You can do it too

Humility, equity, evidence, service, diligence

Gemma Bull advo­ca­tes a modern method of allo­ca­tion of funding based on the five values humi­lity, equity, evidence, service and dili­gence. Diver­sity is a ques­tion of equal oppor­tu­ni­ties, she says. And it must be intrin­si­cally motivated.

In the book Modern Grant­ma­king you talk about privi­lege and power at length – what goes wrong in philanthropy? 

One thing is certain: they are big issues for phil­an­thropy. Most of the grant­ma­kers we met during our rese­arch for this book are middle-class, have univer­sity degrees and have posi­ti­ons of socie­tal power – they are privi­le­ged. This privi­lege can stand in stark contrast to some who receive the grants, who may belong to more disad­van­ta­ged groups. 

What is the conse­quence of this?

The two groups – grant­ma­kers and people who receive grants — can come from diffe­rent back­grounds. The people in the funding orga­ni­sa­ti­ons, espe­ci­ally trus­tees, may have very little expe­ri­ence of things such as their youth club closing for lack of funds, and are unli­kely, accor­ding to UK statis­tics at least, to have expe­ri­en­ced poverty or perhaps racism. How do decis­ion makers know that they are offe­ring the most acces­si­ble and useful funding if they have not expe­ri­en­ced issues the funding is meant to help tackle? Being privi­le­ged isn’t a moral failing. We can’t help what life we were born into. Howe­ver, more grant­ma­kers should realise and accept that they have power and privi­lege because ulti­m­ately this could lead to more acces­si­ble and effec­tive funding.

People are calling for more diver­sity in the foun­da­tion world – does it solve the problem?

I have seen orga­ni­sa­ti­ons that think about who is on their board of trus­tees and who is not, and who their funding goes to. They are careful about diver­sity in their work­force. But the best funding orga­ni­sa­ti­ons reco­g­nise that diver­sity should be intrin­si­cally linked to equity and inclu­sion. These orga­ni­sa­ti­ons pay a great deal of atten­tion to crea­ting a truly inclu­sive work­place so that when they hire for more diver­sity, these people are supported properly and want to stay.

Guide to awar­ding grants based on values. Modern Grant­ma­king by Gemma Bull and Tom Steinberg

Do inclu­sive boards of trus­tees make better decis­i­ons, or just diffe­rent ones?

A board of trus­tees should repre­sent the objec­ti­ves of the foun­da­tion. It plays a role in what regi­ons the foun­da­tion covers and the topics it hand­les. So it makes sense for people to be invol­ved that have had expe­ri­ence in those areas. I’ve noti­ced that orga­ni­sa­ti­ons with a diverse commit­tee make decis­i­ons that they judge to be better in rela­tion to their stra­tegy and mission. 

How diverse are boards of trus­tees in the UK?

They are mostly not repre­sen­ta­tive of UK society in gene­ral. They consist prima­rily of white men over the age of 50. It’s also a ques­tion of who can afford to commit them­sel­ves to an often unpaid position. 

What role do manage­ment and staff members play in diversity?

The whole orga­ni­sa­tion has to be taken into account: who’s on the board of trus­tees? What kind of people do they want working for them? What should a job descrip­tion look like? There are various move­ments in the UK that allow exch­ange among grant­ma­king foun­da­ti­ons. For exam­ple, the 2027 initia­tive aims to moti­vate young, working-class people to engage in funding organisations. 

It can take quite a while for things to change…

If we are convin­ced that grant­ma­king needs to become more up to date, more acces­si­ble and fairer, then ever­yone has to think about how they can contri­bute. Anyone who works for an orga­ni­sa­tion that is alre­ady very diverse and has gained a lot of prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence should share this expe­ri­ence, inspire and moti­vate others and say to them: you can do it too.

What prompted you to write a whole book for this message, along­side Tom Steinberg?

