Do Funders Silence New Voices?

Pritpal S Tamber

November 23, 2018

A little update on where we’ve got to in trying to get our work off the ground and what it’s teaching us about funders

We’ve been silent of late basically because we’re in a catch-22. It’s hard to get our work funded without being a charity of some description but even if we go through the process of becoming a charity it’s not guaranteed that we’ll get funding.

Part of me wants to risk it, to give it a go, set up a charity and see if we can secure the funding. But the effort would be without remuneration, which means that we’d have to leverage our collective privilege. This is something I’ve written about in the past; it seems that only the privileged can play.

The catch-22 has a sort-of sub catch-22 too, one that a foundation made clear to us. They said they’d only consider our idea of it was developed further. We said we’d want to develop it with the folks we’re trying to help and that effort needs resourcing. That wasn’t of interest to them. We needed to have the idea developed on our own dime or we did it without engaging with the folks we’re hoping to help, the kind of top-down approach that we think is part of the problem.

The idea is pretty simple. We need a credible scientific forum for work based on parity between citizens and systems to be shared, critiqued, and debated. It’s the kind of thing that’s de rigeur in every other area of science and practice so why shouldn’t it exist in this space? Our view is that it absolutely needs to exist for the space to become credible and grow. That view was based on the formative work we did to understand what social entrepreneurs needed to help their work grow.

We have had one funder listen to us and then suggest we go for a development grant. We like that. But the primary catch-22 prevails. We need to be a charity to take their money. We’re exploring whether we might have one of our organisations ‘represent’ the application for the group but we understand that means they have to put the work out to tender. So, we write the application and then have to run a tender process, even though we’re the ones who have defined the work.

It’s total madness.

To boot, there is even a funder whose work elsewhere suggests they’d be an ideal partner to under-write the whole thing but, rather hilariously, they flat refuse to even meet. All they keep saying is send in an application. We might just do that but it’s impossible to work out if us not being a charity is an issue or if what we’re proposing is truly of interest. So, again, the message is clear: we’ll only consider your ideas if you have enough privilege to get them into our format.

I think the final insult is how all funders seem to like your idea if another funder is already behind it. So, if one funder gets it and wants to back it then you’re essentially spoilt for choices. I’ve met one social innovator who’s open about the fact that she’s worked out how to play the system. Her work is great but she’s clear that she’s got as far as she has through her privilege and the sheep-like behaviour of funders.

My gut tells me our work is dead in the water. Not because we’ve not been diligent in working out what is needed and what the right next step is but because we don’t have the right legal entity to work through or the privilege needed to create that entity. That’s a frustrating place to have got to after almost two years of work but it’s an important set of lessons learnt.

I’ve heard funders talk about the need for new voices. They might want to think about how their practices are silencing them.

Pritpal S Tamber

I’m a doctor who trained as a medical editor and publisher and now researches and consults on the link between community power and health equity. My interest in community power started when I was the Physician Editor of TEDMED and is explained in My Perspective. I also work as a freelance medical editor and publisher for organisations that want to write high-quality articles and a strategy for their publishing and promotion. Find out more on my About page.

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