What will it take for the humanitarian aid system to #ShiftThePower?

The language was rich with promise – the “Grand Bargain”, the “Participation Revolution.” At the World Humanitarian Summit one year ago in Istanbul, 30 of the biggest donors and aid providers committed to a series of actions aimed at getting more money to local NGOs on the frontlines of humanitarian relief. To put things in perspective, at present less than 1% of development aid goes directly to southern organizations.

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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!

Cluj Donor Circle – a new way of engaging the community to support youth initiatives in Romania

Simona Serban, Executive Director of the Cluj Community Foundation, reports on the first Donor Circle event on Youth in Romania

We had a full house of exceptional people and a level of generosity that surpassed all expectations. Together we numbered more than 60. Together we donated 25.500 lei (around US $7,500) for three projects supporting educational values-based projects for youth, promoting entrepreneurship and capacity-building.

On 20th November 2013, the Cluj Community Foundation organized its first Donor Circle on Youth Civic Engagement in Cluj, the first of its kind in Romania. The idea of a Donor Circle is to bring people together at live crowd-funding events to raise vital funds, transform lives and create lasting social change.  

Cluj Donor Circle

Our event was organized in affiliation with the Founding Network UK, in partnership with the Association for Community Relations and with the support of the Global Fund for Community Foundations.

It brought together a community of donors and organisations working with young people. Participants included young entrepreneurs and disadvantaged youth; international private funders and local donors, the “Share” local youth Federation and many other partners.

“The atmosphere was electric and everyone was so enthusiastic about being able to give a relatively small amount which together could have a big impact on making our city a better place through investing wisely in our young people. It’s amazing how a well thought out framework can help us achieve so much in such a short time!”  Bita, Cluj Donor Circle member

Three teams of young entrepreneurs will STEP UP and benefit from mentorship to implement their ideas. 14 youth will practice their powers of expression at ACTitude – Impromptu School and 17 youth will Edu Practic(e) the jobs they would like to learn.

STEP UP is a project developed under Cluj HUB concept, in which young entrepreneurs’ teams are helped by mentors to develop their own initiatives from idea to prototype over a three-month period. The project will target skilled young people with initiative and audacious ideas regarding technological entrepreneurship. Three teams will have the opportunity to go through steps which will bring them closer of implementing the idea and bring together resources in order to become sustainable businesses. Ten mentors are prepared to offer the support they need through weekly sessions and trainings. They were granted US $1,600 raised from local donors.

ACTitudine – Impromptu School is a project initiated by another local NGO, Dreams for Life. The project advocates for the development of a alternative learning space for young people that fosterspersonal development and community engagement. Two trainers Dreams for Life and two actors from the Create.Act.Enjoy Theatre will work with ten youngsters between 18 and 26 years old by using non-formal educational techniques and impromptu theatre techniques. They were granted US $2,000 in cash and $1,500 in-kind donations.

PracticalEdu”, a project of Danis for Managerial Development Foundation, aims at supporting disadvantaged youth to learn crafting from the energy and building local business’ employees. The young people will take part in activities of business and entrepreneurial education such as trainings and consultancy for developing sustainable business plans but also growing into financial independents adults, responsible for themselves and their families. They were granted US $2,500.

“I wish to acquire as much knowledge as possible in this field. My main incentive for being part of this program is proving my parents and my friends that I am skilled and responsible to be financial independent.” (Vlad, project participant)

Not only did the donors give, but they also engaged in conversations centered around the projects. Education was raised as a topic. People discussed the importance of giving young people the opportunity to learn practical skills and develop abilities that are shaping their future professional and personal life.

Most importantly, it was fun! The potential to extend the Circle was also clear as more donors expressed their interest in becoming members.

“I was impressed with the generosity in the room and the fact that so many people felt like I do that together we can make a difference in our city.  I didn’t really expect this because so many people are pessimistic about the future. Even though I’m not, you don’t hear many people agreeing that we can make a change. It touched me and I was thinking what a smart group to invest in the future by investing in the youth!” Maryam, young donor

From one on one conversations to social media, we have found the whole process of organising a donor circle event to be very rich: it allows us to open up conversations about philanthropy and collective giving, about engaging young people in social change and as a way of acquiring new contacts and cultivating relationships. Most exciting of all has been the opportunity to witness the diversity of reactions and feedback from those of participated. We learnt a huge amount from this event: the future has a collective author and we love being able to promote it!

Over the last five years the Cluj Community Foundation has awarded 1 million lei (US $300,000) to 150 projects and 130 scholars. And now we have introduced a new approach to fundraising through the Cluj Donor Circle (CDC). Twice a year, groups of donors who will be a part of the future CDC Network will promote projects from different areas and will gather to support them during the CDC events.

