Donor funding to networks
by Kerstin Tebbe, Founder, Collective Mind
Collective Mind hosts regular Community Conversations with our global learning community. These sessions create space for network professionals to connect, share experiences, and cultivate solutions to common problems experienced by networks.
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Our May 19, 2021, the Collective Mind Learning Community held a special edition of its regular Community Conversations to discuss the topic of donor funding to networks as part of Collective Mind’s participatory research study on that topic. Participants, who all worked for and with networks (not donors), discussed the challenges of donor funding to networks from the practical to the philosophical.
Highlights from the conversation
Participants discussed a number of practical challenges related to fundraising and receipt of donor funding for their networks. Among those challenges, they noted the difficulty of mobilizing core funding support (as opposed to project funding) for their networks and of fundraising with a small staff/team. One participant noted that outreach to donors was challenging when donors don’t explicitly mention whether they support networks in their communications materials such as websites and requests for proposals. Additionally, given that networks are often not registered legal entities themselves, questions were raised about whether it is better in the eyes of donors to be legally registered or to operate and channel funding through host organizations. It wasn’t clear whether being legally registered as its own entity was better for a network in terms of receiving funding.
These practical challenges were situated within bigger-picture, more philosophical questions about how donors approach and work with networks. Participants wondered why donors fund networks, either as a specific strategy for the sake of it or to achieve other outcomes. Because funds to networks are not like funds to projects within an organization, it’s sometimes (or often) unclear what donors seek to achieve by funding networks. One participant representing a global network noted that they feel donors fund their network in order to access the diversity of the network’s members and their geographic spread for the donor’s other purposes. It wasn’t clear whether the donor sought to invest in the network as a means for creating change or as a conduit to partners, or perhaps both.
As one participant noted, the discussion raised questions for her about whether networks are radically different from other organizations and thereby need a completely different framework and approach when it comes to funding. Often focused on creating systems change, networks undertake different types of work than other organizations and they rarely achieve tangible outcomes. The understanding donors have of networks — of how they operate and the types of outcomes they are fit-for-purpose to achieve — impacts the donor-network relationship and the availability, expectations, and conditions of funding. For example, participants raised challenges about the length of funding and whether grant cycles of even multiple years are adequate and appropriate for networks that work on much longer, sometimes indefinite time horizons.
Participants also noted a need to educate donors to understand networks and embrace systems change through longer-term funding and acceptance of the fact that networks support processes but do not control outcomes. It was noted that donors would ideally engage with networks beyond funding, as participants and members in networks. This engagement would help donors to also understand how they as donors might need to change as well.