-wide conversations around improving grantmaking practices for more equitable power sharing. We need to hold each other accountable and help one another move beyond words to action. We need to recognize our crucial role in funding social justice movements, educating our donors, creating systems that reinforce mutual goals in partnerships with community groups, and using philanthropy as a powerful tool to change a broken system.


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