By Kate Newman


Last week we shared a blog which identified various dimensions in being a progressive funder; today we pay attention to some of the potential challenges of being, or intending to become, progressive.  For INTRAC it is particularly important to recognise and confront these challenges, as they are central in moving from the idea of being progressive, to actually being progressive in practice. 

The complexity of change 

A major first challenge is the journey from talking about working differently, to enabling the change.  The term funder covers a range of different types of institution – from the individual philanthropist to the large official donor, with a range of organisational models in-between.  Setting a visionary statement is not the same as working through the mechanics of change. Organisations are not monoliths, and each will have its own structure and power dynamics.  This might include managing the perspectives and needs of staff with different roles or negotiating with governing boards with distinct views.  Responding to issues such as how to manage accountability between where the money is coming from, and where the money is going to, will be specific and dependent on a range of contextual factors. Such debates need to happen honestly and safely.  This includes explicitly identifying tension points and trade-offs, leaning into active decision-taking and recognising that different actors will take different journeys. If we do not invest time and attention in the dynamics of shifting practice, there is a risk that only narratives will change, while relationships and funding decision-making will remain the same.   

The nature of participation and multiple knowledges  

A second challenge asks us to remember early critiques of participation – particularly the caution against romanticising particular types of knowledges and relationships.  Well designed and facilitated participatory practice can be transformative.  But this takes time and deep knowledge.  The ‘myth of community’ hides the myriad of power relations that exist in any geographical location.  While the ‘tyranny of participation’ notes that where commitment to method is placed above understanding, existing inequalities may be reinforced and exacerbated.  These arguments continue to have relevance.    

More recently, there has been an increasing recognition of the need for multiple knowledges in the face of complex challenges.  For example: to move forwards from traditional practices of indigenous farmers which are no longer appropriate in the face of climate change; or in order to identify the global macro-economic drivers which explain why there is a lack of teachers in some contexts.  While innovative practices that centre local knowledge have their place, centring one type of knowledge and experience, does not negate the importance of other kinds of expertise.   

These examples and others show us that power exists at every level and needs to be deeply understood; from informing how knowledges are brought together to identifying which ‘community’ to engage with.  This type of critically engaged thinking underpins the success of any progressive funding endeavour which locates decision-making locally.     

Funding diversity and multiple accountabilities  

Thirdly, it is important to note that funding diversity is often said to be key to financial resilience. We have previously identified that a good balance between restricted/project and unrestricted/core funding is useful for any civil society organisation.  Unrestricted funding can enable long-term development partnerships built on deep trust and shared values, while project-based funding can encourage deeper attention on programme planning, theories of change and MEL processes, incentivising a sharper focus on programme quality.   

Although there are numerous examples of poor funding design, or over-assertive upward accountability, this does not mean that all upwards accountability should be rejected.  In fact, such accountability can be useful bringing together different perspectives, connecting similar issues and people across diverse contexts.  It can focus knowledge development and understanding within a particular policy or research area and be useful to leverage wider change.  In fact, strategic leadership from a funder, who is able to sit outside a particular system, can be instrumental in enabling wider system change. They can do this by taking a portfolio approach, coordinating and convening different actors and initiatives within one policy area. 

No one type of funding that contains all the magic ingredients.  Different elements will be important at different times, dependent on the context and what is trying to be achieved.     

The role of funders in closed civic space 

A final challenge in being progressive concerns the role of funders in closed civic space, especially those contexts where legislation exists to prevent local civil society from receiving foreign funding.  Here, being progressive can involve two main actions. One is getting money into a context through alternative channels by using ‘off-the books’ mechanisms. The other is making certain actions, events, and local analysis visible by publicly sharing to a wider audience.   Both approaches can be challenging to organisational processes (in relation to compliance and risk, and political neutrality), and may not be possible for many funders.  Funding bodies will need to consider how actions in relation to one specific context impact on their ability to fund and participate elsewhere.   

And yet, supporting national civil society through different moments is clearly central to its longer-term strength, and there are too many examples of international actors disappearing when the going gets tough. Acknowledging the complexity and being honest where the issues are too difficult to address is important.  Equally, civil society actors may need to acknowledge that there are some initiatives that funders may deliver but cannot talk about publicly because of the potential ramifications. 

Concluding comments 

Progressive funding, and actions by individual funders to shift practice, are crucially important.  As INTRAC mentioned last week, equitable funding relationships are at the heart of strengthening national and local civil society, to enable development pathways that are locally developed and owned.   

But we need to be honest about the complexity of practice.  Locating progressive funding in the arena of equitable partnerships forces us to think about multiple knowledges, to respect and value difference, to embrace negotiation and to recognise that together each is more than the sum of their parts.  In this way progressive funding can be understood not as an endpoint but as a process, made meaningful through interactions, and taking on different forms at different moments.  Supporting change means asking difficult questions, identifying factors that support or hinder shifted practice, and walking alongside those that are open to grappling with the complexity, to enable progressive funders and funding relationships to grow and be meaningful in practice. 

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