Iesha Small

writing, career pivots, side hustles

Build you career like an entrepreneur.

How Funders Aid Movements for Social Change

photo of five pound note with some coins on top of it.

Money. Copyright Suzy Hazelwood.


Social change is hard. It’s long messy and complicated but it is possible. For those of us working for funders and wanting a fairer society, I share some clues from successful movements that we can apply to our own work.

It’s the start of the new business year, objectives are being set and budgets agreed. I find this time of year a helpful time to think about the point of all this activity. I’m generally excited about helping to create a fairer society where everybody, particularly young people, has access to the resources and opportunities they have to thrive and live a meaningful life. We don’t currently live in that society so change is needed to make that happen.

I work for the Youth Endowment Fund, YEF a funder with a mission to prevent children and young people becoming involved in violence. Recently, I was revisiting some research we commissioned by IPPR and Runnymede exploring what worked for successful social movements that have created change. Here are some of my takeaways specifically for the role of funders:

Funders can often play the role of cultivators in social change movements.

Not all movements have cultivators but those that don’t often miss out on key functions that are nobody’s individual responsibility but benefit everyone.

Funders can convene and bridge gaps.

This involves bringing people together, building community, trust and relationships as well as shared language and joint strategies. YEF’s work with peer researchers as part of our Peer Action Collective is one example, led by Peter Babudu’s team. In my former role, YHA’s involvement in Access Unlimited, the work of Anita Kerwin-Nye and many others is a clear example in the nature and outdoors space.

Funders can provide resource.

Money is the most obvious but only a sub set. Resource can be space for meetings, pro bono expertise and the ability to influence the behaviour and thinking of other funders. YEF has co funded grant rounds with Comic Relief, The Co-op and many others. I have taken part in judging panels for innovation funds run by other funders such as Fair Education Alliance and Big Change. Having money is great but on it’s own it isn’t enough to achieve change. Funders need to making the most of their investment in terms of what is funded as well as who they support and influence in service of their ultimate mission.

Funders can provide collective care.

Social change can be rewarding but it can also be draining especially for those involved because of their personal lived experience. Funders can provide frameworks for shared ways of working to mediate tensions and anticipate how to soothe the way when things don’t run smoothly (they won’t always). Responsible funders will help the less experienced and smaller organisations that they fund ensure they have procedures for what happens if things go wrong. At YEF Matthew Fudge recently ran some internal training on due diligence that allowed us to reflect on this.

Funders can be honest about their own part in the system they are trying to change

There is inequity in funding. Black, Asian and other minority-led charities and community groups in England and Wales are underfunded. This is often the elephant in the room along with the fact that many major charity leadership teams or wider grant making staff of funders do not accurately reflect the communities they were set up to serve. Hannah Paterson has been doing some excellent work on shifting power dynamics in grant making. YEF has partnered with The Phoenix Way to create a £10million fund make sure our funding reaches and benefits children and young people from Black, Asian and other minority backgrounds via smaller charities and community led by people from those communities.

Funders can share learning

We can be bold and experimental, we can capture and share learning. YEF has a targeted projects stream that allows us to fund activity that may not be covered via our usual focus areas. Big Change’s ground breaker prize was set up to fund bold new ideas from young people who want to improve the education system. What works centres like YEF and the Education Endowment Foundation share evaluation reports and guidance based on clear evidence to help decision makers make better decisions for young people.

Funders can use learning to influence policy.

By building key relationships with national policy makers and using our money to run robust experiments and evaluate what works we can save policy makers time and effort and offer solutions that help them deliver for the electorate and society as a whole. This can happen in isolation or as part of coalitions. A large part of this work happens behind the scenes long before any public announcements and has been a core part of my roles over the past few years.

Money makes the world go round. Actually, to be pedantic, the sun’s gravitational pull makes the world go round. However, money is important in terms of power, politics and incentives. Funders have money to help make change happen but they also have so much more and we should see our roles as cultivators in the widest possible sense to have the best chance of creating long lasting social change.

Enjoyed reading this blog post or found it useful or interesting? Share it with somebody else who you think will too. 

You can also subscribe for future blog posts  

I’ll be writing about a wider range of topics than usual because I’m expanding my horizons.

Links to select external writing

How Volunteering for Hyrox can help you on race day (article)

Outside Voices (ebook and interactive project compilation)

The Unexpected Leader (book)

I don’t blame any teacher for not coming out as gay (article)

Inclusive Classrooms, disrupting power dynamics (article)

How Funders Aid Movements for Social Change