Beyond the badge – an open and trusting journey.

Open and trusting grant-making
22 May 2024

Due diligence works both ways – is it time for funders to be more accountable for how they work?

Elaine Gibb

You might have noticed a green badge at the bottom of this website. If you haven’t then do take a look. It indicates our commitment (alongside many other trusts and foundations) to work towards being an open and trusting grant-maker as part of a campaign run by IVAR, the Institute for Voluntary Action Research.

The aim is to encourage funders to make grants in a way that demonstrates confidence in and respect for the organisations they fund and makes life easier for them in the face of the many challenges they currently face.

I am not going to go into detail about our participation in the campaign – there’s a page on this website that shares our open and trusting commitments, actions and plans.

Instead I want to use this space to draw some attention to the importance we place on this as an integral part of the William Grant Foundation’s approach and development, and to:

  • help you understand a bit more about what drives us as a funder
  • share our open-ness to learn more about how we can improve and do better
  • maybe even encourage other funders share more of their own open and trusting journeys

With significant and often increasing scrutiny of charities, often related to less (and therefore more competitive) resources and higher expectations; it is important that funders hold a mirror up to themselves, too, including seeking the views of those they support and acting on what they find. 

Reflections of a former fundraiser

I’m not from a funding background. With over 20 years spent working in the third sector and in support of community and voluntary organisations, I come from more of a fund-seeking background.

In most of my previous roles fundraising was for me (like many others) a task built into, or onto, my job. Helping smaller voluntary organisations to apply for funding to enable them to resource their activities and working on continuation or project fundraising for my own organisation.

Back then, would I have recognised any of the 8 open and trusting principles in my dealing with funders?

Don’t waste time

Ask relevant questions

Accept risk

Act with urgency

Be open

Enable flexibility

Communicate with purpose

Be proportionate

I feel I may have reacted fairly sceptically had these ideas came onto my radar… that’s not to say that my past experience with funders has always been difficult or negative. However I recognise now my tacit acceptance of the power imbalance, of the amount of work to tailor the application to each funders’ requirements, and of the sometimes difficult balance of managing funders’ reporting expectations vs getting on and delivering the work.

I probably moaned and grumped to colleagues, and we’d have shared our collective pain points.

Would I have had an idea to feed these feelings and thoughts back (constructively) to a funder? No, probably not. I don’t remember a route to do so, and I wasn’t going to raise my organisation’s head above the parapet. 

At one time I do clearly remember a funder staff member who flipped a switch and created a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. They said: ‘it’s our job to give money away – if we don’t then we are not doing our job’. It was a significant revelation at the time – looking back understanding this shifted the dynamic in my head a little. And so here I think it is important to acknowledge that funders have been thinking about and making progress on how they can do things better for a lot longer that I have been in this space.

Reflections from a funder perspective

When I started with the Foundation, I very much had the above statement in mind – but very quickly this understanding jumped forward in a big way with the addition of one small word:

It’s our job to give money away well – if we don’t then we are not doing our job

I know this is true because three months after joining the Foundation in 2018 I wrote a short piece for our Management Committee to share some of my early reflections – I had not looked at it again until writing this, but this is what I wrote:

“My connections with grantees and Group members have been really valuable in developing my understanding of:

– The nature of the relationship the Foundation seeks to have with grantees – adjectives that come to mind are trusted, evolving, meaningful, honest, light touch, family

– The value of our funding in terms of our approach and funding ‘type’ – adjectives here include enabling, bridging, flexible, consolidating, risk-taking, sustaining.

An immediate reflection after 3 months would be that whilst funding good causes might be relatively ‘easy’; funding the ‘right’ organisations to tackle the ‘right’ things in the ‘right’ way is less so.

But the effort to do this is what is needed if we want to be impactful.

I’m excited about helping the Foundation to do this!”

I am still excited by the way! The open and trusting journey and community is one that has, and continues to, turn up the dimmer switch for me on that early, pre-Foundation, lightbulb moment.  Not only does it help us to continue to develop our learning about how to be a better funder and partner to the organisations we support, it also allows us to contribute our own experience of this to a wider group of funders in the hope we can add value more widely (here’s an example).

IVAR’s leadership and facilitation of this collective approach – where we can scratch our heads, learn and share in a safe space is hugely valuable. Have we cracked it? Absolutely not – the improvement journey is not one with an end – and here at the Foundation we do like a cycle.

We call this our strategy for effectiveness cycle.

We call this our strategy for effectiveness cycle.

Going forward

We are making changes – you can read more about some of these in our main Open and Trusting webpage that we will update as we go. Changes include our Feedback Project introduced in 2021, which offers a way for our grant-holders to tell us what they think and to rate our performance (More to come on this in another post).

But back to my original question is it time for funders to start holding themselves to account more critically? It’s not time to start – it is time to keep going and to ensure that we continue to provide easy ways for those we support to tell us what they think and to make this feel less risky to do.

The open and trusting initiative will help us to continue this and we hope our commitments demonstrate we are genuine in our effort to listen, learn and improve.


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