Governance, Leadership

If we don’t tell funders the truth about our experiences we can’t expect improvement

There's power in telling funders the truth.

My sister is very adventurous and colourful in her clothing choices – and mostly she looks amazingly distinctive – but every once in a while her distinctiveness is a bit eye-watering.

She frequently asks me what I think of an outfit – and to be honest I don’t always tell her the truth.

Often that’s because I worry that if I told her what I really thought it would simply crush her confidence and perhaps affect her performance during her working day.

But I am so conscious that I might be doing her a disfavour by not telling her when I think she’s made choices that might negatively affect how she is seen in her workplace.

I’m thinking about this now because many of our colleagues in delivery charities complain about poor funding practices by grant givers.

I get a lot of feedback about how many funding practices are still stuck in the past, reminiscent of Victorian do-goodery, risk-averse and unhelpful to the charities and projects funders are trying their best to support.

But if you ask them, many funders will report that they fund well because they, rightly, ask those they fund about their experiences and they overwhelmingly get good feedback, with possibly the occasional anodyne comment about how an application process can be improved.

So why the huge discrepancy in perception?

I don’t think we can avoid the fact that some of it is down to us.

If we, as charities, don’t tell funders the truth about our experiences, we can’t really expect them to improve what they do.

Of course, there are compelling reasons why we don’t tell the truth. We know they are good people trying to support good work and we don’t want to upset, denigrate or offend.

We also don’t want to put future funding at risk by upsetting them. It feels very risky and we are often fearful that, instead of helping to improve practices, our feedback is more likely to result in defensiveness.

So how the hell do we solve this problem?

Well, I think there are actions for both sides in this conundrum.

As funders, perhaps start by assuming your funding practices could be improved and work out what excellence in funding looks like.

Challenge your traditional structures, processes and habits.

Find out what other funders you admire do, or perhaps ask those you fund about what they consider to be helpful grant-making.

And remember that if you just ask those you fund for feedback about how you do it, you are unlikely to get the unexpurgated truth.

And as charities, we can be more sophisticated about how we give feedback.

When asked, perhaps frame feedback in terms of funding practices from other funders that we have found helpful and, instead of talking about what doesn’t work, focus on what would help us do a better job with their money.

We need a more honest conversation between those who fund and those who are funded.

Let’s focus on what great giving looks like and talk about that.

With my sister I’m learning to focus on those outfits she wears amazingly well rather than talking about those that don’t work. And she listens.

This article was originally published on the Third Sector website, take a look here.