Debra Allcock Tyler: Remember that funders are partners, not rule-setters

We have a strange relationship with those who have money, but we should not feel powerless in their presence

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

My sister has recently become a governor at her sons’ school. Charlie, Year 9, is very chilled about it. Not so thrilled is Freddie, Year 7, who was utterly horrified when he realised his mother might be prowling his space. This necessitated a serious conversation. "Now, mummy," he said firmly, "we might encounter each other at school. If we do you may say ‘Hello Freddie’. And depending on who I’m with I might respond ‘Hello mummy’, or I might just nod. Then you must move away quickly. There will be no kisses or cuddles or calling me cute baby names. Are we clear?"

With this vignette in mind, I want to talk about a Twitter thread by John Rendel,
director of grants at the Peter Cundill Foundation. The foundation has decided to stop giving restricted funding. But I was particularly struck by his explanation:
"Restricted funding is a) distrustful, b) disrespectful, c) philanthropically self-
defeating and d) narcissistic."

Wow! The raw truthfulness of this was like a blast of fresh, cold, bracing air. It’s what charities have so often thought, but dared not say for fear of losing the very funding they’re desperate for. As human beings, and especially in charities, we have a strange relationship with those who have money: we feel powerless in the face of it and assign it a power beyond what is healthy. People and organisations who have the power to give or withhold money are treated with a deference that isn’t good for them or us.

We allow ourselves to be patronised by high-net-worth individuals who’ve been successful in business and think that this (and their cheques) means they know
better about how to run our charity more efficiently and effectively than us, or that solving serious societal problems simply requires the application of business processes. Then there’s the foundation that thinks we can’t be trusted to use its grant wisely and well, so we need to be scrutinised and monitored as if we are just naughty children.

What’s especially impressive about the Peter Cundill Foundation’s approach (and others following in the same vein) is the adult and collaborative nature of it. There’s something so grown up about an organisation admitting that having money doesn’t make it better than the organisation that is asking for it, that can recognise and be brutally honest about that fact and effectively say "we’re partners on this journey".

That doesn’t mean we don’t need to establish mutual expectations and deliver on them, which is why I thought about Freddie and my sister when reading John Rendel’s tweet.

That story wasn’t just a rather sweet and funny tale about a small boy standing up to his very powerful mother and establishing an equality of boundaries. It was about the bravery it takes to allow a real power shift in a relationship where one is used to holding the resources and setting the rules. That’s hard for a mother to do. It’s even harder for a funder to do. But it’s when you relinquish your power that you release the power within others.

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