Funding Utopia: Five Years Unrestricted…

I had a lightbulb moment last week on my bike cycling to work which resulted in me deciding to write this. And to just put it out into the world without overthinking how it will land.

Slateford Aqueduct, photo taken on my cycle to work on a rare dry day in May 2021!

So, here we go…

Work and professional development projects have converged over the past few weeks, and have focused my mind. This includes: a course I am doing to become an accredited Relational Dynamics coach where I am in the role of both coach and coachee; some exciting projects at WHALE focused around community asset transfer, enterprise, community wealth building and outcome mapping; AND — finally — after about 10 years of thinking and planning, starting an MBA at Heriot Watt.

The metaphorical lightbulb popped up above my head as I cycle-ride-coached myself. Rudimentary self-coaching (and an hour on my bike) somehow allowed me to remove *some* of my every day worries from the front of my mind where these things tend to sit. I cleared the way and found my way towards the three main things that keep me awake at night as a third sector Chief Executive:

  1. Do we have enough money?
  2. Is everyone ok, really ok?
  3. Do we have diversity of thought and voice influencing design and decisions?

Back to my self-coaching bike ride. I followed Point 1 down a path (Point 2 and Point 3 are interconnected but a deeper dive into these will be required). I asked myself about the problem (we are fighting against a funding system that sets outcomes for us and funds these as short-term restricted projects), tried to flip that negative into a positive (based on my experience, how can I help to influence positive change?), a hypothetical: what would a good model look like for orgs and communities (long-term, unrestricted, open, flexible, designed with and with decision-making power in the hands of diverse thinkers), and then ‘is there anything else’ a few times, which took me to this:

Long-term — I’d like to see a systemic change around how funders (and those with financial resources to distribute) fund community-led / community-based work in Scotland (and beyond) and I want to play a part in this. Less transactional, more trust-based. There is a huge top-down focus right now on, for example: alleviating or eliminating poverty in communities, community wealth building, 20-min neighbourhoods, wellbeing economy and I’m not convinced we can be successful in these if there is not a shift in how this work is funded WITH communities.

Medium-term — I’d like work with others already in this space (local authority, Scottish Government, third sector, trusts and foundations, private sector) to design a new fund. I’d like to look at a new venture philanthropy model (staring in Edinburgh as this is where I live and work) that is for community embedded / community anchor organisations. The principles of this fund would be, roughly:

  • UNRESTRICTED — not limited to projects, or sitting under specific themes, but genuinely for community based orgs to take the lead in what they want to do based on knowing their communities.
  • For 5 years.
  • Trust-based, open — I’m really into this piece of work by IVAR — eight commitments of open and trusting grant makers
  • Designed with, in partnership with, and financially contributed to by the local authority and linked to End Poverty Edinburgh
  • Design alongside and ongoing decision-making by people with lived experience and from diverse backgrounds (who could be, as one example, trained and paid to assess and make recommendations)
  • Based on a venture philanthropy model (but probably with a twist) — mix of public and private funds and long-term engagement
  • Administratively light
  • And definitely other things I’ve not yet thought of!

Short-term — conversations, many conversations! This is me putting this out there, I have worried ‘Who am I to say these things?’ And that I come across as naïve or unknowledgeable. But I know that’s untrue. I have worked in a funding role in the past, I don’t at the moment, however I think and talk about funding possibly every day of my working life. I know about this, I feel passionate about this, so f-it, I’m saying it. I know the first few people I need to talk to. I have some conversations in the diary. I know some funders and local authority officers are very open to this conversation, and some are already funding orgs in flexible and trusting ways with unrestricted funds.

But I don’t know what I don’t know. I’d like to read and talk more around this. And I don’t know who I don’t know, who might be feeling or thinking the same as me.

So there, I said it. Let’s chat…

Current: Chief Executive of Whale Arts; Warden of Incorporation of Goldsmiths of City of Edinburgh.