Tom and I have a lot of expe­ri­ence with non-profit orga­ni­sa­ti­ons – both in setting them up and running them in the UK and inter­na­tio­nally. We wrote the book first because a large propor­tion of the exis­ting lite­ra­ture on phil­an­thropy and the allo­ca­tion of funds is aimed at millionaires, billionaires and decis­ion makers at large funding orga­ni­sa­ti­ons. This fails to address the large majo­rity of people who work as grant­ma­kers day to day in all diffe­rent kinds of organisations. 

And second?

We wanted to help people in this sector not only improve their own skills, but also to reform grant­ma­king overall.

Why do they have to change? 

When we began our rese­arch, it became clear that we could write a whole book on the problems of ‘tradi­tio­nal grant­ma­king’ alone. We heard complaints of arro­gant beha­viour, discri­mi­na­tion, a lack of empa­thy for the appli­cants and a disre­gard for evidence. But Tom and I wanted a solu­tion-orien­ted approach. Prima­rily, we wanted to share infor­ma­tion, provide inspi­ra­tion and offer gene­ral support for prac­ti­cal work. The book is inten­ded to contri­bute towards making funding fairer and more acces­si­ble and useful. 

Is a book the right format?

We had discus­sions about the format. We deci­ded on a hand­book that you could put on your desk or have on your e‑reader and use to find helpful tips without having to read the entire book.

Your book is entit­led Modern Grant­ma­king – a comple­tely new approach?

It’s important to under­stand that modern grant­ma­king is not just a new name for an exis­ting concept, such as a parti­ci­pa­tory approach. The defi­ni­tion of modern grant­ma­king is not based on one single prac­tice. The important thing is that grants should be made based on seve­ral values, like, as discus­sed, equity.

In addi­tion, you name humi­lity, evidence, service and dili­gence: Are these time­l­ess norms

It’s true that in the UK, more grant­ma­kers are discus­sing and demons­t­ra­ting how to promote equity. But in gene­ral these values should be conside­red timeless. 

Is modern grant­ma­king an impro­ve­ment on the tradi­tio­nal grant system or does it repre­sent a funda­men­tally new form of funding? 

If grant­ma­kers and orga­ni­sa­ti­ons commit to these values and imple­ment them in prac­tice, then they can see the effects in their work every day. Funding beco­mes more acces­si­ble and fairer, parti­cu­larly for people and commu­ni­ties who have been histo­ri­cally under­ser­ved when it comes to recei­ving it. Grant­ma­king then has a more useful impact – that’s the verdict of many offi­ci­als from the orga­ni­sa­ti­ons that spoke to us during our rese­arch for the book. 

«Es soll­ten mehr Förder-orga­ni­sa­tio­nen über parti­zi­pa­tive Ansätze nachdenken.»

Gemma Bull

And will the trans­for­ma­tion happen step by step, or is a disrup­tive element needed?

A certain amount of disrup­tion is needed. The tradi­tio­nal system of grant­ma­king lacks incen­tive to change. Without exter­nal moti­va­tion to improve and change, nothing much happens, or if it does, then very slowly. What are needed are initia­ti­ves such as the Grant Givers’ Move­ment in the UK, which encou­ra­ges inde­pen­dent discus­sion of phil­an­thropy and ethics. It brings in new perspec­ti­ves. So when disrup­tive elements help shake up funders to acce­le­rate change, I see that as a good thing.

Can trus­tees make reforms them­sel­ves towards modern grant­ma­king without any outside input?

I’m a big fan of funding orga­ni­sa­ti­ons that open them­sel­ves up to a better under­stan­ding of the expe­ri­en­ces of other trus­tees, appli­cants, grant bene­fi­ci­a­ries and part­ners. We are all set in our ways, in parti­cu­lar patterns of beha­viour. That makes it diffi­cult to be objec­tive. Exter­nal feed­back and data are very important, as they help us to ques­tion our own assump­ti­ons. So trus­tees should ask them­sel­ves how they can get high quality, anony­mous feed­back from the orga­ni­sa­ti­ons they work with.

Can an indi­vi­dual try to balance out privi­lege and power or is that a task for an entire committee?

