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Collaborative Trust-Based Funding: Seeking Sustainability In A Complex World

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Dr. Joanne Yoong

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8 minutes read

This article is co-authored by Dr. Sherria Ayuandini

Addressing the challenges of our time requires addressing complexity

In today’s world, simple problems are increasingly difficult to find. As Rittel and Weber (1973) foresaw, many of the issues that confront policymakers and practitioners are  “wicked” problems without clearly-defined solutions that can themselves be difficult to define precisely. Such issues have very negative, potentially irreversible consequences if not addressed, but are characterised by asymmetric, incomplete or even contradictory knowledge that is highly context-specific. They also involve multiple stakeholders with subjective views, different objectives, and a high degree of interconnectedness leading to feedback loops that are difficult to either foresee or forestall. COVID-19, climate change, and advances in new technologies such as artificial intelligence that may  catalyse tremendous systemic change for better and for worse are all recent examples, as are the more longstanding but ever-evolving issues of gender, migration, poverty and inequality.

Complex is not the same as complicated. In a merely complicated environment, risks to stakeholders may be high but remain knowable and can be mitigated by foresight and planning. However, in complex environments, neither risks nor stakeholders can be completely known or understood and both may be subject to multiple nonlinear interdependencies. This, in turn,  leads to  greater uncertainty and potential negative spillovers over time and space. In this context, addressing complex problems with simplistic, one-size-fits all solutions may lead in fact to worse outcomes than taking no action at all. 

Complexity Contributes to the “Missing Middle”

To be able to  deliver sustained positive  change  in a complex world, organisations working on the ground need to build  short-term agility as well as  longer-term institutional strength to manage unanticipated shocks and to seize emerging opportunities. The most successful organisations are likely therefore to be the ones that are able to build relationships, refine their practices, and continually reimagine their work as needs and conditions evolve. 

Organisations’ efforts to secure the external capital required to establish these capacities may be confounded by the difficulty – or even fundamental impossibility – of articulating, executing and verifying highly-specific plans of action. On the other side of the  gap, funders face the mirror-image of these challenges. They not only deal with greater environmental uncertainties  but also poorer quality signals around grantees’, ex-ante potential, and ex-post efforts in order to guide selection, accountability for and attribution of outcomes.  

A complex environment not only creates gaps but also expands disparities by disadvantaging certain groups. Those without dedicated resources for monitoring and evaluation, those working towards less tangible goals, and those working in the most challenging and rapidly evolving circumstances will face higher barriers to accessing funding or forging wider relationships. In particular,  complexity can drive the “missing-middle”:  the small or midsize organisations. They may successfully operate in local communities within which they have established strong expertise and relationships but struggle to articulate and fund growth, as the latter requires addressing significantly more uncertainties at a larger scale as well as longer-term organisational and systemic issues.   At the same time, donors may also resort back to limiting risk by reserving larger investments for a fundable universe that is more “proven” or easily measurable, but less innovative and less inclusive, and ultimately potentially less impactful.

How does collaborative funding help?

Collaborative funding models address some (but not all) of these barriers. Like syndication in venture capital, pooling resources enables individual funders to better achieve impact through a shared portfolio with the benefits of diversification. 

At the same time, coordination avoids wasteful duplication of efforts and capital, while enabling gains from mutual learning and shared expertise. It also provides access to a wider range of philanthropic opportunities through their collective network and reputation. There exist as well the potential benefits of a network of intermediaries to support the process of screening and governance. Grantees benefit from the scale of funding as well as the value-add of a wider pool of potential advisors.

How does unrestricted funding help?

Unrestricted funding models also address some of these barriers directly. Firstly by recognising that overly rigid selection and governance frameworks that call for strict accountability to predetermined targets can be counterproductive. This is especially true in environments where biased signals generate perverse incentives to fulfil outdated targets or when targets are set to favor the more easily measured over the meaningful. Flexibility can be provided on a spectrum that varies by context, from allowing variations within a project-based frame to having completely unrestricted project-, programme- or even organisation, with or without specific outcome targets. 

Flexible funding allows for innovation, emergent action, and sustainability, which are especially valuable in times of uncertainty and shifting contexts. Beyond the immediate, however, it supports longevity by opening up opportunities for grantees to set out institutional vision and strategy while investing in resources to address critical internal deficits. Multi-year, unrestricted funding in particular empowers grantees to assess, determine, and allocate where grant money is needed the most – which could mean operational expenses, team skills development or even programmes. For a longer-term  strategy, grantees also value the ability to put funding towards overhead costs or investments across multiple projects that are not easily defined or apportioned, including investing in talent. By making it easier for grantees to recruit and retain the effective leaders and staff they need to achieve their long-term objectives, funders demonstrate that they value the work their impact organisation partners do and are committed to in  their longer-term vision. 

The unique value of collaborative unrestricted funding 

Collaboration alone cannot mitigate the effects of inappropriate one-size-fits-all funding approaches that pathologise the diversity of actual results. On the other hand, unrestricted funding at a large scale is not likely to be feasible for the vast majority of single funders acting alone. Moreover, such schemes may be well-intended but ultimately result in exclusive capture by organisations with pre-existing relationships.

A potential way forward is collaborative, unrestricted funding: funding that is raised and managed collaboratively among donors but disbursed unrestrictedly in support of a common thematic interest to address  (rather than a specific problem to resolve). For grantees, this enables the type and scale of  investment needed for a broader vision of sustainability. For smaller or less-experienced funders, risk-sharing supports the exploration of unrestricted grant making where it is most needed, done together with more experienced peers. For established funders, this is an opportunity to practice leadership and the more inclusive form of grantmaking at the core of trust-based philanthropy.  

