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Supporting Social Change: A New Funding Ecology

Author: Dr Henry Kippin, Collaborate
Published Date: 10 July 2015

Independent social funders are an established part of a mature ecosystem of social support in the UK. They represent a ‘sector’ that is diverse in makeup and practice, with some cutting edge thinking and innovative practice sitting alongside very traditional models of funding for activities in the community. It is also a sector whose leading lights are rightly analysing the way they respond to a rapidly changing operating context.

This is a context in which traditional, linear ways of delivering services across the board are being disrupted. The social problems that many funders are resolved to address – such as entrenched poverty and social disadvantage – feel increasingly complex in nature. The broader ecosystem of social support within which independent funders work is evolving as the public and social sectors navigate the impact of funding cuts and ongoing fiscal austerity.

This paper advances the view that a profoundly changing context should force a period of inflection – during which
the role, purpose and interdependence of the independent funding community should be openly explored. It argues that scope to change systems and scale impact through better collaboration could be substantial, but this will require funders to see their role less as guardians of self-identified change from issue-to-outcome, and more as partners within a well-functioning ecosystem of support for others.

This shift in culture is relatively uncontroversial on paper, but our interviews suggest there are powerful dynamics mitigating against it. For example, communication and data sharing within the sector can feel shallow, meaning that funding priorities overlap or can seem unconnected, arbitrary or unclear to beneficiaries. Different theories of change are applied as funders try to account for impact in isolation, or sometimes without appreciating where a more transformative model of support could be developed in collaboration with others. At worst, interviewees told us their funding models can be myopic in delivering against their individual missions, seeing linear and discrete answers to what are often a multi- layered and innately complex set of social needs.

Independent funders occupy a privileged position inthe fabric of society, and have a duty to keep asking the difficult questions that shape their purpose. We should be asking the same questions of them as others are asking themselves: Are our business models keeping up with the shifting dynamics and root causes of social change within societal flux? Do sector leaders think deeply enough about their roles, responsibilities and comparative effectiveness within this changing picture, and those of the organisations around us? Do we feel prepared to work in different ways and with different partners (within the public, private and social sectors) to maximise the return on our investment to citizens and society?

Funders who aspire to be what one interviewee called ‘strategic enablers of social change in society’ need to be actively debating these questions. Many already are, and these are conversations we seek to expose in this paper. We don’t offer answers, and nor is it our desire to do so. But we hope to provide a route in, and a means for those already unpicking the issues below to surface a debate within the funding community more broadly.

Read Supporting Social Change: A New Funding Ecology