A different kind of funder? Grassroots grantmaking for radical change: Q & A with the Edge Fund

The Edge Fund is a grantmaking body that supports efforts to achieve social, economic and environmental justice and to end imbalances in wealth and power – and give those it aims to help a say in where the funding goes. The GFCF spoke with the Fund about what makes it different, and how it aims to create social change at the community level.  

 

GFCF: What motivated the donors involved in Edge Fund to come together and how do they decide their priorities?

Edge Fund (EF): Edge Fund started out with a meeting back in April 2012 attended by 17 people. Only four of them were donors, the rest being activists working on a range of issues. From the beginning, the priorities for Edge have been decided by all members, whether they are able to give money or not.

The motivation for donors came from a belief that change must come from the bottom up, and therefore that people who are protected from the effects of inequality by their wealth and other privileges should allow others to share in the decision-making on how donations are used. Many of the donors feel uncomfortable about their wealth and have been almost relieved to share the responsibility of deciding on how to use it. It’s also about attempting to put our values into practice.

As with all decisions in Edge, priorities for funding are made through a collective process. Through a series of meetings we discussed our values and aims and came up with our original funding criteria, which has recently been revised.

 

GFCF: Edge Fund has a very participative ethos in terms of decision-making – how does this work in practice?

EF: Our recent review process is a good example of how we work. We have a Facilitating Group, which works behind the scenes to keep things moving and to keep an eye on what needs doing. For our latest review, the Facilitating Group drafted some proposals based on feedback from members and any problems that arose from the last funding round. These proposals were then discussed during two meetings, in London and Manchester. Members were also invited to give feedback via email or phone.

With the feedback of the Facilitating Group, we revised the proposals concerning how we fund, and asked members to complete a survey to express their views on each of them. We aimed to have 50% of the membership complete the survey (which is about 50 people). With some proposals all members agreed with them, with others there was a majority who agreed and others who still had concerns. We worked with each of those members to address their concerns within the current proposals until everyone was happy.

It helps that we have a philosophy of constantly reviewing, learning and evolving so members can feel assured that if a new proposal doesn’t work, there will be an opportunity to put it right in future. Nothing is set in stone!

It probably seems like a long and complicated process, but it means that we get a lot of input, and from people who have applied for funds themselves (so they know from experience what works best). It makes for better decisions. More than that, it hopefully means members have more of a sense of ownership of the organization.

The process for deciding on which groups get funded is again a combination of methods. We have several groups set up which are the first to look at particular applications, for example our Race and Ethnicity Committee will look at applications on this topic and remove those they feel don’t meet basic criteria or are problematic in some way. With guidance from the Committees, members then score a random selection of applications out of ten and an average is used to determine the short-list. The short-listed applicants are asked to provide more information and then come to a meeting to discuss their projects with members and other applicants.

Finally, all those who are able to attend the final funding meeting (including applicants) vote to decide how the funds are shared out, with the highest scoring receiving £3,000 and the rest £1,500. Having a process that is informed by many voices, including real life experiences, seems to work very well. Our members are soon to spot groups that haven’t been entirely truthful in their applications as often they know the groups on some level.

As James Surowiecki says in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, a group of people with a diversity of opinion, independent voices and local knowledge are smarter than a small group of “experts.” Sadly in grantmaking, often the “experts” who make the decisions have little in the way of lived experience or real connections to the groups they fund. There are always challenges, particularly around enabling everyone to be able to participate when the group is diverse and people have very different needs, but it’s worth it.Members & grant applicants use chickpeas to vote on proposals

 

GFCF: What scale of grantmaking has Edge Fund found that makes a difference in effecting social change?

EF: We fund very small groups; the average annual income of the groups we support is around £2,500. Many have got by for some time just using their own money (including people whose only form of income is their benefits). For groups of this size a few hundred pounds can make a big difference. What is most useful, for most groups, is longer-term support. We hope to be developing a new funding plan that funds a set of groups over three years, bringing them together every six months to share with each other what has been happening in their community, the work they’ve been doing and what they’re learned.

There is often a strong focus in the philanthropic world on impact. Of course, we all want to know if the funds we give out are useful but there is a balance needed. Too strong a focus on impact and outcomes could be blamed for the lack of funding for longer-term social change work that is hard to measure.

Bringing oppressive systems to an end is a long and hard struggle, and measuring social change is extremely difficult as it’s not tangible like more traditional charitable work. A campaign that fails can sometimes be a powerful trigger in mobilizing people to take action. Also, when you’re looking at a whole range of groups using different approaches it’s impossible to say which had the most impact.

We could put more resources into attempting to measure impact but we prefer to put as much money as we can into getting funds to the right groups. And for Edge, it could well be that the thing we do that has most impact is bringing different groups together to learn about each other’s struggles or perhaps the learning our members go through by reading applications, making funding decisions, meeting groups and engaging in discussions about systemic change, power and privilege. It’s a steep learning curve for some.

 

GFCF: Are there particular types of grants that you have found to be particularly effective?

EF: All of our grants are unrestricted, which means groups have full power to choose what they do with the funds and to adapt and react to what’s going on around them, without being tied down or having to ask permission. We are particularly happy when a group we’ve funded shares their learnings and experiences with other groups (and our members) during our Forum for Radical Sharing. A range of groups come together, working on issues such as immigration, disability rights, or climate change, and often surprising connections and collaborations arise. It’s fantastic when groups we fund begin to support each other in ways that are completely independent of us, bar the initial introduction.

 

GFCF: How does Edge Fund learn from its grantmaking – and how does it take forward this learning in terms of policy/practice change?

EF: We ask our grant recipients to report back on how they’ve been getting on since they received the funds, in whichever format they prefer, but this is not mandatory. We prefer instead to encourage them to attend our Forum for Radical Sharing, where funded groups, members and others come together for a day to look at what groups have been doing, the challenges they are facing, and who in the room can help them to overcome them. Since many of our members are from the groups we fund, much of the learning comes through them as we review and revise our policies and procedures.

 

GFCF: What other grantmakers/donors does Edge Fund work with?

EF: We often get enquiries about our model from other funders and are happy to share information about what we do, what works and doesn’t. For example, one of our members recently took part in a panel during the Engaged Donors for Global Equity (EDGE) Funders Alliance conference in the US, followed up by a presentation at Heinz Endowments, which distributes $60 million a year.

There seems to be a real interest in more democratic and accountable models of grantmaking. We’ve been involved with the European EDGE Funders Alliance too.

We have not as yet worked with other funders, mostly because most others are bound by charitable laws and are unable to fund the kind of groups that we do, or they find them a little too radical. However, we’d love to consider options for foundations who approach us wanting to fund some of the groups we work with; for example, perhaps they may be able to fund some of our Sharing Forums.

 

GFCF: What is the advice that Edge Fund would give to community foundations and other locally based funders, drawn from its experience?

  • Let go! Let the community decide. It works! Plus it can be a tool for bringing groups together to help build solidarity between movements, share tactics, and learn from each other.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment, if you’re genuinely led by those affected by your decisions you won’t go too far wrong.
  • Keep asking for feedback, keep reviewing, keep evolving!

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