However, for collaborative, unrestricted funding to best succeed, it is critical to recognise that removing restrictions on  funding does not equate to removing governance and accountability. What it translates to is allowing for more diverse yet rigorous ways of establishing contribution and sharing lessons learned, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Funder members of AVPN highlighted the urgent need to focus on Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) including developing common frameworks and strengthening the capacity of grantees to evaluate impact. Ex-ante clarity and ex-post transparency around reporting the use and impact of funding  are critical to enable consistency of focus among grantees and to sustain funders’ commitments, especially when the latter may face internal reporting requirements outside the collaborative pool. 

Equally critically,  both funders and grantees should be strongly aligned with the principles of trust-based philanthropy in which deep relationships are nurtured through more open and more intensive repeated interactions within and across networks of funders and grantees. Several AVPN grantees from previous thematic funds emphasised the importance of cultivating not projects but relationships and a shared community. 

What can Trust Based Philanthropy members do to support this model?

  1. Start small by choosing what to focus on first. Funders can start their path towards unrestricted funding by first deploying small multi-year programmatic grants as a way of building trust with grantees. As the relationship strengthens, funders can move more comfortably towards larger, unrestricted grants, as exemplified by AVPN members, the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation and Freedom Fund.
  2. Have conversations with grantees on the terms and the use of unrestricted funding. Experience shared during AVPN’s first sharing circle for funders showed that both funders and grantees could reach a consensus on how to best use funding and treat each other as equals within the first meeting.
  3. Be willing to unlearn what might be familiar on the part of funders. It is no easy task to change the way that grantmaking has been done for decades. Grantmaking under trust-based philanthropy requires funders not only to change behaviour but also to bear more of the brunt of grant-management and delivery. This includes but not limited to building the MEL capacity of grantees, supporting grantees in data collection, helping them use the monitoring data to continuously improve their programme implementation, and opting for economical data collection solutions so that grantees do not spend their time collecting data and reporting when they can use the time for implementing the programme.
  4. Find the right partners. Different funders have different trust thresholds. Intermediaries like AVPN can play an important role in aligning the interests of these diverse stakeholders by being flexible and adaptable in the onboarding of individual funders. Depending on the funders, some might be more willing to wholly trust in the approach, while others might want more information in order to build the initial trust both in the intermediaries and in the grantees.
  5. Shift the focus to ‘how’ rather than ‘how much’. With flexible and unrestricted funding, grantees have the freedom to use the grant in the way that they think would be most impactful for the communities. Funders should therefore use MEL to learn the process and the way impact happened instead of focusing on strictly measuring impact in quantity.
  6. Internally promote the model among each other. With collaborative unrestricted funding since the risk gets distributed, the champion funders should rally in those funders that are otherwise risk averse and would not support innovation.

 


 

Research For Impact is an external evaluation partner of the AVPN Primary Healthcare Pooled funds. They independently evaluate the impact of the pooled funds on the grantees, and the communities they work with. Dr. Joanne Yoong, Founder, Research For Impact, is also an independent advisor for the AVPN Philanthropic Funds

This article is part of an ongoing AVPN initiative on Trust-based Philanthropy were we share our learnings, develop insights with our partners, and lead the conversation about this essential and evolving approach to giving in Asia. To learn more and get connected please click here

References

A. Environmental Stewardship
To protect the environment, we organize programmes like mangrove nursery and Reforestation, Coastal and River Clean-Up, Community Based Environmental Solid Waste Management, Environmental IEC Campaign and Eco-Academy

B. Food Security and Sustainable Livelihood
To ensure a sustainable livelihood for the community, eco-tourism include Buhatan River Cruise Visitor Center Buhatan River Mangrove Boardwalk are run by the community. Others include Organic Vegetable and Root crops Farming, Vegetable and Root crops Chips and by-products Processing and establishing a Zero waste store.

C. Empowered Communities
To empower the community, we provide product and Agri-Enterprise Development Training, Immersion and Learnings Exchange Program, Earth Warrior Training and Community Based Social Entrepreneurship Training

Author

Dr. Joanne Yoong

Founder and CEO, Research for Impact Pte. Ltd.

Joanne Yoong is an applied economist working at the intersection of behavioural economics and health and financial decision making for the well-being of vulnerable populations. Based in Singapore, Dr Yoong also holds faculty appointments at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine,Singapore Management University,and the RAND Corporation. She is the author of over seventy peer-reviewed articles in leading economics, medical and public health journals. Dr Yoong serves in various national and international policy and industry advisory capacities, and has previously held positions as the Director of the Center for Health Services and Policy Research at the National University Hospital System, Director of the Asia Pacific Regional Capacity-Building for Health Technology Assessment (ARCH) Initiative, Director of the RAND Behavioural Finance Forum 2012 and founding co-president of the Singapore Health Economics Association. Dr Yoong is also a member of the founding and organizing committee for the first Asian Workshop for Health Economics and Econometrics. In addition to her academic work, Dr Yoong is the founder of Research for Impact, a Singapore-based social enterprise working to make behavioral and social science research accessible, inclusive and transformative for all. Dr Yoong received her Ph.D. in Economics at Stanford University as an FSI Starr Foundation Fellow after an early career in financial services, and her AB summa cum laude in Economics and Applied and Computational Mathematics from Princeton University.

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