Grant-makers believe they have too much power over those they fund, report finds

Grant-making charities overwhelmingly believe there is a power imbalance between them and the organisations they fund, but not enough is being done to change it, a new report has revealed.

Beyond Words: Power & Trust in UK Grant Making, published today by the Grant Givers Movement, a membership group for grant-makers, surveyed more than 140 staff members at charitable funders on the power dynamics they perceived within their organisations. 

The report found there was “an overwhelming consensus” that there is a power imbalance between funders and grantees, but also that the majority of respondents felt the sector was in a position to address the imbalance.

More than 90 per cent of respondents agreed that power should be rebalanced, and almost 80 per cent agreed that better redistribution of power would lead to more impactful grant making.

“However, whilst there are some examples of good practice, it is not yet the norm and, as a sector, we just aren't acting,” the report says, adding that funders’ actions “often do not align with the missions they seek to pursue”.

The report says that just over 50 per cent of respondents agreed their organisations were taking steps to rebalance power, but almost a quarter (24 per cent) said their organisations were not, and 25 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed.

Just 4 per cent of respondents said they believed their organisations were most accountable to beneficiaries, whereas 39 per cent said they were most accountable to trustees, the report says.

The survey identified a number of issues preventing a more trusting relationship developing between grantees and funders. 

These included “funders creating a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of low pay in the sector, funders applying punitive measures when things don’t go according to plan, grantee partners not wanting to ‘bite the hand that feeds them’, lack of lived, thematic or even sector experience on boards, which leads to misunderstanding and mistrust, and one-directional learning, flowing only from grantee partners to funders".

The barriers identified by respondents as preventing a rebalance of power included old, embedded structures and boards that see little reason to change, a lack of resources to help drive change and concerns about job losses. 

They also highlighted a lack of diversity, which they felt was preventing an equitable distribution of funding and stopping funders having much impact, the report says. 

“The lack of racial, ability, gender and class diversity among foundations is one reality which respondents felt perpetuates the status quo,” it says.

To address this, the report says, funders could be more collaborative, share information with each other and the wider sector, and strive to be more representative and inclusive. 

They also need to be more accountable to the communities they serve and allow those communities to play an active role in the design and implementation of activities, the report says.

The report also calls for funders to invest in their current and future leadership to support those working in the sector from marginalised communities, to offer professional development funding to grantees and to fund at the intersections of structural inequalities. 

“It is the responsibility of all grant-makers, at all levels, not just senior leaders and boards, to be more intentional, accountable and more explicit around these issues and not just fund the consequences of an unjust society,” the report says.

The report argues that responses to the Covid-19 emergency and to the Grenfell fire demonstrate that the sector can change its practices quickly.

“Some foundations have switched to flexible core funding, rapid-response grant-making and relaxed reporting requirements, and this is encouraging, but these are the minimum changes we want to see across the whole sector, and grant-makers with a genuine ambition to share power and build trust must go much further than this,” the report says.

“Restoring this power will go a long way to ensuring philanthropy perceives its existence as the pursuit of justice, rather than mere charity.” 

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