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Business as unusual: a racial justice approach to funding

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

This is a modified version of an article that first appeared in Alliance Magazine. It was co-authored with Yvonne Field, Founder/CEO of Ubele Initiative.


2020 was a year to forget for many. And 2021 wasn’t much better. But amid all the turmoil, confusion, and hand sanitizing, many organisations stepped up to do what they do best: ensure communities are safe, supported, and heard. The question is, did we support those organisations in the same way? Were we there for them as they were there for local people?

If we look at Black-led organisations or those working for Black communities, we can see they have always faced problems. They’ve generally found it harder to access funding, which means they spend more, proportionally, on delivery to communities and less on management and backroom costs. It also means they have less time to step back, reflect, and make a noise about causes of the issues they’re dealing with.

This undoubtedly happened during the pandemic. One Black and ethnic minority covid emergency fund was nearly seven-times oversubscribed. Others found themselves distributing proportionally less funding to Black-led groups. One in ten Black-led organisations closed at the start of the pandemic, and most found themselves struggling to get through 2020 (if, indeed, they did).

About twenty years ago, the same set of problems were identified. Back then, research showed less than two per cent of government regeneration budgets went to Black organisations. Shockingly, only two per cent of funding from the 20 largest trusts and foundations went to Black communities. Figures such as these were meant to be a line in the sand moment, with funders and government promising to invest in self-development, capacity building, and outreach.

It doesn’t take Columbo to see these activities haven’t achieved equality. Why? One response – the one that probably gets to the heart of the issue – is that many of our approaches haven’t touched on the things that actually matter: the way funders and commissioners think.

Early attitudes to Black organisations can usefully be characterised as ‘benign neglect’. Politicians and charitable trusts were dimly aware that immigrant communities had needs that were not being met by the state, but were completely unaware of the Black-led organisations trying to meet those needs (in the 70s, for example, a survey of Birmingham councillors revealed that less than half could name an organisation working with minority groups). This all changed some time in the 80s when ‘multiculturalism’ became a buzzword. Now, there were efforts to support Black organisations, but this was done with the specific aim of engaging ‘hard-to-reach’ groups or providing culturally specific services. The idea of Black-led organisations being niche suppliers, only able to speak to particular communities, was born here.

Over the last decade or so, we have seen moves towards what might be termed ‘race equality’. Under this approach funders and government have invested in upskilling Black organisations. Training has been made available around bid writing and business planning, for example. At the same time, funders have ramped up engagement with Black groups and sometimes allocated specific pots of money for Black communities.

Problems with 'race equality' models

One of the problems with this approach is that it allows funders to think they have ‘done’ race equality. Once a bid writing course has been provided, once a consultation has been completed, once funding has been given to a reasonable number of Black organisations, funders can get back to the serious job of supporting established charities. Think this is too harsh? During the pandemic a Black-led organisation told us they’d approached a couple of trusts but were refused because the funders ‘had already funded other BME groups’. All boxes had been ticked. Their consciences were clear.

And this gets to the heart of what’s wrong with our current way of thinking. It still sees Black organisations as the problem. ‘If only they could write better proposals,’ the thinking goes. If only they had more reserves, were more aligned to our priorities, had better track records. If only they could jump more gracefully through the hoops we lay in front of them.

What’s needed is a move away from our current ‘race equality’ model to a ‘racial justice’ approach. This is an approach we tried to take with the Phoenix Fund, a pandemic emergency fund for Black-led voluntary groups. Phoenix was also led by Black organisations, supported in partnership by the National Lottery Community Fund, the Ubele Initiative, and Global Fund for Children. Partners were given the freedom to design a process as they wished. Quite organically, the programme they came up with recognised the historic inequalities that have shaped the Black voluntary sector’s relationship with funders. Rather than supporting people to jump through hoops, it tried to remove the hoops all together.


For example, a race equality approach may find ways to include Black voices in decision-making. But a racial justice model recognises there are a number of reasons why Black organisations may be suspicious of larger funders in the first place. The history outlined above may be one, but we shouldn’t overlook the legacy of colonialism and slavery: many larger trusts have their wealth founded in these activities. Often this is difficult for funders to hear: it’s natural for people to become uncomfortable or defensive and try to shut the conversation down. Phoenix was different. Partners wanted to learn from Black organisations about their experiences of race inequality: they were prepared to do some hard listening and amend their thinking in response.

