Skip to content

When funders get active

By Peter Gilheany

21 November 2019
, , ,

Big problems abound and urgent action is required to tackle them. Perhaps it has always been that way, but something has changed and there is an exciting shift in how many social funders are ramping up their approach to positive change. It is marked by a decisive move towards being more active and taking a more strategic, long term approach to funding and enabling social change.

As a consultancy, we are seeing the change happen first hand and supporting others through the process. Foundations we have worked with in the last few years, including the Pears Foundation and Lankelly Chase, have turned themselves from traditional funders of programmes, into active change agents, taking on a more direct role in shaping and delivering projects and campaigns, and considering the most effective role they can play in delivering long-term and systemic change. It is a variation on the age-old debate in civil society of the balance between managing the impact of an issue and identifying and treating the cause.

New funders are leading pioneering work in this area, including two previous clients of ours, Power to Change and the Centre of Ageing Better. Provided with new pots of funding both organisations have built a strategic approach focused on identifying and using the most effective levers for generating impact, built on robust insights and research. In both cases, those levers have included collaboration and strategic partnership, and any organisation looking to deliver significant or even systemic change, needs to go down that road.

Funders, trusts and foundations who are seeking to become more active funders need to overcome some significant communications challenges:

  • Changing perceptions and relationships with fundees and grantees – when organisations are used to working with a funder in one way, it takes care, time and persuasion to show them the value of that approach changing, particularly if it means the funder being more hands-on than previously. Grantees need to be part of the conversation about this change from the beginning to reduce the risk of alienating valuable current and future collaborators
  • Being more vocal and visible – one of the levers open to an active funder is to come from behind the curtain and express a public opinion on the issues it is seeking to tackle. This can really increase its reach and impact but needs to be done in a way that is authentic, authoritative and doesn’t create a reputational risk that imperils the objectives it has set out to further
  • Building sustainable and productive partnerships and collaborations – organisations must understand and agree the relationship between their own corporate objectives, such as raising their profile, with their change objectives. Clarifying that will allow them to form a framework for how they partner with other organisations and avoid potential turf wars on who ‘owns’ a project and gets profile – areas that can derail relationships with other organisations

These challenges can all be dealt with, but they are much better done so at the start of the journey to becoming an active funder. An integrated communications strategy will save a lot of pain and dead-ends, preparing the way for the active funder to maximise their impact.