Four No-Brainers for Funders: Findings from our RightsCon Session

A few weeks ago we co-hosted a session at RightsCon. We here meaning the European AI Fund‘s Catherine Miller and Alexandra Toth, Stiftung Mercator‘s Lea Wulf and Florian Christ, and myself. (The connections being that Mercator is a funder of the European AI Fund and I’ve worked with both organizations.)

In our session we tried to figure out how funders can better support digital civil society, so a whole bunch of funders came together and graciously shared their experiences, best practices, challenges and opportunities. I enjoyed it tremendously and learned a lot — a big thank you to everyone who took the time to participate.

Lea kindly wrote up some of the key findings, which I’m cross-posting below.

Four No-Brainers for Funders: How to better support digital civil society

by Lea Wulf, Project Manager at Stiftung Mercator

Civil society organisations face tremendous challenges, especially digital rights organizations: a highly dynamic environment, structural funding challenges, organisational growth and maturity, access to policy makers, and many more.

At RightsCon in June 2022, the European AI Fund and Stiftung Mercator co-hosted a workshop for funders to discuss how we could better support civil society organisations active in the field of digital rights and tech policy.

We framed the conversation around a number of ‘no-brainers’ – practices that seem obvious ways to improve the field – and asked ourselves what prevents us from doing them?

Here we highlight some of the key points of our discussion and hope to spark further conversations, and forge a community of funders and grant makers who will continue to learn together to better support the digital civil society ecosystem.

We’re still working out the best way of doing this, without duplicating activities that already exist.  Feel free to share your suggestions with us! If you know of any initiatives, we would love to know more!

No brainer 1: Long-term and core funding

Even though the issue of less restricted grant-making has been around for a while now, it got some new spin when Gemma Bull and Tom Steinberg published their book on modern grant-making in the summer of 2021. They argue that most of the grants made should be unrestricted or core funding. This means that grantees do not need to outline everything they want to do in advance – they are trusted to spend the money in a way that will have the most positive impact. Furthermore, they strongly argue in favour of long-term grants – and they make a crucial point: who can change society in six months? Probably not many.

During our session, we asked our fellow funders: How can we get to long-term and core funding and what is stopping us from doing so?

The good news: many of our fellow funders have already developed some strategies for this. It’s key to get buy-in from organisations’ managing and supervisory boards – programme managers rarely make funding decisions by themselves. The leadership needs to be convinced and involved with a strong narrative. Colleagues recommended documenting the victories of your core grants well and providing a strong return-on-investment logic; be clear why long-term and core funding is needed to make an impact in dynamic and upcoming fields like digital transformation and artificial intelligence.

However, there remain some obstacles. Even though you may bring up convincing arguments in favour, the board may not see the point because they lack literacy in the field of digital technologies. They may simply not see the need for core and long-term grants, or may be unwilling to cede the control that project funding entails. And making long-term and core grants can prove risky because there is space left for failure and terminating a grant isn’t always possible. But consultation with other funders can help mitigate these foreseeable risks.

But we observed too that core grants may, indeed, not always be desirable. Sometimes, sustaining an organisation is not the answer. Sometimes a movement or network needs initial funding, but funders cannot provide a grant because it isn’t formally institutionalized yet, in that instance core funding is of no use.

Additional reading our fellow funders suggested:

Pay-What-It-Takes Philanthropy (

Building Institutions and Networks / Ford Foundation

No brainer 2: Improved cooperation between funders

Building a new field is challenging: expertise is needed, but much of the work involves learning by doing and networking and exchanging with other funders may help to find solutions and provide insights into different ways of reaching a goal. But it doesn’t always happen.

A precondition for networking and knowledge exchange is having the resources and time to do so. The workload in many funding organisations is high and networking is not necessarily. Moreover, networking and building sustained relationships may not have an immediate tangible output. Funders also compete against one other and try to out-do each other in their quest for impact and doing good.

Conferences like RightsCon and re:publica can be a great space for networking outside your organisation and philanthropic networks like Philea and Ariadne offer a range of regular meetings and working groups, building space for collaboration.

Additionally, understanding how other funders work can open up space for cooperation: If you know who does what and how there may be ways of co-funding projects in certain areas. It might also pave the way for pooled funding. The European AI Fund is a pooled funding initiative itself: The long-term vision is to empower a diverse ecosystem of civil society organizations to shape technology and policy around Artificial Intelligence.

No brainer 3: Improved cooperation between grantees

Funders have large networks and often have a rare overview of the landscape.  Funding organizations can serve as matchmakers, connecting grantees with one another.

This can take different forms: funders can host networking events for their grantees and provide spaces for exchange, but without forcing collaboration. They can also provide resources for self-organization, e.g., for a conference or travel funds. To take it further, grants can include resources for grantee-to-grantee-cooperation, explicitly rewarding collaboration.

Funders should however carefully listen to their grantees to avoid confusion, rivalry and frustration. Well-meant offers may be perceived as manufactured or forced cooperation. Not only are funders’ schedules fully loaded, so are grantees’. There’s a risk of networking fatigue and, since the pandemic, zoom fatigue – although online conferences remain a simple and time-saving alternative to in-person-meetings.

No brainer 4: Improved funder-grantee relationships and greater accountability?

There is an inevitable imbalance of power in the relationship between funders and grantees. In our discussions we found that greater accountability among funders was key to addressing this.

Coming back to Gemma Bull and Tom Steinberg, they outline that funding organisation should be transparent about what they do and do not fund.  Funding organisations sometimes appear like fortresses, their websites display little to no information – no funded projects, no focus areas, no funding criteria or even staff members. This makes applying for a grant difficult – if the funding organisation accepts unsolicited proposals at all. This only exacerbates the unequal power dynamics between funders and grantees. An external assessment of a website can be useful to redesign the experience.

To tear down these (imagined) walls, funding organisations constantly need to work on mutually trusting relations. A first easy step may be for funders to meet grantees in person and get in touch with the people in the community. Conferences and conventions are a good start for this, too. Some prospective grantees can be inexperienced in fundraising. They don’t know what to expect when they apply for a grant. Funders should carefully explain their grant-making processes to make sure everybody knows the rule of the game. Otherwise, the inevitable imbalance of power might increase.

Many workshop participants observed funders’ tendency to frequently change strategy which can cause confusion and undermine trust and confidence among civil society. They stressed that funders should be open about how their thinking is evolving and be transparent about where priorities are shifting

If possible, reporting should be as easy as possible and accessible – in many European countries, however, funding organisations carefully need to document their work and report to the financial authorities. Prospective grantees need to be aware of this and need assistance to understand and live up to the requirements. A clear and open communication about the grant-making and its implications seems appropriate to avoid misunderstandings.

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