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Three places to start changing power dynamics in grant making

By Sufina Ahmad 6 September 2019

At NPC, we’ve been hosting a seminar series on power dynamics in grant-making, which will culminate in a panel debate at our upcoming NPC Ignites conference. In this guest blog, Sufina Ahmad, who attended two of our recent seminars, sets out her top three reflections on how we can put these ideas into practice.

Sufina has written this blog in a personal capacity, and not in her capacity as Corporate Strategy Manager at the City of London Corporation.

Working for charitable funders in the past has provided me with some of the happiest and most fulfilling experiences of my career.  I remain an avid supporter and advocate for the work that they do.  However, in the last one to two years, there have been moments when the rose-tinted glasses have been thrown to one side, accompanied with very mixed feelings… feelings that maybe funders aren’t always the ‘good guys’?

Now, I realise that talking about ‘good guys’ isn’t that helpful, but we have to accept that often this is exactly the kind of thinking and narrative that comes through in the sector.  Indeed, what is there exactly to criticise about a sector that gives money away to good causes?

NPC’s sessions on Power Dynamics in Grant-Making are exactly the kind of conversations the sector needs. In the two sessions I went to, many agreed that the sector needs to change and improve.  The big question that I’ve been thinking about since the sessions is: Does the charitable funding sector, as a whole, stand ready and able to share power? Bearing in mind there is a word limit for this blog, I think I can distil my thinking on this to the following – ‘No’.

Okay, perhaps that’s not enough detail, here’s some of my thinking:

  1. Funding applications and agreements. I know it is difficult to design processes that are effective, necessarily rigorous and offer equal value to both the applicant and the funder, but it isn’t impossible. Charitable funders should be asking if they really live the values or demands they seek from others. All too often applications or agreements seek evidence of how applicants will: collaborate; commit to equality, diversity and inclusion; produce value for money or returns on investment; become financially and environmentally sustainable; measure performance and impact; co-produce all services and on and on. In asking, is there acceptance that some funders don’t do what they ask for, and those that do might find this much easier due to their power, privilege, access and resources?
  2. Endowments. The origins of endowments and how they’re invested needs more thought, especially in terms of the power imbalance they represent. The charitable funding sector and those in leadership and governance roles need to acknowledge this and do all that they can to remove these imbalances – especially through their current investment strategies.
  3. Feedback. Do we really care about what applicants think? I know of a few charitable funders who are creating safe and brave spaces in which applicants can share their feedback in a risk-free and meaningful way – confident in the knowledge that it is being acted upon. But why is this currently the exception, rather than the norm?

So where does all this leave us? It’s clear that there is a growing movement of funders within the sector committed to transparency and shifting power more equally amongst their stakeholders. NPC aren’t the only ones in the sector talking about power imbalances, there are even some conversations happening about equality, diversity and inclusion.

Seeds of change are being planted, sometimes by the leaders and trustees of charitable funders themselves. Some are sharing what they do. Some are looking to those around them for support. Others aren’t.

It is vital that we do share our experiences: our highs, our lows! For without radical transparency, I fear we may just remain in the land of ‘yes there are power imbalances, but they’re just too difficult to do anything about!’

NPC will soon be launching a guide on how to recognise power dynamics at play and what to do about it. If you’ve got a story to share of how you’ve grappled with this, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch with Fatima Asif at



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