How can funders help a new generation of citizen-led change makers?

In the summer of 2015, a small group of friends in London decided they wanted to do something to alleviate the worsening situation for refugees in Europe. They started a crowdfunding campaign, with the aim of raising £1,000 and filling a van with donations to take across to Calais. Within one week they had raised £56,000 and were soon receiving 7,000 items every day. Help Refugees was born.

Help Refugees is not the only example of citizens creating movements that jostle for space within public philanthropy. From Extinction Rebellion to Me Too, technology has enabled everyday citizens to organise outside of traditional ‘third sector’ spaces.

In response, funders are asking themselves how they can help sustain them, while larger charities are asking how to support them or build their own. The challenge comes when these institutions attempt to apply traditional paradigms of philanthropy to these new forms of citizen led-power and end up forcing a decentralised social movement to behave like an organisation. The answer lies in understanding and adapting to the golden thread that runs through these new forms of power: collective leadership.

The traditional recipe for helping volunteer groups scale doesn’t suit these collectively managed, non-hierarchical movements. After all, how does a group with a flat structure, no single figurehead, no bank account and no address accept a grant? How does a network with a loose governance structure pass a Foundation’s charitable test?

Decentralised movements and members face the same growing pains as any new enterprise. But they’re taking grants and support designed for charities and social enterprises, not social movements. If they look for sustainability grants from trusts and foundations, they’re being forced to structure decision-making to fit into the charity sector mould, which is counter-cultural for them and frustrating for the foundation, the charity and in some cases, statutory organisations like the NHS.

In some instances, grants are given to individuals within a group, who then shoulder the risk themselves. Aside from the risk of burnout, it can upset the power dynamic in flat, non-hierarchical collectives, causing conflict and paralysis.

The administrative burdens and uncomfortable shifts in responsibility that can occur with grant giving can be avoided. Funders can get transparency and accountability from grantees without the need for a board of trustees and regular management accounts reviews. The focus should be on clear and transparent decision-making and less on traditional governance structures.

Another approach would be to enable social movements to make the most of the grants they receive but at an arms’ length from their funders’ governance. We’ve worked with the Lambeth Portuguese Wellbeing Partnership and the UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) in this way through our Nest service.

Most citizen activists we have spoken to want new, flexible funding and support which are less about traditional service delivery. But crucially, this support must come in a way which keeps these networks’ collective leadership cultures intact. So let’s forget the idea of a single ‘heropreneur’ or building an organisation to deliver change.

With the rise of non-hierarchical networks, the sector needs to adapt to the new citizen-led, collaborative leadership model.

Esther Foreman is the chief executive of the Social Change Agency

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