What if you got to ask funders questions?

A visit to Civic Square.

Early this year I wrote a blog post that was about funding the third horizon with what I hoped might be some helpful prompt questions for funders to ask themselves.

This morning I got to visit the Civic Square crew in Birmingham who alongside Huddle Craft and DEAL have been hosting P2P learning journeys in relation to doughnut economics. See this amazing site that tells the story of the work. Immy and Nikki had asked me to come and speak about the funding world and what it might take to get more of this work funded. As part of my talk, rather than referring to the questions I hope more funders asked themselves (as per the previous blog), I shared the kind of questions that I thought any of the brilliant people in the room should be asking funders. Turning the tables….

Here were 10 questions that I suggested and then I crowdsourced others.

I’ve met some people working in the funding world the last few years who I’m not sure really believe that the progress we need is possible. Realism and pragmatism are no bad thing but if you’re going to a funder with your dreams and beliefs and plans for realising them, then I’d check that the funder is at least on board with the possibility.

This one speaks for itself really. It would be great to hear funders reflect on this question in relation to what they aren’t funding / say no to.

Again, this is really just a question I would love to hear funders reflect on. Where does urgency show up in what you are doing? It was Vandana Shiva that spoke at a lunch last week about urgency not being about time — so it’s not how quickly we do things that matters, but these times are urgent — they do require us to act.

I’ve sat in meetings where I’ve heard funding staff ask questions to grant seekers about their ideas and the questions being asked show there isn’t the necessary depth of knowledge or understanding of the work. I would wince hearing questions being asked that were from an old paradigm — reducing people’s ideas and proposals to something that never resembled the potential. One organisation actually asked if they could provide more information than was being requested because they were so concerned by the lack of critical engagement from funding staff that they could tell the depth and complexity of the work was not being fully grasped. If I were seeking funding I would want to feel confident that whoever was assessing my proposal or representing it to a decision-making committee had a critical and thorough understanding of the work.

Simply, what else might a funder be able to support you with beyond money? I’d check in on their level of competence and understand what they will contribute to the relationship and the progress of the work.

Asking funders to share any exemplars of what they have funded is a helpful way of understanding not only where their bar is, but also if you are really on the same page at all when talking about ‘transformative, deep, long-term systemic change.’ You may find your levels of ambition and grasp of what’s really needed are miles apart.

It’s hard to imagine anyone feels assured, clear and certain at the moment, so when funders are asking you to provide them with information that sounds like they are seeking reassurance or certainty, I’d check in with them about how realistic that might be. Or ask them for examples.

How many grant seekers feel clear about what a funder is really looking for and how they are assessing themselves in making progress against that vision or mission? It’s really important to get a better understanding of how those you are seeking funding from believe change happens and whether they have a sense of what progress really looks like.

This will help you know whether they want to take responsibility for their power and position and therefore how that might be useful for progressing the work. Or you may discover that they just want to shift power, be facilitative or get out the way entirely. You’ll know which kind of approach makes sense for the depth and breadth of change your are hoping to progress. Personally, I’d be nervous of the latter, but be looking for a depth of critical thinking, experience of practice, and power awareness in the former.

Maybe a large part of a what a funder can do is remove barriers for the work.

There’s a bunch of other questions on Twitter that people in the audience started to share, which I’m gathering for some convening we will be doing in the Autumn. And of course in the discussion this all came with a caveat of how hard it would be for many people to ask these kinds of questions to funders because of the power dynamic inherent with grant seeking.



Working with Joseph Rowntree Foundation, EarthPercent, P4NE, Policy Fellow IIPP, Co-founder Point People, Founder Stewarding Loss, International Futures Forum.

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Cassie Robinson.

Working with Joseph Rowntree Foundation, EarthPercent, P4NE, Policy Fellow IIPP, Co-founder Point People, Founder Stewarding Loss, International Futures Forum.