Tensions Arising – The need for grassroots movements vs. funder’s resistance to risk

The following blog post was written by Grace Sodzi-Smith, Partnerships Manager at The Social Change Nest

Is funding bureaucracy killing grassroots movements?

I finish a call with one of the inspiring groups I am lucky enough to work with here at The Social Change Nest CIC, having provided a space for them to share the funding difficulties they were facing and their accompanying frustrations. The audible sigh that followed their words was a sound I knew all too well. Having run two social ventures myself, and now supporting 10 groups/activists along their journeys, the difficult relationship between grantee and funder is familiar to me. I share the frustrations with these inspirational and incredibly resilient leaders, because I see the valuable nature of the work they do and the struggles they face in accessing the resources for it.

For those at the margins of society, adhering to the rules and regulations reinforces inequality

Grassroots groups and movements are usually at the forefront of social change, and have the potential to do so much more. Often closest to the people on the ground that large corporations find hard to reach, they understand the needs of their communities and often have lived experiences of the issues they are trying to solve. Because of this, they hold greater insight to develop better solutions than any market research team. No survey or body of research can imitate real lived experiences.

And yet, these groups and movements don’t benefit from the system as it is – in fact, a lot of funding application processes are exclusionary. They are lengthy processes that require the expertise, skill and often insider knowledge of the organisation offering funding. These barriers mean that funding often goes to the better-resourced organisations who have the capacity to put the time into these processes. Of course, these organisations bring their own type of value and no doubt achieve social change, but by ignoring the potential of grassroots activists and groups, we are missing out on a goldmine of activity.

For those at the margins of society, adhering to the rules and regulations reinforces inequality. Those providing the value and resources to support grassroots activists and movements, need to recognise that their processes need to be adjusted to support those facing inequality. 

I recently read an interesting article called ‘The Audit Explosion,’ (Power, 1999) exposing the existential nature of our need to audit everything in society. Power suggests that “what we need to decide as individuals, organisations, and societies, is how to combine checking and trusting” (1999, pg. 3). 

The irony is that many organisations who have abided by the lengthy application processes and reporting requirements, have gone on to misuse funds – one example is Kids Company, which received £46m of public funds before its collapse in 2015 (Meierhans, 2022). If this isn’t a 100% fool-proof solution, then let’s stop pretending that it is. And if we believe that it isn’t a 100% fool-proof solution, we can look at other options that can also work, such as developing high-trust relationships as a form of risk management.

Grassroots movements have the benefit of understanding their communities and often being closest to the issues they are trying to solve

The reason I say this is not because I want the easy way out, but because I have experienced first hand that those who suffer the most from these bureaucratic processes, are the grassroots activists that play such a pivotal role in social change. I was also recently reading a collection of interviews in which Angela Davis stresses grassroots activism as being “the most important ingredient of building radical movements” (2016, pg. 4). In another interview she explains how we cannot rely on governments, “regardless of who is in power, to do the work that only mass movements can do” (2016, pg. 37).

It was reported that charities spend £900m a year on costs for applying for grants to charitable trusts and foundations, according to new research, due to embedded inefficiencies such as publishing vague eligibility criteria  (Wait, 2022). Chris Manion, Head of Grants at The British Science Association went as far as to question whether funders can inadvertently have an negative overall impact when taking into consideration the collective resources expended in applying for grants. In times such as these, when there are so many pressing issues to face, and a scarce amount of resources, we need to be prioritising efficiency! Grassroots movements have the benefit of understanding their communities and often being closest to the issues they are trying to solve and that incredibly important fact, has to outweigh concerns of risk from those at the top who – even with the best intentions – are far removed from the causes they want to support.

It has been a real delight to see and hear about all the amazing work that the groups that we host are accomplishing. I learn from them everyday how to be a better person, activist, manager, researcher and friend. Here are some of the amazing groups that have been able to receive funding through us a fiscal host, and through open and progressive funders, and truly begin making a difference in this strange world. 

If you want to find out more, in December we are running an interactive panel discussion about balancing risk management with social impact – if you are a funder or grant maker you can request an invite here.

References/Further Reading

Conciliation Resources (2022) How banks’ aversion to risk is hindering peacebuilding and humanitarian work. Available at: https://www.c-r.org/news-and-insight/how-banks-aversion-risk-hindering-peacebuilding-and-humanitarian-work (Accessed: 2nd August 2022).

Davis, A.Y. & Barat, F., 2016. Freedom is a constant struggle : Ferguson, Palestine, and the foundations of a movement.

Meierhans, J. (2022). Kids Company was mismanaged, Charity Commission finds. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-60338691 (Accessed: 2nd August 2022)

Ozden, J. (2022). Protest Movements Could Be More Effective Than the Best Charities. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Available at: https://doi.org/10.48558/D2ZF-VC54 (Accessed 2nd August 2022)

Power, M. (1999). “The Audit Explosion.” In: The Audit Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-14

Wait, S. (2022). Charity sector spends £900m a year applying for grant funding, report finds. Available at: https://www.civilsociety.co.uk/news/charity-sector-spends-900m-a-year-applying-for-grant-funding-report-finds.html (Accessed: 2nd August 2022).

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