Philanthropic power erosion: the Edge Fund alternative

When power and privilege are acknowledged and addressed, decisions over funding can unite people instead of dividing them. This is the ninth article in our series on the role of money in the transformation of society.

Stencil graffiti by Melbourne street artist Meek. Credit: http://www.changemakers.org.au. All rights reserved.

“More often than not those that have a financial stake in something also want a power stake in its operation and decision making processes. I think this is one of the key issues that Edge has changed my mind on - it really doesn’t have to be that way” (Debbie Jolly, Edge member and co-founder of Disabled People against Cuts).

Edge Fund is a small grant-making organisation that supports grassroots efforts to bring about radical change in the United Kingdom. When the Fund was first conceived, the aim was simply to provide funding to social change groups that struggle to get financial support, and to do so in a way that overcomes the usual unequal power dynamics in philanthropy.

We wanted to get money to groups that work for systemic change, and to those led by communities facing injustice, which are often too marginal, informally structured or radical in their aims to be considered by other funders.

Two years on from our first meeting, we’ve discovered that funding can be a whole lot more. In fact it can be a tool for social transformation.

Most philanthropy is controlled by elites, particularly in family foundations where decisions are made by a small board of family members, more often than not with no lived experience of the issues they seek to address. The Gates Foundation, to pick on the ‘elephant in the room,’ runs the largest philanthropy in the world through a board that consists of three members of the Gates family plus Warren Buffet.

We went for a different model. Edge Fund is run by our members, most of whom come from the groups we’ve funded. Some of our donors are also members, and a few of them have given sums of £5,000 or more. But in the long term we aim to be funded by grassroots donations. In fact the current average is £15 per month. All the members have an equal say in what we fund and how we operate, regardless of whether they contribute financially, or how much. If you’re thinking that sounds far-fetched, you’re not alone.

Aderonke Apata, a recent member from the Lesbian Immigration Support Group reacted like this:

“I didn’t believe it at first when we were told of how the decision would be made. It tells me that the general notion of ‘power and money rule the world’ could be shifted”.

The only time when one member has more influence than another is in our Advisory Group, and that’s deliberate: people from the community that’s applying for funds have first priority in evaluating the application. Debbie Jolly explains why:

“It’s extremely unlikely that an application for funds by a disability group would be looked at by disabled people in most foundations. It’s imperative for those in particular communities to look at applications from their own community because they have an in-depth knowledge and lived experience of that community and its history. As well as identifying what’s needed, they are more likely to spot problems and be able ask questions to gain clarification if something looks odd or unworkable”.

In traditional philanthropy, competition is created between different communities for funding, and this can be very destructive. Hamish Campbell of visionOnTV received support at our last meeting: “Funding is brutal and alienating,” he shared, “and makes you rivals”.

Aderonke agrees:

“While the movement may portray a sense of cooperation, a continual power struggle exists between social groups as they pursue their own interests. Within the movement, certain groups control specific support systems and resources. The majority of the time, the groups with the most resources will gain or maintain power due to the fact that they have the resources to support their influence”.

Edge Fund tries to mitigate this problem in two ways. First, by inviting applicants to be part of the decision-making process, and second, by ensuring that everyone who makes it through to the final stage receives funding at some level. Rather than dividing groups this can unite them, as Hamish confirms:

“This is the complete opposite [to usual funding] since you vote for each other and then you’re happy when people get more than you. That’s not supposed to happen!”

Because Edge Fund gives money to groups that are led by communities that face injustice, our meetings tend to be diverse. Members from migrant and LGBTQI groups rub shoulders with Asian and African diasporas, disabled people, low-income, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Members from more privileged backgrounds sit alongside them as equals. It’s a space where respect for each other is vital, along with listening to the voices of those who have the most experience of injustice.

Bringing people together like this can be useful in building networks and in sharing resources. Edge Fund is not the first funder to do this, but we approach it slightly differently, in the sense it’s hard to distinguish one of our meetings from a meeting that’s organised by one of our applicants. There are no suits, canapés or fancy venues. All members share in decisions over funding, so there’s no competition to impress a handful of powerful individuals in the hierarchy. 

We don’t dictate how groups should collaborate; we just provide a space for them to explore collaboration if this is what they want to do. It’s too early to tell what actual collaborations might come out of this process, but plenty of contacts are being exchanged.

Bringing people together from different communities can also help to build a common understanding of other people’s struggles, and highlight the connections that exist between different forms of oppression. This increases solidarity across social movements. Edge member and Sisters of Frida founder Eleanor Lisney explains:

“The competition is because people do not see other people’s fights except their own. People should be intersectional these days rather than think in silos. I feel that very keenly as a disabled woman of colour”.

Debbie Jolly continues:

“We all need to tackle injustices together, since they are all interrelated and all intersect. My understanding and knowledge of this has certainly grown deeper by being part of Edge”.

Edge Fund has started to become what Debbie describes as “a community of like-minded people with the same aims and same realisation of the ways formal power structures impact on all different groups.” For many members, Edge has created a long-awaited opportunity to put their values into practice. Stephen Jones, who’s both a member and a donor, describes what the Fund means to him:

“I've been gradually examining the many issues of power and entitlement that my wealth have afforded me throughout my life (as well as my class, gender and skin colour). I was learning and perhaps changing, but not fast enough. Edge Fund has been a terrific way to transform that theory and self-examination into a practical example of philanthropic power erosion.”

We realised at the beginning of our journey that we’d probably never be able to create a grant-making process that was perfectly fair, but we’ve come a long way over the last year or so. We’re constantly reviewing our work and trying to improve so that we can do a better job, particularly of reaching and including people who are so often excluded from mainstream society.

When talking about his personal challenges, Stephen highlights a broader issue that often distorts the role of money in social change, and one that we believe can eventually be overcome:

“There's still so much to do to achieve the hardest part (for me at least), which is to keep surrendering my own privilege and inbuilt sense of entitlement. But Edge Fund has already started to become a community where some of those things might be possible.”

About the author

Sophie Pritchard is the coordinator and co-founder of Edge Fund. She has a background in fundraising, funding advice and grant-making and a passion for social justice and grassroots activism. This post was written collectively with several other Edge members.