How can funders rebalance power during the Covid-19 crisis?

By Katie Boswell 7 July 2020 4 minute read

This blog was first published by A Better Way, a network of leaders who want to improve services and build stronger communities. A Better Way want systemic change for people and communities.

Ten years ago, I noticed an overnight difference in how people treated me. People were listening more, challenging me less and saying how great my ideas were. The reason was depressingly obvious. I had just crossed the floor from a grant-seeking role to a grant-making role. The fawning of those around me now I had the money meant I quickly realised I was experiencing the power imbalance at the heart of grant-making.

As NPC found in our seminar series about power dynamics last year—and as is echoed in A Better Way’s Call to Action—there is an unhealthy balance of power between funders, grantees and communities. A Better Way calls for the sector to ‘share power’ and ‘rewire funding’ to achieve systemic change for people and communities.

Whilst everyone has a role to play in rebalancing power, those with the most power must take the lead—and that means funders. Through talking with people across the sector, NPC explored what funders could do. We published our findings earlier this year in A rebalancing act: How funders can address power dynamics.

The following week, Covid-19 put Britain into lockdown. The response from funders shows how power dynamics can shift—but also how far we still have to go. Over 300 funders signed a statement coordinated by London Funders, committing to greater flexibility and listening to civil society groups. On the other hand, groups like Future Foundations UK called out the power dynamics still at play in relationships between funders and communities of colour, including a lack of trust and burdensome practices.

So, what can funders do to rebalance power dynamics during and beyond Covid-19? We’re encouraging funders to rebalance power at three levels: yourself, grantees and communities, and your goals.

Focus on yourself

The first step is to understand your power, whether you’re an individual philanthropist or part of a grant-making organisation. Funders enjoy power through their wealth, independence, societal status, and their ability to set norms across the sector. This power can of course be used for good. Lots of funders have used their independence to innovate and influence change in a way that governments cannot. But unchecked power dynamics can lead to perverse outcomes in the grant-making process and beyond; undermining the impact funders want to achieve.

Acknowledging your power is not enough. You must take action around who has power and how power is shared. A good place to start is how decisions are made. Funders like the Blagrave Trust are diversifying decision-makers by including people with lived experience of the issues they seek to address. Others like the Edge Fund have embraced collective decision-making structures.

Focus on grantees and communities

Once grantees and communities are seen as partners in achieving goals, it becomes easier to address power dynamics. Funders can have a significant impact through redesigning the grant application process to be more effective and inclusive. For instance, a funder making grants to small volunteer-led groups may invest in having staff available at weekends, when volunteers are more likely to be available. Funders should think about the needs of the collective sector as well as individual charities—this might mean investing in targeted outreach or civil society infrastructure to support a more diverse pipeline.

Grant-making relationships based on trust can rebalance power and deliver better results for communities. As I found in my own grant-making journey, all too often people tell funders what they think you want to hear. Funders can counter this by streamlining paperwork to avoid grantees jumping through unnecessary hoops, soliciting and acting on feedback, and being transparent about priorities and challenges. Above all, giving unrestricted funding signals to grantees that you trust them to make the best decisions about what will achieve an outcome.

Focus on your goals

In our seminars, we found that people wanted funders to go beyond just sharing power; charities are often frustrated when funders fail to ‘own’ and wield their power in pursuit of social goals. This might mean thinking differently about your endowment, such as aligning your investment portfolio with your mission. Some, like Friends Provident Foundation, have gone further by using their power as an asset owner and shareholder to influence the behaviour of companies they invest in.

Funders are increasingly using their funding and convening power to influence public policy and attitudes, to support movements, and to build collective power around tackling a social issue. Some, like Corra Foundation or Community Foundation Northern Ireland, amplify people’s power and voices at both local and national levels.

Each of these ways to rebalance power remain as vital now as when we published our research. Covid-19 has shone a light on the inequalities across our society and challenged the charity and grant-making sectors to do better.


Covid-19 has challenged the charity and grant-making sectors to do better. We’re encouraging funders to rebalance power by better understanding yourself, your grantees, and your goals Click To Tweet