Each indi­vi­dual person should think about their own privi­lege and power and consider how this may affect their work. First, grant­ma­kers should openly acknow­ledge the power imba­lance between a funder and appli­cant or gran­tee. Two, grant­ma­kers should not try to impose their thoughts on what appli­cants should be doing without very good reason.


Funders should choose their words with care. They must ensure that the power of their state­ments does not influence project spon­sors to adapt their projects. A thought­less remark along the lines of ‘Don’t you think you should also…’ can throw a project owner off track. 

How can a funder prevent that?

With the first value: humi­lity. I must put myself in the applicant’s shoes. A member of a funding orga­ni­sa­tion must not assume that they know more than a project owner, who have their own stra­te­gies for good reason. Of course, funders can chall­enge these stra­te­gies with cons­truc­tive ques­ti­ons, but they must be very carefully chosen.

The appli­ca­tion process is an exam­ple of this power imba­lance. How can it be simplified?

«Wenn wir über­zeugt sind, dass die Förder­tä­tig­keit aktu­ell, zugäng­li­cher und gerech­ter werden soll, dann müssen sich alle über­le­gen, was sie dazu beitra­gen können.»

Gemma Bull

It is not unusual for appli­cants to have a bad expe­ri­ence. We have recei­ved feed­back such as ‘it’s a fate worse than death’ when trying to complete long, burden­some forms. We suggest focu­sing on the human being. Funding orga­ni­sa­ti­ons should see the appli­ca­tion process as a service. They need to consider how it is to be a user in this process and keep an eye on the user expe­ri­ence. A conti­nuous impro­ve­ment process should be imple­men­ted to record user feed­back. The oppo­site of this is to set up the appli­ca­tion process and not scru­ti­nise it for the next five years.

How does a funding orga­ni­sa­tion as a whole deal with the topic of power?

More funding orga­ni­sa­ti­ons should think about parti­ci­pa­tory approa­ches. A commu­nity of people can reach better decis­i­ons than a small commit­tee whose decis­i­ons are made based on limi­ted assump­ti­ons. Parti­ci­pa­tory funding acti­vi­ties can contri­bute to long-term changes. 

Is this model suita­ble for everyone?

It’s unli­kely to be right for an orga­ni­sa­tion that is not alre­ady set up for a parti­ci­pa­tory approach if they need to react quickly in a crisis. Howe­ver, in my opinion, every funding orga­ni­sa­tion should check out this approach for them­sel­ves. But it’s important that they take their time, check their own capa­bi­li­ties dili­gently and learn from others. If parti­ci­pa­tory funding is not imple­men­ted well, It can cause damage.

Are there funding acti­vi­ties that are unsui­ta­ble for a parti­ci­pa­tory approach?

There is a view that funding acti­vi­ties that demand a lot of expert know­ledge, such as medi­cine, are not suita­ble for a parti­ci­pa­tory approach. I don’t think you can exclude them all across the board. We must be careful in defi­ning who has rele­vant know­ledge and who doesn’t. How should lived expe­ri­ence be valued in compa­ri­son with other know­ledge? Although there are excep­ti­ons, I’m sure the best decis­i­ons are based on exis­ting evidence, a mix of theo­re­ti­cal, scien­ti­fic know­ledge and lived experience. 

Has the phil­an­thropy sector the strength to lead the way in these developments?

There are always people working in phil­an­thropy and the allo­ca­tion of funding who drive these deve­lo­p­ments. Funding orga­ni­sa­ti­ons are often rightly criti­cised for being slower to deve­lop than other indus­tries and profes­si­ons. But some inte­res­t­ing move­ments are moving the sector forward. In the UK there is the Foun­da­tion Prac­tice Rating. Every year it evalua­tes 100 foun­da­ti­ons, chosen at random, accor­ding to crite­ria such as trans­pa­rency, accoun­ta­bi­lity and diver­sity. The rating takes account only of publicly available infor­ma­tion. And it turns out that there is very little infor­ma­tion available on diver­sity and inclu­sion in parti­cu­lar. This poses the ques­tion: what prio­rity is given to these topics? I think there is still a lot to be done before equity is not just given lip service, but actually expe­ri­en­ced in practice.

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