Lighting Fires and Staying Accountable

Pritpal S Tamber

December 15, 2022

A conversation with Martha Mackenzie on community organising, repairing democracy and holding philanthropy to account

So, this is Christmas. Back home in the UK, the country feels very much in crisis. High inflation, numerous strikes, the general sense that things are not working. Many people feel powerless, angry, frustrated and disappointed. The system is not working. Democracy is not working.

One person brave enough to try to put things right is Martha Mackenzie, the Executive Director of the UK-based Civic Power Fund, a new fund for grassroots community organising. Martha is the latest guest in my podcast series on community power in collaboration with Ratio.

You can find the episode on Ratio’s website and Apple Podcasts.

Martha thinks now is not the time to give up on democracy. There’s no doubt that it’s not working as well as it could be – how else does the sixth largest economy in the world need to resort to warm spaces to get people through the winter? – but that doesn’t mean we abandon it. It means, Martha thinks, that we repair it, we make it more responsive, we make it better at listening to citizens.

Lighting The Fire of Agency

How, however, can citizens be heard? Through organising, says Martha, the process through which communities build their power. And to that end, her Fund recently announced a new community action fund aimed at supporting grassroots organising in the UK. It’s a welcome addition to the UK scene, I think. Organising is much more developed, dispersed and understood in other countries, especially the US. The Civic Power Fund aims to change that.

In the episode (Ratio/Apple), Martha talks about three transformations through organising – of the self, of the community, and of society. It’s a bold statement but one that Martha justifies robustly. Through organising, individuals develop the relationships, knowledge and desire to make things better (Martha calls it lighting the fire of agency). They, in turn, build alliances with others making it possible for communities to hold systems to account. And in so doing, the conditions for all improve, society is transformed.

But Martha isn’t wearing rose-tinted glasses. She knows that communities can form around unjust, conservative or NIMBY agendas (think Roe vs Wade, she suggests). She talks about the need to be clear on the values informing organising. For her, it’s the pursuit of social justice, an ambition that can feel impossible when the world outside your window is a world of dread and fear.

Holding Philanthropy to Account

As a leader of a Fund, Martha knows that her sector – philanthropy – has an important role to play. Earlier this year, the Fund looked at the grants awarded by 47 UK-based foundations that claim to support the pursuit of social justice. What they found was that of the 4,110 grants awarded in 2018/19 to organisations in the UK, only 687 were for social justice work – a mere 16.7%. Those grants totalled £64m, which was only about 21% of their giving.

To be clear, the 47 foundations included in the analysis are the ones that publicly declare a desire to pursue social justice. In that context, 16.7% of grants and 21% of the cash seems inadequate. Furthermore, those foundations represent only 8% of foundation giving in the UK, which means that the sector as a whole invests only 1.6% of its cash in social justice. To me, that seems pitiful.

Through that research, the Fund (through Martha’s leadership) is holding the sector to account. Accountability is something that Martha returns to repeatedly in the episode (Ratio/Apple). How can organisers remain accountable to the communities they serve, for instance? How can campaigns remain accountable to the people they’re campaigning on behalf of?

The Infrastructure of Power

Impressively, the Fund is making itself accountable to the discipline of organising. It’s not just backing organising, it’s also trying to work out what infrastructure is required to help organising thrive across the UK. Individual campaigns are great but how do you ensure they’re not just short-term bursts of energy? What’s the infrastructure needed to enable communities to continually improve their conditions? Through its work, the Fund hopes to help answer that.

And that, as they say, is a wrap for 2022. We’re halfway through the podcast series – five down, five to go. I’ve enjoyed helping to produce it and hope you’re enjoying listening.

Merry Christmas and see you next year.

Pritpal S Tamber

PS: To learn more about Ratio’s work, sign up for their newsletter or drop them a line: hello@ratio.org.uk.


Previous Episodes in the Podcast Series

  • Paul Speer (Episode 4; November 30): A conversation with Paul W. Speer on the role of relationships, conversations and mediating institutions in building community power (Ratio/Apple) – see the related post
  • Jennie Popay (Episode 3; November 15): A conversation with Jennie on the need to truly understand how communities with power can pursue social justice (Ratio/Apple) – see the related post
  • Jonathan Heller (Episode 2; November 1): A conversation with Jonathan, one of the most innovative practitioners in the journey to health equity (Ratio/Apple) – see the related post
  • Pritpal S Tamber (Episode 1; October 17): I talk to Michael Little, the host of the podcast, on what community power is and why it might be important (Ratio/Apple) – see the related post

The photograph behind the title is by Danae Diaz / Ikon Images.

Pritpal S Tamber

I'm an independent writer, researcher and consultant focussing on community health and medical information. I'm a former physician, medical editor and medical publisher, and also the former Physician Editor of TEDMED. I began my career at The BMJ. For more information, see the About page.

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