Grantseekers be bold: shifting dynamics in funder relationships

Grantseekers be bold: shifting dynamics in funder relationships

Talking in a recent webinar – ‘Philanthropy in the context of Covid-19’ – run by the Centre for Social Impact, Philanthropy Australia’s CEO Sarah Davies advised that charities need to be brave in asking for what they need.

Her comment was part of wider conversation about how the challenges presented by the current crisis provide an opportunity for the philanthropic sector to evolve now and in the longer term. ‘It’s time to get rid of the model that doesn’t fund operational costs,’ she said, encouraging charities to educate funders about why core operational funding is needed, and to create more equity in the sector, moving away from the tendency of grantees asking for what they think will get funded rather than requesting what they actually need.

It’s certainly pertinent to be looking at how grant-seekers engage with grant-makers, and how grant-makers engage with beneficiaries. Two emerging trends overseas, and to some extent here in Australia, are trust-based philanthropy and participatory philanthropy. The Whitman Institute in the USA, for example, operates on trust-based principles, and expect funders to do the research and get to know their grantees, rather than the other way round. More locally, the Fay Fuller Foundation (SA) has invested $10 million in a 10-year mental health project in rural towns, delegating decision-making power to those directly affected in those towns.

In a thought-provoking session titled: ‘Shining a light on the donor-beneficiary power imbalance’ at yesterday’s excellent all digital Generosity Forum 2020, panellist Morgan Cataldo, Senior Manager, Youth Engagement at Berry Street, spoke from the perspective of one who has been a worker, client and beneficiary. She talked about Y-Change, a social and systemic change platform co-produced with young people with lived experience of disadvantage, and emphasized the importance of participatory design as vital to public policy and service design, rather than ‘philanthrocolonialism’ and transactional models of funding.

Rachel English from the English Family Foundation (EFF) acknowledged that ‘philanthropists are rarely the experts in the room’. The EFF is strong on developing two-way partnerships through their practice of engaged philanthropy, one that goes beyond the dollars to capacity building and giving grantees access to networks and knowledge. As Vedran Drakulic, OAM, CEO of Gandel Philanthropy said in a session on Guide Dogs Victoria’s (GDV) capital campaign to raise $23m for a new sensory campus: “philanthropy is much more than money.” Gandel Philanthropy hosted a lunch at their Pt. Leo Estate which raised $1m for GDV’s campaign.

Now more than ever charities need help beyond the dollars, and many funders are offering resources, advice and support across areas such as policy, legal and technological issues and advocacy.

Along with reticence around covering core funding, the other obstacle in achieving lasting change through grants is short termism. Mission Australia’s CEO James Toomey’s likened short term funding cycles to sugar hits. He was discussing philanthropy as risk capital in a session with Helen Connealy, General Manager at the Sir David Martin Foundation (DMF).

He compared getting funders to invest in new and untested social models with no guaranteed outcomes as ‘high risk Christopher Columbus investments’, another great anaology! And he asked what is the definition of risk if we are working with trusted partners. In a wonderful demonstration of a trust-based, long-term funding partnership, The DMF has been supporting Mission Australia for 30 years, and currently supports their Triple Care Farm residential drug and alcohol withdrawal program for young people.

The current crisis is presenting many challenges but also opportunities to do things differently and to shift power dynamics and outdated models. As Karen Hayes CEO of Guide Dogs Victoria said in her session: “Out of the darkest moments can come incredible triumph.”

If you need support around your grant-seeking, whether it’s approaching funders, writing applications or building your skills, get in touch with me today on 0431 865248 or email me at