By Kate Newman

In recent months I have heard a lot about progressive funding to civil society, and the need for funders to actively engage in ‘shifting the power’.  But what is meant by progressive funding, and what are the practical implications of being progressive?  This first blog outlines INTRACs thinking on core elements that contribute to make funding progressive.

It goes without saying that financial resilience and funding are central for civil society organisations to be effective and impactful.   We have previously written about how important flexible, core, long term funding is: to give organisations the stability and space to plan for the future, take appropriate risks and innovate, and focus on long-term sustainable change.  We have also focused attention on how to develop the ‘right’ types of funding relationships: ones that are equitable and enable locally-led development.  We have highlighted the importance of these positive relationships being underpinned by accountability arrangements and MEL systems that focus on learning and adaptation, ensuring that power remains with those delivering the work. 

More recently INTRAC and others have extended these earlier discussions, arguing that funding processes and relationships should be reoriented; shifting the balance from compliance and risk, to thinking about trust, collaboration and co-creation, solidarity, partnership and learning.    

For example, earlier this month the RINGO process identified the role of funders as central to the systemic change needed in the INGO sector, to reimagine civil society development relationships and shift power. While Degan Ali, a vocal advocate for decolonisation in the aid sector, argued that philanthropy should be seen as a gift, not a transaction.  She argued that: those who have the money should feel honoured and privileged to be giving it to those who have not; suggesting that by changing the framing encourages we let go of ideas of control: when we truly gift something we don’t expect to determine how it is used or how the recipient benefits.  These and other interventions have given a sense of ambition for funding organisations in revising their thinking and practice in the international development sector.   

And there are now some good examples of funders leading the way in thinking about and developing alternative practice.  Reflecting this practice helps us identify a number of aspects which need to be considered for funding (and the funder) to be progressive: 

  • Who the funding decision-makers are and what legitimacy do they have?  This includes considering what expertise is held by those who hold the purse-strings and what relationships and networks are called on.  Mama Cash’s approach of putting funding decision-making in the hands of those actively working on women’s rights is a great example. 
  • The nature of the relationship which underpins the funding, i.e. is it built on trust, power aware and seeking to mitigate unequal power dynamics?  
  • The types of knowledge that are privileged.  How does funding value or centre the experiences, perspectives and aspirations of those who participate in the programmes and projects or staff the ‘local’ organisations?  For example, the RINGO prototype on ‘reverse funding calls’ led by geographical communities merits further attention here. 
  • The criteria for the financing itself i.e., is it long-term, predictable, flexible, and contributing to core costs and overheads?  See for example Humentum’s analysis on the starvation cycle to understand the importance of this. 
  • The practices of accountability established i.e. is downward accountability and learning prioritised over upwards accountability and reporting? 
  • The wider agenda that it is contributing to.  Is the agenda underpinned by a wider systems analysis, and does the funder share an ambition to locate power and decision-making as close to where the money will be spent as possible, such as of Comic Relief’s Shifting the Power portfolio.  

It is positive to see that there is experimentation in the ‘progressive funding’ domain, and that key funders are modelling different ways of engaging and supporting civil society and excluded communities. As INTRAC we plan to keep engaging with funders to support them to learn from others and evolve their practice.  This includes identifying newer funding models and platforms which are contributing to shifting power in international development and civil society – such as Innpactia in Colombia, or the Global Fund for community foundations which focuses on ‘community philanthropy’ outside the aid system; and asking what these models can offer to more traditional funders. 

But we are also aware that we must learn from some of the challenges in progressive funding.  In our next blog we will be discussing four challenge areas: the internal dynamics of funding bodies and the complexity in managing change; lessons from participation and how to pay attention to and value diverse knowledges; the benefits of diverse funding mechanisms and global themes of work; and the role of funders in closed civic space.  These challenges do not negate the need for funders to consider how they can best contribute to shifting the power though how they fund civil society, but they do mean we should remain open minded to different ways of being progressive, and recognise that there is no one magic bullet. 

One of INTRAC’s core aims is to encourage those that fund and invest in civil society to think through the best ways of doing this.  To build on our initial thinking and help us understand more about progressive funding we are convening a wider conversation over the coming weeks, with a series of blogs and a panel discussion early in the new year (18th January); bringing together different actors, including funders, to reflect on their own experiences. We hope you will join us as we learn more about what makes funding progressive and what enables progressive funders to realise their ideas in practice. 

This blog is the first of six in our series on modelling progressive funding. All of the outputs from this theme, including the full recording of our January 2023 online event, are collected here.

No. 1: “Modelling progressive funding” by Kate Newman
No. 2: “Modelling progressive funding: in practice” by Kate Newman
No. 3: “A change agenda that belongs to communities: approaches to resource mobilisation in Kenya” by Emilly Omudho (KCDF)
No. 4: “An approach to learning within progressive funding practice” by Alison McKinley (Comic Relief)
No. 5: “Levelling the playing field: helping to foster a healthier funding environment in Latin America” by Juan Lozano (Innpactia)
No. 6: “Modelling progressive funding – what did we learn?” by Kate Newman