In November 2020, Laura Solomon and Kari Aanestad launched the #FixTheForm movement. Its goal was to identify and fix the worst parts of funding requests for charities and nonprofits around the world.
Their report identifies the application process as the best opportunity for improvement in the world of trusts and foundations. It also identifies key fixes funders could make, such as being able to see the complete form at once and being able to save it and come back to make changes.
Despite the excellent work that has been done in this area, the problem still exists. One fundraiser told us anonymously, “The funders I found particularly frustrating are the local community foundations, which use the same form as others online nationwide, which means you need ten attached papers and 8,000 words often for grants as small as £1,000.
Founder and director of Fair Development, Vic Hancock Fell explains that at the heart of this problem is a power imbalance between funders and nonprofits. She says, “In a utopian world, funders would have a list of charities that matched their criteria and would come to charities.”
Harriet Stranks, Grants Manager at Lloyds Bank Foundation (England and Wales), also acknowledges the structural inequalities: “We know that there are power dynamics between funders and charities, so charities are reluctant to call funders when things aren’t working out. As funders, we have a responsibility to change that and ask ourselves how we can put trust where it should be. This will lead to more open and honest conversations.
The lessons of the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the pace of change for many ways of working, including grantmaking.
On a standard lockdown Thursday in 2020, Jonathan Cook, director of Insight-Ful, received a call from money-saving expert Martin Lewis. Lewis wanted to donate £3.4million to small charities involved in the community response to coronavirus. He wanted the application form, for what became the Coronavirus Emergency Poverty Fund, to go live the following day at 5 p.m.
Cook and collaborator Archna Luthra used accessible, publicly available digital tools to enable funds to be requested and distributed quickly, while meeting fund criteria.
They started with a simple Google form asking only seven questions (in addition to those asking for basic information about the charity). In order to quickly prioritize the applications, they used a free keyword tool to analyze the responses. They also conducted a data analysis exercise to map candidate postcodes against areas of greatest need, as identified by the Office for National Statistics.
They received over 7,000 applications. Over time, all apps were read by a human, but digital tools allowed them to prioritize and start making decisions quickly.
Cook says Lewis was “absolutely adamant everyone would get an outcome”. So they also used messaging software to group and personally contact each charity candidate.
Processes developed for an emergency are not always suitable for the long term. “We saw a huge amount of change very quickly during COVID-19…it was really good for an emergency, but it’s not a long-term solution because funders are all accountable to their own board board,” says Stranks.
Max Rutherford, head of policy and practice at the Association of Charitable Foundations, noted this and talked about some of the other barriers to change. When simple, single-form processes have been tried, he says, “there are some downsides. This does not always level the playing field. A simpler process can favor the mainstream and run counter to diversity, equity and inclusion intentions. Smaller and less traditional organizations can benefit from the pluralism of funding requests”
While some of the practices developed during COVID-19 are being undone, some remain. Strank says:[Lloyds Bank Foundation] narrowed our monitoring requirement down to six main issues and we haven’t lost anything. We always get very rich information that feeds our learning and our strategy. We have reduced the burden on charities and they really appreciate it.
More radical approaches to managing funding flows exist. Hancock Fell cites the example of The Right Relations Collaborative, a group of Indigenous Aunties who reverse power dynamics by working with funders to address inequities and improve the flow of funding to Indigenous communities.
There is a live conversation about structural inequalities between funders. It started with the Black Lives Matter movement when funders of the alliance for racial equality alerted funders to the need for change and it continues through initiatives such as rethink, rebuild to from New Philanthropy Capital and the open funding network IVAR.
If donors recognize the need to redress the power imbalance, there are opportunities to be part of a movement for change.