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Image: A Wild Platitude (Source: Birmingham Museums Trust)
Consider, for a moment, these grantmaking platitudes:

“We back exceptional initiatives that have the potential to create huge social returns on philanthropic investment”

“We don’t want to be just another funder, funding ordinary projects”

At first glance there’s nothing wrong with these aspirations. Who, after all, could be against trying to do the most good with available money? Surely there’s nothing wrong with funders aiming high?

But take a moment to analyse the assumptions lurking just beneath these statements, and it doesn’t take long before things start to look a bit… icky.

For starters, these types of breezily confident aspirations fundamentally aren't humble.  All of them assume - albeit in an unstated manner - that the speaker has skills or capabilities to find or unlock social impact that other funders just aren’t quite smart or hard working enough to achieve. But the problem is worse than mere condescension. An ultra-confident mindset is dangerous in our game because it makes a grantmaker less likely to listen to inconvenient or dissonant information, and thus more likely to make colossal cock-ups; the price of these normally being paid by grantees and everyday people, not the funder themselves. 

Second, some of these claims are rooted in the implicit idea that ‘ordinary’ charitable activities -  presumably expensive, tiring, often low-tech work like providing care services to vulnerable people - will continue to be funded by some nebulous group of other funding organisations. The unstated assumption is that the people who keep paying for these types of activities represent dull, unadventurous or even unintelligent funders - leaving the 'smart money' free to pursue more thrillingly TED-talk-friendly visions. Not only is this view rude and patronising, but it shows an unwillingness to share necessary costs with other funders and indeed the rest of society. 'OK, you do all the boring stuff while I win all the trophies. Deal?'

Finally, the two opening statements at the top of this essay don’t follow the Golden Rule: treat others as you would want to be treated yourself. If other grantmakers imply through their words that they are smarter and more visionary than you are, or that they mainly want your cash to direct towards their own goals, you're just not going to get on. Which leads over time to less collaboration, less knowledge sharing and a generally fractured funding landscape.

None of this critique should be confused with a call to lower our aspirations as grantmakers.  Aiming for high impact, and deploying strong evidence and diverse skills to deliver it is part of our jobs. But you can and indeed should do this without implying that everyone else is a fool.

So what can you do if you work in a funder where this sort of showy-offy excellence rhetoric is already the norm, or where one of your board members is very keen on deploying it?  Here are a few suggestions:
  • Arrange a lunchtime discussion specifically to discuss whether your organisation’s mission, rules or norms are truly underpinned by humility or whether there are aspects of arrogance that have crept into your ways of working and talking about yourselves that need fixing.  If it is helpful to deflect social awkwardness, you can frame this as discussing the First Value of Modern Grantmaking.
  • Carry out an analysis in which you try dividing all your grants into ‘ordinary grants’ and ‘cutting edge/high risk/high reward grants’. Produce some data on this, and then circulate that to your team or board, asking as you do so whether your organisation is contributing its fair share to the less glamorous side of grantmaking.
  • If your organisation does decide that it is right to pursue grants that are cutting edge, high risk and high reward, ask your colleagues in a gentle and non-threatening way if they feel that together your team is actually the best placed group to make these kinds of long-odds bets. The purpose of this question is to check that everyone is thinking with humility about their own capabilities, and to remind people that just because they have control over money does not always mean they're the right people to deploy it for every purpose.

Reading - Modern Grantmaking recommends 
  • Funding systems are both really difficult and really under-valued case study no. 1234: The FT’s Peter Foster and Jennifer Williams write: “The UK government’s flagship £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund has suffered an embarrassing delay with the web portal for applications remaining more than a month after it was scheduled to go live.”
  • A great, detailed analysis of a critical question in science funding.  Unlike most social and community funding, science funding pays lots of attention to the publication of papers, and in particular how highly cited both people and research becomes. On Matt Clancy’s substack he patiently tackles the question  “Do Academic Citations Measure the Impact of New Ideas?” using - what else - various research papers to inform his analysis. Really interesting. 
  • Grantmaking finally gets its first sitcom. Loot is now showing on On AppleTV+.  Not so subtly based on the divorces of Melinda French Gates and MacKenzie Scott, this comedy romp is mainly fun viewing for grantmakers because you can compare fictional characters with real people in your office. Compare your accountant with theirs! Compare your CEO with theirs! Compare your random person who-doesn’t-seem-to-have-a-job with theirs! 

Interesting Jobs  
  • Trustee position. The Movements Trust is an interesting new regranter, trying to help make funding available to the type of unincorporated campaign groups that can struggle to access normal funding. They’re looking for trustees.

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