'Lived experience'

A race equality approach recognises the knowledge Black-led organisations have of the communities they serve. It calls this ‘lived experience’. A racial justice approach understands that this misses the point. It’s a way of othering the experiences of Black communities, of seeing them as having specific problems which require specialist solutions. After all, the knowledge brought by White board members of charitable foundations isn’t called ‘lived experience’: rather, we see the issues facing White communities as mainstream concerns that require sustained responses. Phoenix partners brought this understanding to the issues facing Black communities. Looking for the similarities in the issues a range of communities face, Phoenix funded activity that tackles the root of inequality.


And what about power? Traditionally, funders have emphasised that voluntary organisations need to recognise there is a wider context in which decisions are made (legislative requirements, organisational procedures, existing best practice, and so on). Sometimes decisions have to be taken without consultation or against the wishes of the sector. In contrast, the Phoenix Fund started with an empty space and was built piece-by-piece by all its members. Its core aims, scope, constituency, and processes were all decided on by community partners. Partners were given genuine power to decide who should receive funding and why. We often think processes are essential to ensuring fairness, but the flipside can be true: relying on processes that have been devised beforehand is an easy way of excluding people and ideas we find difficult to deal with. Of course, starting with a blank sheet of paper can be difficult too. But as long as participants are prepared to live with some messiness and deal effectively with conflict they can achieve a shared vision they believe in.

The lessons of the Phoenix Fund are many, but can perhaps be summarised as follows:

1. Understand systemic issues

Even if you can’t always fund projects working on systemic issues, it is important decision makers understand the root causes of structural discrimination. They need a firm grasp of what different forms ‘data’ or ‘evidence’ can take and use all these different forms to build a rounded picture of an area

2. Respect ‘equalities competence’

Expertise gained from experience is often side-lined in favour of academic or technical insight. Funders need to have the skills to understand the extent to which applicants have the pulse of local communities, are able to develop initiatives in response, and can work at multiple levels (with individuals, communities, and statutory agencies) to affect change

3. Support diversity, work with conflict

Key to Phoenix making effective decisions was the capacity of partners to have critical but constructive conversations. Discussions were evidence-based and reflected a firm understanding of the problems Black communities groups face. Funders need an awareness of biases and stereotyping (and the dangers of thinking a community group can speak for all a community)

4. Take and welcome responsibility

Phoenix funded a number of groups who were doing great work but who didn’t have a track record and on paper didn’t always look sustainable. Partners were willing to fund them because they understood the difficulties smaller Black-led organisations can face starting up. Coupled with this willingness to take risks was an ability to explain why these ‘risks’ had been taken, rooted in a firm understanding of the historical context facing Black-led groups and the barriers they face

5. Understand change

If you have to evaluate, measure the right things – the things that actually capture what promotes equality. This can be explicit structural changes, such as changes in local policies, laws, or how resources are distributed. It could be changes in relationships, connections, or power dynamics (such as parents having more say over a school’s curriculum or Black people feeling less disconnected from the green spaces around them). Or it could be changes and transformations in how we think about issues of ‘race’ and racism in a local area

At the start of the pandemic, public bodies were starved of information regarding how people were thinking and behaving. In response, brap held a survey with ethnic minority communities in the West Midlands. We asked people how they were coping, what they were struggling with, and what their biggest post-Covid worry was. In addition to some of the concerns you might expect – worries about children’s education, the impact on the economy – several people said their biggest concern was that we would soon fall back into our old habits.

“I’m worried young people's lives will be greatly limited,” said one person. “Will Black and Asian youth get work over their white peers? Actually, will things be fairer for anyone who needs to find work? My biggest concern is that we learn nothing and go back to what things were – the abnormal normal!”

The abnormal normal. Business as unusual. For many, the pre-pandemic world was blighted with inequalities. As disruptive as covid was, it also gave us an opportunity to change. We have to ensure we don’t go back to our old way of doing things. We need a new relationship between Black-led organisations and the trusts and foundations who support them.

We need a new approach. One based on trust, power sharing, and respect for the insight Black-led organisations have. One that disrupts the abnormal normal.


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