Britain has a long and well-documented history of charitable and civic work stretching back to the 18th century. Active, concerned citizens look around their communities and decide to do something about it. That kind of leadership sets up food banks, supports local hospitals with patient care, provides shelter to the homeless, runs educational programmes or engages in a vast array and innumerable types of different activities designed to mitigate the worst conditions of our society. Collectively, they are the part of civil society which, over the centuries, represent solutions to our problems that are not dealt with by government or business. This is the ‘third sector’, voluntary, but vital to our civic life, essential to the wellbeing of our society and traditionally funded by other charities, trusts and foundations.
“Black-led and Asian-led organisations are defenders against injustice, communities of affirmation and investors in building civic society.” So said keynote speaker, David Bryan, opening a two-day conference organised by the Runnymede Trust.
With this in mind, it’s imperative that these same organisations are well resourced, well-funded and given due recognition for the contribution they make to the wellbeing of our society. They too are developing projects and organisations and institutions over months, years and decades.
Today, the Runnymede Trust publishes a summary of that conference: Shared Futures: funders, funding and the BME-led third sector, which ran, online, in April 2021. The publication captures all of the speakers, presentations, questions, recent research and some of the main conversations which took place during those two days. These are testimonies of just two of the four hundred conference attendees:
“In recent years, despite having the relevant level of expertise and accompanying track record, I found myself outbid on a (local authority) contract for the provision of specialist BAME women’s therapeutic services. The beneficiary: a large white and male-led charity. Being the head of a small organisation, it was largely impossible to appeal.”
“Over the past ten years, I have submitted numerous funding applications, only to be told time and time again my application has been unsuccessful. I have followed the standard advice: attending one-to-one funding sessions, following the funder’s guidance regarding what to include in my application, getting them to look over my application before it is submitted. None of that helped. The feeling of rejection was always disappointing and often made me question whether I was just kidding myself that I could help to make a difference for others in the community.”
Funders, of course, have their own, quite legitimate reasons for turning down funding applications and of course, are over-subscribed by applicants so that disappointment is inevitable. But the Shared Futures conference was a chance to spend time with the BME-led third sector as it is today, to take on their perspectives and understand the world from their point of view. A commonality of themes emerged: funders are unfamiliar and under-engaged with their work. Small-scale, project-based funding dominates. Some funders engage in unethical behaviour creating a toxic funding environment as grassroots organisations are pitted against each other. The professionals that work as grant-makers, are not sufficiently culturally diverse or represent the communities their funds purport to help. Not enough BME leaders are making use of the full range of business models, including social investment and co-operatives. How BME leaders and communities frame and narrate their own issues are not in their hands. Rejection is sapping and echoes the wider rejections of structural racism. “We are in an era where we have to make the money that comes into our communities, which is that much harder to get, to go farther, to get the same results.”, says David Bryan.
The BME-led third sector, its narratives and perspectives, have, for too long, been an under-valued and obscure part of British civic life.
BME leaders said that for them, spending the necessary months and years developing an organisation’s reputation and profile, essential for attracting the attention of funders, is that much harder. The infrastructure and networks available to support the development of BME-led projects, groups and organisations, is that bit rarer. Toiling away, often alone, trying to meet demand with too few resources, is that much likelier. Achieving the development journey from project to organisation to institution, is much, much longer. There is a `stop-start’ feel to this world; of BME-led projects, groups and organisations that are left to wither, to come and go, to have to be re-invented years down the line because chronic under-investment, lack of being valued and given due recognition, has meant past organisations set up to support that type of client, or mitigate that problem, or support that community, have gone to the wall.
During the conference, Dr Halima Begum put it succinctly: “I came back to working for Runnymede after 25 years, and I was struck by how few black-led organisations are working at a national level. Black-led civil society is missing and I hope for its urgent and sustained investment.”
BME-led projects and organisations are more likely to face the mistrust and capacity-sapping scrutiny of funders who think black leaders are likely to run off with the cash. It is common for them to experience that galling feeling of facing funders and commissioners who do not recognise and value the expertise they have. It is common for BME leaders to experience burnout caused by trying to work with too few resources and too much demand. The reality is funders are under-engaged with the work of the BME-led third sector, and/or lack the curiosity to deeply engage with their work and/or are reluctant to set aside the time and resources needed to understand their work.
“All too often, I found that funders were comfortable providing restrictive funding, as many were neither at ease with the purpose of the (BME-led) organisation, nor understood its contribution, and didn’t take the time and effort to understand either of those”.
Ultimately, however, the Shared Futures conference was a positive event that acknowledged that both funders and BME leaders are part of a co-created future. Funders may need to learn how to share power, encapsulated by a comment made by Michael Hamilton during the conference:
“Funders and policymakers need to allow black and ethnic minorities to define the narrative, and be led by that. Who decides the language we need to speak about our work? It is so important that the narrative you are funded from comes from the people who are doing the face-to-face work”.
But the conference largely finished where it started with David Bryan: “BME-led organisations are not short term inventions, but vital and permanent contributors to civic society. We are part of fortifying shared humanity for the benefit of us all.”
Now we just need a few more funding institutions to see it that way too.