By Kate Newman

Over the past four months INTRAC has invited practitioners from across the globe to consider the questions of ‘what is progressive funding?’ and ‘how is progressive funding supported in practice?’   Our contributors have shared a range of rich and interesting ideas.  In this final blog we reflect back on our take-aways and suggest areas that we want to pay attention to looking forward. 

Getting the basics right

Speak to anyone working in civil society and it is clear that some types of funding are more valuable than others; and that certain types of funding can cause harm.  Funders who invest in core organisational capacity and overheads, who are flexible, give unrestricted funds, offer multi-year grants, cover all costs, and encourage meaningful accountability and MEL systems are valued.  Conversely those with rigid procedures, or who only offer short-term project support, and do not acknowledge the full cost of programme delivery, can lock organisations into a starvation cycle – delivering programmes that are less effective, less sustainable and less legitimate.  Getting the basic rights in terms of how funding is designed and delivered is therefore crucial.   

We identified three more aspects which are core to being progressive: 

  • A reimagining of relationships 
  • Looking outwards to convene and influence 
  • Actively funding progressive practice 

Reimagining relationships

All our contributors agreed that funding is about more than a transfer of money.  Relationships are at the heart of effective funding.  Moving from a relationship that is characterised by ‘funder and recipient’ to one that is grounded in co-creation, collaboration and equitable partnership enables the evolution from good to progressive funding practice.   

Such partnerships start with investing time in understanding each others’ values, vision and motivation. They recognise the different knowledge and expertise each brings to the table.  They are based on principles of capacity sharing, mutuality, and transparency, and they actively seek to disrupt the way that money can distort power. 

However, although positive examples of such progressive partnerships were identified, contributors also highlighted how these relationships exist within a wider context.  Funding partnerships, especially when they involve global actors, are shaped by colonial histories, dynamics of structural racism, white supremacy and white saviourism.  This means that establishing and maintaining equitable funding partnerships involves a process of shifting cultures and mindsets.  This includes ‘unlearning’ previous behaviours and decentring assumptions around whose knowledge, and what kinds of knowledge count.  It also involves active investment in listening, emphasising joint learning, working to de-centre practices and relationships, and acknowledging that both actors have much to gain through the funding partnership.  

Looking outward to convene and influence

The ambition in a progressive funding partnership imply a commitment to power sharing.  But, it is important to acknowledge that the current inequalities in power give funders a particular opportunity and responsibility if they are committed to being progressive.  Their actions of allyship, positively using their existing power could include: 

  • Actions that provide value to groups of actors that are part of funding partnerships – such as the focus on supporting collective grantee led learning as described by Alison McKinley in her blog
  • Actions that minimise the transactional cost of fundraising, and see the fundraising process as a capacity strengthening opportunity, such as the Innpactia platform 
  • Actions to actively reduce and shift power, such as the efforts made by Wilde Ganzen to ‘change the game’ and nurture and support alternative funding streams, modelling progressive relationships and practice, with the intention that overtime such actions will lead to a dismantling of current power dynamics and an emergence of new relationships 
  • The role of the funder in taking on risk – actively enabling civil society organisations to innovate, experiment and learn from failure 

Investing in progressive practice

The final dimension for progressive funding is to consider what is being funded.  Is the programme that is receiving funding contributing to long-term transformation of power? Is it furthering equity, championing diversity and inclusivity, and contributing to sustainable change?  Is it disrupting the root causes of poverty and inequality? While funding can be progressive in its form; and the partnership it develops, it also needs to be progressive in relation to its output, prioritising those areas that will build long-term change.  This can mean being explicitly political in analysis, taking sides with those who are most excluded and being honest about how funding choices can either challenge or reinforce the status quo. 

Moving forwards

Funding practices can work to support and strengthen civil society, building resilience in the face of external threats, or they can contribute to ineffective practice – undermining resilience and sustainability, distorting priorities and weakening organisations further.  Having powerful organisations such as USAID champion localisation of funding could be impactful in encouraging others to shift their practice.  The growth of domestic funders across Africa, Asia and Latin America; and alternative funding models (such as community philanthropy as described by Emilly Omudho in her blog) has the potential to bolster progressive funding practice; bringing proximity, deep contextual understanding and a potentially less complex history to shape a relationship.  To do this, however, these funders will have to chart their own equitable paths and not simplify replicate the top-down relationships associated with traditional international development funders. 

Progressive funding includes five dimensions: 

  • Good practical processes to enable agency and ability of civil society organisations to deliver their identified strategy and programming priorities.  
  • Strong relationships grounded in the idea of being co-creators, collaborators and funding partners involved in a learning journey together  
  • Attention to and investment in the role of a reflective practitioner, to critically review, unlearn and construct new thinking and practice 
  • A commitment to ally and use current power to actively disrupt and dismantle current practice 
  • A focus on funding work that is progressive both in its development and its impact – that builds equity, inclusivity, diversity and justice. 

Depending on who you talk to it can feel like the sector is on the verge of a substantial change – with power holders increasing interested in shifting their power and establishing equitable relationships – within the funding arena and in other partnerships in international development.  However, it is also clear that change is slow – and at times it can feel that rhetoric is out of synch with practice. 

Looking forward, INTRAC is focused on the roles we can play to contribute to longer-term change in funding practice, grounded in our commitment to strengthening civil society organisations – in their own processes of development and partnership; to do what they want to do, better. 

This blog is the sixth and final 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