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Edge Fund: The story so far

February 8, 2013

In the beginning we had 20-30 people come to each meeting. People represented a wide range of issues and communities and commented on how nice it was to be amongst such a diverse group, not least having both donors and activists in the same room. There were lively and less lively discussions about what function Edge should have, what our collective values are, our funding criteria and all sorts of other things. But as meetings passed it became clear there were only a small number of people willing to get involved in the nitty gritty of writing our rules, setting up bank accounts and all the boring but necessary stuff. But that was fine, because the people in the room are the right people, and the job got done!

Our starting point was the aim to put decision-making about funding into the hands of those who don’t usually have that power. It’s not that hard to find people from the usual activist networks to devolve that power to, but it’s much more difficult to get people from the most oppressed communities to take part.  We’ve long deliberated over use of language and even put on a special event targeting these communities, which failed to attract any number of the people we wanted to reach. A few people mentioned to us that they knew some groups were wary and wanted to see what happens in the first round before considering getting involved. Discussions with progressive funders like Community Foundation of Northern Ireland and Social Justice Fund North West have confirmed that this process takes time and certainly much more than just inviting people to come to you.

We announced our first round on 1st October without knowing quite what to expect. To keep it simple and accessible the first stage of the application process was just one page. By the end of that month we’d received around 50 applications and were excited at the prospect of receiving a hundred or more by the 1st December deadline. We received 334! People from 118 different countries viewed our website, with 20,440 page views during the application period. Applications covered a wide range of issues including criminal justice, detention centres, LGBTQ, mining, climate change, violence against Travellers, rights for disabled people, mental health and racism.

How do you even start to sift through so many applications? It was a huge task going through them all and figuring out, from their one page, if they were on our wavelength and met our criteria. Our Facilitating Group, of around eight members who do most of the work behind the scenes, each went through every application one by one and marked those they felt should be taken out. We agreed that if an application had three or more marks they should be taken out. Then there were checks and double checks to make sure we were being fair as well as thorough… and in the meantime we had a launch party to organise!

Back to the ‘weeding out’, as we called it, although now it sounds like such a callous term for a process given so much time and thought. In the end it took us six weeks and put us way behind schedule. We had hoped to make decisions about funding on around 1st February and it was now mid January. But at least we had narrowed down the applications from 334 to 171.

We became officially registered as a Community Benefit Society, a form of co-operative, in January. We invited all those who had been part of the setting up process so far to become members and now have a membership of 25. Interestingly, a higher proportion of donors involved so far signed up than did activists.

The first job for our new official members was to rate these applications. Some members joined later and were not able to take part in the process. The 15 that did had over 100 applications to read and rate between 0-10 to ensure that each of the 171 had a good number of ratings (specifically, that each was assessed by our quorum of a minimum 25% of membership). Members also indicated how well they knew the groups. Ratings for each application were averaged out and then a top 25 emerged. It was interesting seeing people’s different voting styles, some giving many 9 and 10s, others less generous. But everyone seemed on the whole happy with the short-list. Recognising our own make-up as a membership and the effect this might have on our ratings, we looked again at the applications and added those that we all agreed had been been overlooked and deserved another chance. Several spreadsheets, discussions and number crunching later, we had a final agreed 30. We’re looking forward to having more members to lessen the workload next time!

Our first round covered a variety of groups and issues. Many applications that were removed in the first step were mostly ‘charitable’ in nature, in a traditional sense; providing services, advocacy and training to help people living on the sharp end get by in an unjust world. Some of these groups were self-help groups, people fighting their own corners with their own solutions. It was especially difficult taking these out, knowing that whilst you don’t have your basic needs met there’s little chance of you taking any more political action to address the causes of the injustice you face. There are funds available for this charitable work, if only it was easier to to get your hands on it. Sadly we’re just not big enough a fund to support work that could access funding elsewhere, although one day we hope to offer support to these groups to help them find funding and negotiate their way through funding criteria, jargon and forms.

Of the more radical applications, the ones fundamentally challenging the status quo, few were set up and run by the communities most affected by inequality and injustice. Our top 30 applications are predominantly from groups of people not directly affected by the issue, but working in solidarity with those who are. We had hoped for a more even split and are working to improve this for next time.

Informing groups that they were not short-listed is always so difficult. Trying to be transparent by explaining how the decision was made and referring them to information about other sources of information and support doesn’t seem to do much to lessen the disappointment. They naturally want feedback on their applications, which is not possible in all cases as we relied upon a rating system and with so many applications to look at not all members had time to add notes to explain their decisions. Despite the news, some groups were very supportive and recognised that other deserving groups would be receiving the funding and appreciated that at least. Others seemed to be twice as disillusioned as they were before applying, thinking that Edge might be the fund to finally give them some money, but turned them down.

All of the groups that have been short-listed now have a contact person within the Edge membership to help get further information together. We have a list of ten quite specific questions. From the beginning we’ve always wanted to avoid groups having to write lengthy forms, which is why we’re giving options for groups to present that information in a variety of ways. They can have a phone conversation, meet in person, make a video, send a recording. There’s still a question around how much information we’re asking for, but it seemed impossible to remove any of the questions as each is important. We’re hoping that by being flexible in how it’s presented we’re not creating too much work, but we’ll only know that once we’ve tried it. We’re hoping for plenty of feedback.

Our final decisions will be made in a meeting 16 March, followed by an open event to celebrate our very first round. As always, we’re aiming to make decisions by consensus, or majority vote when consensus is not possible. Applicant groups will be invited to attend this meeting so they can be there when decisions are made, answer questions and join in discussions. It’s a risky strategy, but if you want real transparency there’s few better ways of doing it and it’s definitely better than decisions being made behind closed doors by people you never get to meet.

We’ve learnt a lot this round and already have ideas to improve, no doubt next time it’ll be easier, faster and better decisions made.  Perhaps we’ll learn to trust the process more, the wisdom of our crowd. And hopefully by this time next round we’ll have a bigger and more representative membership, and likewise a more diverse top 30. Ultimately, would it have been faster if we stuck to the traditional model of philanthropy, with a small board making the decisions? Yes, probably. Would we have made similar decisions? Perhaps; although if you believe what they say about the intelligence of crowds, if you get it right a crowd almost always makes better decisions than a small number of experts. But that’s not the point, a top down approach which doesn’t involve people most connected to and affected by the issues you’re tackling reproduces the power structures and inequalities that caused the problem in the first place. We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them.

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