Trust First: Lessons From Running a Solidarity Fund
The SE15 Community Fund was established in May 2020, as a response to the financial difficulties people were experiencing during the pandemic and a requirement to fund the needs of local mutual aid efforts. Here, Becky Seale and other administrators of the fund share their achievements, the principles they hold to, the dilemmas along the way and plans for the future.
In the midst of the first surreal lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic, I wrote a blog here on the Ideas Hub exploring the dilemma of funding our ongoing mutual aid efforts. We were trying to decide whether we should make use of Council-provided financial support, even if it would come with some controls. Now, almost two years later, I’m joined by fellow admins of the SE15 Community Fund, to share with you reflections on running what became our solution to this funding dilemma: a solidarity fund.
We are four admins of the SE15 Community Fund, established in May 2020 as a response to the financial difficulties we were witnessing in our community during the pandemic and a requirement to fund the needs of our local mutual aid efforts. Here we share our achievements, the principles we hold to, our dilemmas along the way and our plans for the future.
Solidarity funds are not a new concept, but in recent times, more have been set up in response to growing community need. We took the principle of solidarity as our main guiding light – our tagline is ‘Neighbours helping neighbours during Covid and beyond’.
The Fund works by accepting contributions from local individuals, businesses and funders and distributing them to neighbours in financial need. Almost all transactions happen through an online platform called Open Collective and neighbours can receive up to £50 per household per month. We aren’t a formally constituted organisation and we don’t want to be – our fiscal hosts The Social Change Nest process payments which mean we don’t even need a bank account.
We’re really proud of what we’ve achieved over almost two years and at a recent review session these were some of the highlights:
– The fundraising efforts that has continued to keep the fund operational
– A committed, passionate team of administrators giving their time freely
– A solid reputation in the wider community and via a social media following
– A growing and evolving understanding of the application of principles such as mutuality
– A huge amount of impact: We’ve dispersed over £30k to people in SE15 and made a difference to many many people.
A set of principles, outlined in our constitution, help us as admins to navigate and stay on course, and be transparent with those contributing to, partnering with and drawing money from the Fund. If needs be, they can use them to hold us to account but in practice they’re mainly used to help us hold ourselves to account and to make difficult decisions.
- Solidarity not charity
- Give what you can, take what you need
- Trust First
- Humanity and flexibility (we are not an organisation and shouldn’t fall into the trap of behaving like one)
One of the principles which would stand to help us time and time again was ‘Trust first’. We aim to treat all applications as legitimate until we are led to believe otherwise. We aim to take personal feelings and judgement out of the situation as much as possible by sticking to our base level rules and criteria. For example, one payment per address, a recognised proof of address and one payment per bank account, per month.
We don’t get into a punitive response if we believe people are applying fraudulently and instead understand this may well be fuelled by people’s desperation. We can reject the application and move on, but we do not prevent them from applying again if they can meet our criteria.
Another principle is ‘Give what you can, take what you need’ – speaking to the principle of mutuality and lightly offered aid knowing that any one person’s circumstances could be reversed AND that some are disproportionately better off than others due to structural inequalities.
Our main dilemmas fall into these categories:
- Moral / principle based: for instance wanting to be fair to applicants by being consistent but also flexible to circumstances and human; holding true to our Trust First principle for the majority even and especially when we detect fraudulent activity from an isolated individual.
- Insufficient time and money to achieve our ambitions – forcing us to be realistic and pragmatic, let go of perfect, and more recently to accept that we sometimes run out of money when if we had more time we could probably fundraise to prevent this
- We also came to accept that we may lose some money to errors and fraudulent applications. We can’t remove this completely but we can do our best to create a fair system.
- Local legitimacy: the first two bundles of dilemmas combine to mean we never feel we are gaining enough of an imprint in the local community, especially as we operate mainly online. Our founding principles mean its really important to us that we pay respect to the many pre-existing community groups, their knowhow and experience rather than parachuting in as relative new kids on the block. We have done our best with time available but know there is more to do especially as things open up post-pandemic and face to face meetings are possible.
Although we have faced many dilemmas throughout the lifetime of the Fund, we have navigated them pretty smoothly, amongst ourselves mostly, and occasionally by reaching out for support. We have processes in place that definitely help. These are:
- Simple, flexible collective processes with regular light touch communication: we take turns to administrate the fund through the week – fielding emails and processing applications mainly. We communicate ad hoc by WhatsApp and meet roughly weekly to pick up any issues or dilemmas and move forward any development work or fundraising efforts. We also carry out pretty regular strategic reviews, sometimes externally facilitated to help us challenge our perspectives and set goals
- The principles themselves: we do occasionally disagree or find it difficult to decide on a way forward in a particular situation and in these moments referring back to the principles often helps us find a way through. For instance, when deciding whether to provide funds to those without a fixed address, who cannot give us the formal proof of address we typically require, we remember our intention to be human and flexible and find work arounds or temporary solutions so that people aren’t further disadvantaged by their circumstances.
Aspirations for the future
Given that the Fund has proven its worth, it feels like time to expand our impact and invite more people in. As well as inviting more people in to help run our fund, we’d also like to encourage people to set up their own funds. The more funds there are, the more we can rely on and share ideas with each other and the more people we can help.
We can’t achieve everything we want to on our own, and luckily there is a principle that means we don’t have to – mutuality and collective effort. So we are currently hatching plans to create specific roles such as fundraising and social media, or more ad hoc and informal as a wider band of helpers.
Needless to say we will be staying true to our principles of humanity and flexibility by being very conscious in this expansion, and are giving careful consideration to how we invite in, who we invite in and how we constitute ourselves when our collective is larger. Watch this space!
Photo credit: Alfie Chapman on Unsplash