Video highlights of the event can be found here

Many thanks to our Donors and Partners, including the Funding Network, UK, the Association for Community Relations, Share Federation – Cluj Youth European Capital 2015 and the Global Fund for Community Foundations.

Simona Șerban – Executive Director, Cluj Community Foundation

New report from the GFCF and Coady Institute: The New Generation of Community Foundations

Community foundations have enjoyed considerable growth in recent years, not only in their number but also in their character. This emergence of a ‘new generation’ of community foundations is occurring within a larger context of other emerging forms of ‘social solidarity’ movements and institutions, including rural development philanthropy, member‑based organizing and other hybrid forms of citizen‑led actions.

 “The New Generation of Community Foundations” has been produced by the GFCF and the Coady International Institute and explores the emerging community foundation phenomenon in the context of disillusionment with conventional channels of international aid.

Dalia Association: A New Generation Community Foundation?

The report draws on the literature relating to community philanthropy, mutual responsibility and the broader social economy, as well as empirical data on the growth of the field, and it provides an analysis of five case examples of community foundations in the Global South as evidence for a re‑conceptualization of their role and potential contribution as catalysts for citizen‑led and socially inclusive development.

Read the report


In praise of intangibles

Seventeen wells, nine dams, twenty-three kilometres of road, eighty-four institutions, seven thousand active members. There may be plenty of figures available to help measure the remarkable transformation of a community in Makutano, Kenya. But the process – supported by the Kenya Community Development Foundation and now the subject of a case study by the GFCF and Coady International Institute[1] – has followed its own, organic, largely unforeseen path, taking fourteen years to achieve these results, and the most significant changes may well be in the attitudes and perceptions of the eighty thousand people in the broader community. If there had been benchmarks and monitoring at every step, would Makutano have found and followed its own path towards success?
In the words of Albert Einstein, “Not everything that can be measured matters and not everything that matters can be measured.”

The growing emphasis among foundations on hard outcomes and measurable results may not be a bad thing. Foundations have often been accused of letting too many “flowers grow” and of investing too little in monitoring and evaluation, particularly compared with their bilateral and multilateral brothers and sisters. A culture of learning and reflection within an institution helps to keep it dynamic and responsive to pressing issues of social need. Indeed, over the last few years, conference sessions on this subject – previously relegated to the smallest meeting rooms and attracting only die-hard evaluation specialists – have invariably become standing room-only events. This sudden interest in evaluation reflects a growing awareness of the importance of measuring and understanding the impact of philanthropic investments. But it also suggests that while more and more foundations may indeed be seeking to introduce greater rigour in evaluating the impacts of their interventions, when it comes to the level of practical implementation many practitioners are still searching for the answers to basic questions about methodologies.

Who determines what is to be measured, what is an acceptable outcome, and over what time frame? Or as one development practitioner with many years of working in Africa puts it: “How do we know how many girls have been saved from crocodiles and hyenas when a new well is created or a path diverted from danger?”
Long-term social change is rarely neatly linear: it can be hard to separate out the multiple variables and factors at play, and to develop systems of learning and measurement that reflect these complexities, long-term horizon, and varying attitudes.

Clearly, certain types of development interventions lend themselves to relatively straightforward means of measurement: x number of vaccinations lead to an x percentage reduction in new incidences of a particular disease. But things become more complex when it comes to measuring some of the less tangible, more subjective drivers of development: levels of trust within a community emerging from conflict and division, for example, or the attitudes of young people towards themselves and their futures, or the feeling of ownership and involvement that is inspired when community members contribute to the solutions of their own problems. And yet these may well be key contextual factors in determining the success or failure of other development efforts. A library opened on the right street may reenergize and reconnect a community; on the wrong one it may serve to reinforce old divisions.

Swimming against the current tide of interest in big grants and hard outcomes is a growing group of local organizations – community foundations, grassroots grantmakers, women’s funds, and other local public foundations – which are working in and with communities. In Palestine, for example, when a local foundation – the Dalia Association – ran a small village-based grants programme where community members were asked to decide on how grants were allocated and were also the first audience for grantees reporting back, the point of the exercise was not just to achieve a particular result but rather to model an alternative scenario where community members were encouraged to be a part of and have a view on the kind of development they wanted to see, rather than be the passive recipients of it.

On paper, this kind of “intermediating” can appear costly in terms of ratio of grants made to operational costs, because in many instances local foundations have to work intensively with community groups to bring them up to the level where they are able to manage funds and implement projects for themselves. And yet, in many developing contexts, these organizations play key roles in transforming individuals and communities in fundamental but often subtle ways that are far below the radar of most international funders and their metrics frameworks. How, for instance, do you measure trust?


[1]  The story behind the well: a case study of successful community development in Makutano, Kenya, 2011