Inverting power dynamics, ending funding competition and addressing inequity

Here are two uncomfortable power dynamics in philanthropy:

  • Funding processes can be a kind of “Nonprofit Hunger Games” where frontline community organisations compete against each for favour and “the win.”
  • The power to decide who wins usually sits squarely with funders, yet funders are rarely directly affected by key social issues.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

This blog is about one example of an emerging approach which seems to be inverting the funding power dynamics, replacing competition for funding with cooperation and, more importantly still, is attempting to address inequity.  The initiative is called Just Change, and below is a summary of what are doing, what has happened so far and what we are learning.

What is Just Change?

Just Change is “a learning circle addressing inequity together” and I am privileged to co-facilitate this group with the amazing kaitiaki Lisa Tagaloa.   Just Change is an initiative of  Te Hiko Centre for Community Innovation, which in turn is an initiative of Wesley Community Action.  Our learning circle meets every two months over an evening meal in Waitangirua, north of Wellington, and involves two groups of people:

  • “Doers”: people leading innovative, grassroots community initiatives in Porirua and Hutt Valley.  Currently we have about 15 – 20 doers involved in seven projects, including a time bank, community-led financial management and peer-led whānau support.
  • “Donors”: people who understand the need for community-led change and who contribute financially to a shared funding pool.  Currently we have about 15 donors and approximately 80k of funding.

Our doers and donors come from different ends of the inequality spectrum and would normally rarely mix, but Just Change creates a space for learning and sharing resources and expertise.

What are we doing?

Here’s an overview of the process we have gone through:

  1. We held focus groups about how to more respectfully fund grass-roots community change and how to more effectively break down the barriers between people living in wealthier communities and those living in low-income communities.
  2. We hosted an evening meal in Waitangirua to see who wanted to be involved. From this a group of about 30 people and seven community projects emerged.
  3. We hosted a second evening in which the whole group collaboratively allocated the available funding between the seven projects.  This is where the power dynamics were inverted and competition was replaced with cooperation – more below.
  4. We hosted follow-up evenings where we learned together from the projects and explored what it might mean to be a learning circle of people from different worlds with a shared desire to address inequity.

What happened when we collaboratively allocated funding?

So, there we are in the room together, doers and donors, and it’s kind of fun but also kind of awkward.  It’s fun because this is new and different and we can feel the shared heart for community.  And it’s awkward because we don’t know each other very well, some people have money, some don’t, doers are mostly Māori and Pasifika while donors are mostly Pākehā.  And everyone is out of their comfort zone.

We have information in front of us about each project and how much money is required – and this total is (surprise, surprise) more than the available pool of funding.    So we share the spreadsheet and try, as a group, to fill out the “funding allocated” column.

And two interesting things happen:

  • Pretty quickly, the donors are saying “we can’t decide how much you should get – you tell us!”  In other words, the donors voluntarily ceded their decision-making power and inverted the power dynamics.   This is quite different to most funding decision processes, where decisions are made by the funders and behind closed doors.
  • Next, the doers listen to each other’s needs and say “oh – you need the money more than us – we can make do with less, you have it.”  In other words, the doers voluntarily agreed to cooperate and even to forego money.  Again this is quite different from most funding processes, where grant-seekers actively compete for available funds.

Eventually we fumbled our way through dividing up the available funds in a way which seemed fair and reasonable to almost everyone in the room.  And we are now turning our attention to learning together, exploring mutual accountability, and beginning ongoing conversations about inequity, decolonisation and what this diverse circle of people might do about both.

Lessons we are learning

Here are some of the learnings that are emerging:

  • A collaborative funding process with both donors and projects in the room dramatically changes power dynamics. This is probably because meeting face-to-face and making collaborative decisions not only lays bare the messiness of funding decisions, but also allows humility and generosity to blossom.
  • A local, place-based approach initiated by a trusted broker is helpful.  The fact that all the Just Change projects were at least loosely connected with Wesley Community Action and based in local communities where most of the doers knew each other has been helpful.  Over time more external projects will be added in, however it would probably be much harder to use these processes at a larger scale and without the trusted broker.
  • Actually it’s not really about the money.  It’s about relationships.  Certainly the funding is helping to enable the projects, but, if we are serious about addressing inequity, the real potential is in creating a safe space where people on different ends of the financial spectrum can build trust and honestly learn, explore, model and take action to address inequity.
  • Cofacilitation is helpful.    Bringing two different worlds together is helped by modelling this partnership in our facilitation.

There are many ways of going about funding communities, and every model has it plusses and minuses, but this Just Change model seems a bit different, and I particularly love the focus on relationships and collaborating across boundaries.   If this model is of interest, you can learn more here or feel to contact one of the core team – David Hanna, Kena Duigan, Lisa Tagaloa or myself.  Feedback and questions welcome.


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