Funding with the community

Let’s talk about money

It’s a topic that makes a lot of us feel uncomfortable or ashamed or impolite. What it means is that we’re often silent when it comes up in conversation – which makes our role as a funder quite difficult!

We know that money gives people power – on a very basic level, the more money you have, the more things you can do. Even as a very small, local funder, we are very aware of this power dynamic and want to change it.

With our first round of funding in 2018, we found that a few ideas were either under- or over-budgeted and in either case, people didn’t feel they could talk to us about the difficulties they were facing.

Sometimes things don’t go to plan though and that’s okay – it’s all learning. As a funder, it’s very useful for us to know about difficulties that people face when it comes to money. While you will learn from your own experience, when you share what you’ve learned, you will be helping everyone who applies for funding with us as well.

It became apparent that we needed to explore a way of funding which wasn’t done to people but with them.

Making your mind up

As a trust, it’s true that we exist to put money into the community but we want to use this process to help build capacity and networks in our communities. This means that we don’t want to just give money to individuals and groups, we want them to be part of helping us decide who gets given money. Such a process is known as ‘participatory grantmaking’.

Luckily, there’s a quote from GrantCraft’s Deciding Together: Shifting Power and Resources Through Participatory Grantmaking which adds a bit of flavour:

Participatory grantmaking cedes decision-making power about funding— including the strategy and criteria behind those decisions—to the very communities that funders aim to serve.

It’s not intended to be the ultimate definition but it is a useful starting point. The belief behind this approach is that communities know what they need and they will have their own ideas about how to achieve their ambitions – if a funder places limitations on what a fund can be used for, or has a process that needs a lot of time and effort from applicants, then the community won’t get what it needs. It reinforces the power divide and keeps communities doing what funders want, rather than what they want.

There’s no right way or wrong way to do participatory grantmaking, though it does need to have meaningful ways for people to take part for it to really count.

In some systems, everyone who applies to a fund is allowed to vote on how it gets split up. In other systems, a community decides on the criteria for grants and appoints decision-makers to apply the criteria to applications. It really is quite limitless.

Think of it as a recipe where everyone contributes one ingredient – the end result might not be to an individual’s taste but you will be able to taste what each person has added.


Ernest Hemingway once said that, “the best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” Having studied him extensively (to the point I have a different quote of his as a tattoo) I don’t think he followed his own advice but I don’t think that detracts from the sentiment.

What does this have to do with participatory grant making? Well, giving out money carries risk. Now, you can do a lot of work to minimise or prepare for risk but that leap of faith has to happen at some point.

What if they spend it on something different? What if they don’t actually need all that they’ve been given? What if they spend it all as intended but it makes no difference? At some point, money moves out of your control into someone else’s and sooner or later, you’ll have your answers. You can’t know if you can ride a bike without stabilisers until you try and ride a bike without stabilisers.

And you know what? It is scary. Terrifying even. But we do it anyway because we think it is worth it. More importantly, we do it together – the decision to fund is made by a group of people, not to diminish responsibility but to reduce the pressure that it puts on any one person.

What does this mean for Barking & Dagenham Renew?

Since starting in September 2019, I have worked hard to engage people from all over the borough. I asked people what they wanted out of a funder and what we could do to make getting money easier.

From these meetings, and with the support of the trustees, I developed an application system which centred on conversation.

Through meeting people, I had learned that the charity having a human face meant that people were far more likely to engage with what we hoped to do, and were a lot more forthcoming about what they needed to bring their idea to life. Together, we work out a plan for their idea. If the idea is funded, we work out terms and conditions together, which includes the terms we will each use to evaluate a project and what our responsibilities are to each other.

At the moment, we’re still finding our feet and testing things out – this year, we’ve set ourselves the goal of trying out our conversation-based applications and seeing if that makes people more likely to want to collaborate with us and design the future of the fund.

All of this was put to the test recently when Geraud from BD Giving and I were tasked with organising a co-design a process for a Covid-19 Rapid Response Fund of £100,000. The money has been given to the borough by Lankelly Chase, who are interested in the same things that we are when it comes to power and money. We’ll be launching that fund later on this week, and every part of it has been designed by people from across the community through Zoom meetings and online forums. Like Renew’s fund, this is not a finished product – it is a way of testing what funding could look like in Barking & Dagenham.

We’ll be keeping you updated, so make sure to check in with us regularly. We always love to hear your thoughts!

In the game Stardew Valley, the best soup comes from everyone in the town providing their best ingredients.

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