Covid Considerations: we need to change the way we ‘do’ grant giving

| Bex Clarkson

Having worked in the charitable sector for thirty years, Covid-19 has really made me question whether the charity model is working. The charitable sector is thought to be worth £50 billion today, a sizable sum by any standards, and yet this pandemic has exposed how the social problems charity is supposed to address and alleviate such as poverty and inequality, are as entrenched and devastating as ever. So why is this huge resource not having a bigger impact? Where is that money going and to who?

The means by which charity money is allocated – application form, judging panel, award to ‘the best’ one – has not changed in many years. It is based on a somewhat Victorian, philanthropic ‘model’ born of an era of benign paternalism, notions of the ‘deserving poor’ and significantly – the belief that ‘organisations’ are required to ‘run projects’, as people themselves cannot be trusted to spend money wisely. This outdated approach is not serving anybody well in the world we inhabit today. And yes, I know the joyous celebrations which ensue when a grant is awarded. But I also know, in this ‘winner takes all’ paradigm, how much good work is not funded because of it and therefore cannot be carried out. 

We have come to believe that there is something sacrosanct about the current grant giving model, but there isn’t. The constant form filling and endless amounts of pointless information requested (why the need to constantly submit annual accounts with every application? In most cases, they are right up there on the Charity Commission website), means many organisations are excluded before they even get the chance to start. Not only is this model an antique way of doing things, it is also deeply rooted in western notions of the importance of ‘good’ writing, presentation and language. Consider for a moment what a barrier that is, and yet it is regularly enforced by funders who have diversity statements writ large on their websites. Such well-meaning statements are easy enough to create, but far harder is the important work of addressing who has power (and thus, who holds and distributes resources) and what responsibilities we have as a sector to think differently about what we are trying to achieve.

So, here’s a thought: rather than tinker at the edges of the model we were used to before, let’s use this crisis to be bold and put decision-making about money and where it goes into the hands of people – those people we currently call clients, customers, beneficiaries. And no, I don’t mean a couple of ‘users’ on panels nor ‘representatives’ at meetings. I mean handing over decision-making to the people actually impacted by those decisions.  We might find that people accustomed to eking out a small budget do rather better at allocating money where it’s needed than a panel composed of privileged professionals with good intentions, but zero experience of real poverty or disadvantage. And if all this sounds like liberal idealism, consider this: great things happen when products and services are developed because they are what people actually want, and not what somebody else thinks they should want.

I’ve lost count of the number of meetings I’ve sat through where we talk earnestly about ‘innovation’ and then – because we think in terms of organisational need rather than people – proceed with the same old way of doing things. I hear much lofty talk of ‘co-production’ but my experience of it so far has been at best a slightly beefed up version of consultation run by the power holders who have no intention of giving that power up. So, let’s press re-set and use this moment to change the way we do grant giving. Let’s stop making the default setting ‘suspicion’ and trust that people will find a way out of poverty by having control over the right amount of resources for their needs. Yes, this will mean fundamental change, and yes, I’m sure it will – for charities, at least – be a scary and challenging process. But if the prize is the eradication of poverty and inequality, it’s surely worth a try?

This blog is part of our Covid Considerations series and is written by Bex Clarkson. Bex writes, lifts weights and thinks, although not at the same time (usually). She believes in fairness and justice and she doesn’t believe that suffering makes us better people.

Follow Bex on LinkedIn or to get in touch email hello@ideas-alliance.org.uk

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