Grant Funding is No Long Term Solution

I’ve been taking part in an online conversation: “If more funding were available for your community; how would you like to see it spent?”  I replied:

I think this question is the wrong way round. We had £50 million spent in my community in Sheffield UK, over 10 years, with a final evaluation in Jan 2012. At the start we had a community forum and a community trust. The New Deal funding had some good revenue results but when the money ran out the partnership dissolved. The capital spend fell foul of the recession and so we have no legacy funding. The Trust and Forum have both collapsed. Other neighbourhoods in Sheffield with similar demographics have Forums and Trusts. If I were offered money for my community I would send it back and ask it is spent where communities come up with viable projects. And yes several of the replies above this one are concerned the most disadvantaged don’t get access to funding. I think that concern illustrates the problem with making money available in this way, it goes to groups that have plans but actually substitutes for mainstream funding. The partners left because they had to chase the next pot of funds. Despite what I’ve written I am optimistic because I think with the recession we’re going to need to re-think our approach to community development. Small businesses, including but not restricted to social enterprise are the solution, not government initiatives.

You can read the story of Burngreave New Deal for Communities here (scroll down to the first, published on 11 November 2013).  I wrote this passage on the fly about 3 months ago and perhaps my point could be clearer.  I’ve seen the cycle many times over the years; a group has an idea, gets funding, has no incentive to build anything sustainable, usually provides a valued service, then the money runs out and the funding body goes away chasing the latest innovation, project collapses, the people involved move on to another project, usually in a different neighbourhood.

A direct reply from Ken:


I have no solutions, just agree with you, and raise more questions.

My limited experience in the last couple of years leads me to agree wholeheartedly that grant funding is no long term solution to building the capacity of the community to determine its future. However it can prime the pump, and no doubt we’ll all keep trying.

Naive to think it but what about working firstly on the overlying problems in the UK of:

  1. Achieving consensus about the level of government services versus the reliance on an unprepared and under resources community.  There’s so far too little recognition of the need to fund and build sustainable not for profit organisations which take on more responsibility at local level. (Though Locality is doing a wonderful job to raise profile of the problem and find more solutions), and
  2. National leadership to act in the national interest and achieve stability for business and the community. Should we any longer accept a system that swings from left to right and back in a generation?

A good start might be the example of good leadership, and for the performance at Westminster at to be transformed into a serious play. Until our leaders in the UK set themselves a priority for stability, cooperation and a single vision, the future seems very bleak to me. (And I’ve always been and remain an optimist!).

Past generations emigrated when things looked better elsewhere, and I can only see that continuing.

Regards, Ken

To which I replied:

I agree there is a place for grants in terms of pump priming.  However, beware “pump priming” is a metaphor and we need to ask about the nature of the pump.  The problem in the UK is since the seventies community development has taken an anti-business road.  It is possible to be anti-capitalist without being anti-business but you wouldn’t know it.  Go back to the century from about 1850, and disadvantaged communities were highly creative through mutuals.  We’ve lost all that and the upshot is communities are forced to accept other people’s agendas through the grants industry.

We need to work out new ways to do business in the local economy.  If a local business has customers and can show it has a social purpose, then it might qualify for grants.  But what all small businesses need, whether or not they are mutuals is investments and they are much more valuable than grants.

We’ve experimented with working with local government as a part of the voluntary sector.  Local residents in a community group are not volunteers.  We need to change the mindsets of local activists to see local trade as one of things activists do.

Ken is right to say he has no solutions; no-one has solutions.  To find something new we need to understand the inadequacies of the old approach.  This blog aims to explore alternatives to grant-aided funding.  This is a desperately important debate, which never seems to get off the ground, presumably because so many projects experience grant dependency.

How effective are grants and what are the alternatives?

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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