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  • Writer's pictureEmma Houston

Funding and philanthropy rhetoric can be a reality - we are Scotland's changemakers

Feet standing on the ground in front of a caption which reads "Passion led us here"

I have been thinking a lot lately about change and who is needed to create it; particularly in funding and philanthropy. Following the significant impact and shifts over the past 16 months including COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions to Black Lives Matter Protests, there is a lot of rhetoric emerging about what the future can look like for funding and philanthropy, and how we can build forward better. But, we are already seeing some funders begin to slip back into comfortable practices of old. I am keen to find a way to stimulate discussion and debate, on how we can make sure that the rhetoric becomes reality.

I have been working in the third sector for over a decade, with the majority of that in grantmaking, with my focus on the expertise of people with lived experience. My reason for working in the sector, like many others in grantmaking and the third sector more widely, is because I want to make a difference to those who most need it. But, what I found was that I got caught in a system that was in part bureaucratic, political, lacking in trust and at times disconnected from the very organisations the funds were designed to benefit.

If there was anything which has summed up the disconnect between funders and the funded in 2021, it was when I saw a tweet from an organisation saying that they had to have a cheque book and fax a reference to pass funder checks. This is an extreme example, I know, but it seems incredible that in the age of digital, some funds are expecting organisations with already stretched capacity to jump through additional hoops to access small pots of funding.

However, I hasten to add that there are a lot of fantastic funders out there who are forward thinking in their funding practice. It is now becoming less unusual when looking for funding to see funders who will provide unrestricted funding, not just project specific, showing a new trust in organisations to know where funds are best used for their beneficiaries. And, we are seeing more funding designed with people – participatory grantmaking – which is exciting. But, with all these positive moves forward there is still an implementation gap between rhetoric and reality Is there even enough talk about funding for inequalities and justice? There are some examples, but few and far between.

Place based funding is still very much in vogue and certainly has its place (excuse the pun), but what about those communities of interest or kinship that don’t identify with place? How are we reaching those communities if the focus is on funding by geography?

We still hear a lot of talk about sustainability, but what does that even mean? Third and community sector organisations have evolved and been created to respond to a need which is not being met by statutory services, so there is a gap in provision and therefore funding. While that organisation continues to be needed, it will continue to need funding. We need to move away from the idea of charitable organisations being expected to build up revenue streams so that they become completely self-sustainable; this leads to mission creep and takes the focus away from the beneficiaries which the organisation was set up to serve in the first place. We don’t need to have a constant scarcity mindset, there is enough money to go around – SCVO’s statistics in 2017/2018 show the Scottish third sector’s total income at £6.02 billion. £487 million (8.1%) comes from charitable trusts, with similar (8.3%) from public donations and £84 million (1.4%) from lottery – so we’re not short of money in the sector. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s necessarily enough to do what we need to do but I think we can definitely utilise what is out there better.


I could continue for days, there is so much to talk about here, which is why I have felt overwhelmed at times, not knowing what to talk about or focus on. But, I realise, it’s not about what I want to talk about – it’s about what the sector as a whole want and need to talk about. I’ve been having great conversations with people across the board recently and I recognise that there is a need to bring people striving for change together in some way to have open and honest discussions more widely. So, I’m proposing a new ‘thing’ – Scotland’s Changemakers – a place for people across the third and community sectors to come together in parity with funders to discuss the issues and barriers that still exist in funding and philanthropy and what needs to happen for the progressive rhetoric to become an implemented reality.

Admittedly, I’ve not got a specific idea of exactly what Scotland’s Changemakers is because I want it to be shaped as we go, it’s not mine to shape, but what I do know is that there are some amazing people within funders, and within Scotland who want to see real change in how funds can make a difference for those who need it most and have a vision of how that can happen. I truly believe that by coming together we can create the change that we are talking about. Currently, I’m planning to run a series of Changemakers Blogs for now hosted here on my website and potentially a podcast (once I work out how on earth to actually create a podcast). If you are interested in being involved then please do get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.


For now, if you’re interested in what else is out there that is thought-provoking and worth a read check these out:

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