Two futures for independent funders

‘We have a process that enables us to stumble in the right direction… but we need to get out of the denial business and get back in the future business’ 

There is a great post-financial-crisis reset happening across the whole economy and social sector. As a fundamental part of the UK’s social support infrastructure, independent foundations will feel the disruptive impact. Funding models will be challenged, and assumptions about the relationship between citizens, state, society and economy will be further unpicked.  Two futures face the sector. Their collective ability to reach the most progressive one will depend on how well they collaborate and, in the words of Bill Clinton, ‘get back in the future business’.

Future One: It is 2030. The independent funding sector cannot fit itself up for purpose, and has not modernised the way it works around some fundamentally changing social and economic realities. The underlying principles on which many foundations have been founded are cracked – indicative of a past time in which the role of the state, society and social economy were not only more clearly demarcated, but less easily challenged by a blurring of the boundaries across the whole economy. Leadership in the sector (and across its beneficiaries) remains a problem: stuck in the age of heroism and linearity in a context of complex problems and collaborative solutions. Money is simultaneously wasted in overlapping priorities and lost through the gaps of a funding ecology that is unbalanced and unable to align around a coherent model of social change.  Communities lose out as philanthropic intent is unable to deliver collective impact.

‘Far from protecting a sense of safe isolation, funders celebrate confident interdependence and regularly take collective risks on path-breaking initiatives to build social capacity and resilience.’

Future Two: It is 2025 (again). The independent funding community feels like a well-working ecosystem, with calls to align around a more coherent and realistic model of social change heeded and acted upon by the leading lights of the sector. A culture of open data, collaborative evidence-building and strategic brokering helps more and more great ideas and community-led startups make the journey from birth to sustainability.

A proactive navigating of sector boundaries has precipitated more creative, iterative and diffuse ways of reaching scale – blending public funding with social finance and a more proactive role for the private sector. Far from protecting a sense of safe isolation, funders celebrate confident interdependence and regularly take collective risks on path-breaking initiatives to build social capacity and resilience. The impact on funding beneficiaries feels profound; offering the possibility of new routes to impact, and an alternative to the increasingly fraught relationship between social action and the local state.

Future two is best, but also hardest. What will it take? In Collaborate’s latest report, produced in partnership with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the Big Lottery Fund, we offer a framework for change that prioritises collaboration, adaptive governance and building readiness within the sector for a different way of working. We are not the only ones calling for an exploration of these issues, and nor do we offer any definitive answers. Indeed, the report is based on dialogue with sector leaders who are themselves working towards more strategic models of governance and grant-giving, and builds on earlier work such as that done by Julia Unwin to create better ways of understanding funding patterns and imperatives.

We are keen to create a broad and inclusive dialogue as we take this programme of work forward. The next stages will involve some comparative analysis, mapping and the development of new platforms for collaboration within the sector, and between funders and the wider social landscape. The whole thing is aimed at turning strategic thinking into a set of tools and understandings that can transform practice. As we create these next steps we are keen to hear both enthusiasm and dissent, and we are looking for partners to take forward these strands of work in a meaningful and grounded way. If you would like to be involved, then please get in touch and tell us what you think.
To find out more about Collaborate and to download a copy of the report, see


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