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Responsible donorship

Of course I'm jealous. People tell me every other day that my work is important, but much funding flows to demonstrably stupid projects.

I no longer seek funding or material support or even volunteers for my work. I no longer worry about funded projects overtaking mine. I have understood that what I'm doing is antithetical to money, and unlikely to be funded by any reasonable plutocrat or angel. Just as states and banks simply can't see moneyless people, projects which neither beg nor boast are invisible to donors.

Before I go further I should tell you that for six years I haven't been parading the conference circuit talking about my dreams; I haven't invested my time in befriending philanthropists or charitable bodies; I haven't written business plans and projections. For six years I have been delivering fairly high quality open source software and supporting hundreds of grass roots communities with software and advice. In many cases I've trained beneficiaries so they need me less in the future. In that time I've received countless gifts from individuals, countless offers of paid work, one strings free donation from an EU project, but zero from philanthropic or social organisations.

I want to explore why this is, because I feel that money for good causes is massively misdirected and often counterproductive, especially from a big picture perspective. In the humanitarian business, which churns billions of dollars per year, there are helpful protocols about donor accountability, but I've heard no such talk in civil society. Rather I see activists encumbered by spreadsheets, forced into inappropriate relationships, and sometimes diverted to irrelevant work. I see boundless generosity repackaged as 'sustainable enterprise' because donors now prefer to 'invest' than simply to give. I see perfectly good money flowing into projects with poor vision, strategy and track records. Or I see NEF inflating LETS, Timebanking and Transition Pounds, then abandoning them like unwanted pets.

So, yes, it is easy for me to criticise - I have no paymasters.

It is as if so many people are flocked around the donors, that donors can't see past the begging bowls. This creates a situation that a fund is announced and then those that would be doing good spend days reframing their proposals according to some arbitrary criteria. Because 3rd sector organisations feel intensely the need to compete against each other for funds, they don't share knowledge or resources between themselves. Professional proposal writers are valued more highly than volunteers.

In 2011 NESTA in its wisdom created Innovation in giving. With a strong software focus, the program mimiced venture capitalsim in seeking to finance many projects while knowing that few would likely succeed significantly. My work was not applicable for funding because I didn't have an organisation registered in UK, and because my project was purely software and limited in its impact on any particular community. Hey ho.

Looking through the many recipients I noticed NESTA had clumsily attempted to stretch their money further by lumping together different projects with superficial traits, It dawned on me that NESTA had not consulted a software specialist or make technical assessments of these proposals - and that each each blinkered project had been financed to build or extend its own proprietary platform. While the project was all about the sharing economy, there was no reference to open source made by NESTA or by any of winners, or to sharing or replicating any of the projects internationally.

That was when I asked myself, what would a responsible donor have done? Is it responsible to attract beggars and flies by talking about how much money you have? To waste their time by asking them to apply? To twist their work by applying criteria? To judge them in a 2 minute video? To hand over the money risking that it will all come to nothing?

As a thought experiment, consider this approach:

  • Decide what is most important. This is your privilege as someone with money in this world.
  • Research the most impactful actors in the field, because for sure they are not spending resources looking for you.
  • Give them the money, in acknowledgement for their existing work, without distorting their agenda,
  • Claim kudos for financing a successful project which was already successful.

This approach has another advantage that it supports and encourages voluntary effort rather than trying to buy intangible value before it is created. No money or effort is wasted. There are much fewer opportunities for deceit or optimistic projections. Donors are not disproportionately empowered.

Aye there's the rub.


Wise words, destined to go unheeded.

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