Addressing the inequity of funding decisions

Image credit: Paul Ayre

This article, written by Kevin Osborne, was first published in Arts Professional.

Funding ‘criteria’ tell you what a funder will or won’t support, but organisational ‘constraints’ ultimately determine what gets funded, says Kevin Osborne.

There are written rules when applying for arts funding: set criteria which outline the funder’s priorities, the activities it supports, who is eligible to apply and the amount of any potential grant.

In theory, these criteria determine what does or doesn’t get funded. But there are also unwritten constraints which play a part such as the funder’s attitude to risk, the preferences of its founders and the culture of the organisation.

As the majority of funders significantly underfund Black* organisations, it is clear that either the criteria they use or the constraints under which they operate work against supporting Black-led projects.

Building mature partnerships

To address this persistent underinvestment, a different type of relationship is required where funders work in constructive partnership with Black-led organisations. A mature relationship in which Black-led organisations are trusted with information about the limits of the funder to support their project.

However, the funder’s inability to develop these kinds of relationships, through greater transparency, is often itself a constraint. And as a result, inequity becomes self-perpetuating.

In my work with MeWe360 (MeWe) and Create Equity, I am looking at ways to break the cycle. I aim to drive more mature and trusted partnerships with funders that do away with the current data hk approach of ‘you tell us what you want to do, we’ll tell you if we’ll fund it’.

This work is very much in its infancy, but here are some initial observations on how this might be achieved.

1.    Balance managerial and entrepreneurial approaches

I lead (and am the founder of) two organisations with broad remits. MeWe develops and champions Black creative entrepreneurs and leaders; and Create Equity’s mission is to make the distribution of funding in the arts, social-enterprise and business equitable.

While I have clear ideas about how to achieve these missions, I am at heart a pragmatist and open to any approaches that might work. As an entrepreneur (rather than a ‘manager’) my focus is on outcomes.

To achieve a more equitable and inclusive sector, I believe effective ends should be prioritised over the means – where possible. In the case of grant funding, the means – funding criteria and organisational constraints – take precedence.

This then limits the available approaches and leads to the same racially inequitable outcomes. Funders need to better balance the entrepreneurial and managerial cultures within their organisations.

2.    Share uncomfortable truths

Funding criteria, though open to interpretation, are explicit. With the right experience, applicants can tick these boxes. Constraints on the other hand remain mostly undeclared. Held within funding institutions, they can only be accessed by insider knowledge or through open and honest dialogue with applicants.

As an example, if we know that 90% of Arts Council funding will effectively be (p)re-allocated to existing organisations, and that there will be no Black-led funded organisations in its highest funding band, we can make better judgements about whether to apply and at what level.

It’s never been made explicit in any criteria that Black-led organisations need not apply for funding above £1m p/a but, with a zero success rate in ACE’s current portfolio, there is an obvious need for the possibility of Black-led organisations to have a frank and open conversation with ACE about future prospects of success.

The uncomfortable truth is that this ‘incumbency bias’- where those who have received funding previously are much more likely to get further funding, effectively ‘locking out’ or preventing the growth of Black-led organisations – is common amongst all funders, but rarely ever spoken about.

3.    Re-game the system

Informing people about what’s possible and helping organisations shape projects within existing criteria and constraints is considered by most funders to be gaming the system.
Yet this sharing of information does sometimes happen, and when it does, those privy to this information can navigate the funding process through strategic decision-making rather than through guess work.

The people ‘in the know’ are predominantly white-led institutions employing professional fundraisers who have – or can get – the inside track on the unwritten constraints of a funder. This privileged access is key to what keeps racial equity locked in.

Working with Black leaders to develop projects that fit within existing constraints doesn’t undermine the integrity of the funding process, it re-balances it. The focus should be on an equitable and inclusive outcome (re-gaming the system) rather than maintaining a process which rewards those with access to inside knowledge.

Transparent and accountable funding

If funders continue to see greater transparency as a corruption of the application process, rather than the opportunity to improve outcomes, inequity will remain baked into our funding system.

Greater transparency and fair process are not mutually exclusive. Funders can be explicit about funding criteria and share any institutional constraints without damaging the integrity of their application process.

The process must be robust, but it also has to include sufficient dialogue with the applicant to inform as fair a decision as possible.

A more progressive and equitable partnership would see funders being explicit about what they can and will fund, given their criteria and constraints, empowering Black applicants to make critical decisions about their funding.

Time for a culture shift

There might even be room in such a partnership for a culture shift, for constraints being lifted. If this isn’t possible, funders should acknowledge this as a limitation and be accountable for the impact this has on their outcomes, importantly on those around diversity and inclusion.

There is often an uncomfortable tension between doing things the right way (process) and getting things right (outcome). Greater trust and transparency between funders and Black-led organisations would allow us to do both.

We should act now, in genuine partnership, to deliver the equitable and more inclusive outcomes we all want to see.

This article from social entrepreneur Kevin Osborne, founder of MeWe360 and Create Equity, is part of a series of articles that promote a more equitable and representative sector.


N.B. We have used the term Black. We recognise the diversity of individual identities and lived experiences, and understand that Black is an imperfect term that does not fully capture the racial, cultural and ethnic identities of people that experience structural and systematic inequality.

N.B. Although we agree that equitable funding is important for all groups, we are talking specifically about racially equitable funding at this time.