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Social change IS more complex than rocket science

Unlike rocket science, which can be precisely replicated anywhere in the world, change that is successful in one social context will unlikely work in exactly the same manner elsewhere. In fact, it is highly likely that conducting the exact same activities elsewhere will produce a different outcome.

If the international development funding community wants to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and improve the lives of people, then how they consider their partners and partnerships is important. Funders (including Philanthropists and traditional donors) have the ability and duty to engage beyond the typical grant relationships.


Theoretically every funder is facilitating mini-experiments. They are supporting organisations to conduct an activity that will achieve certain expected outcomes. But because social change is about dealing and interacting with humans and systems, it is almost impossible to account for all the factors that will make the activity successful or not. Hence the inherent experimentation.

All that can be done is to rigorously and simply document what was done, what worked, what didn’t, learn for the new time, share it with others, and start again. I stress simply because we have a tendency to create thick dense documents, which no one every really reads due to their length and complexity! This is even before considering that the majority of the people who would benefit from this information, such as NGOs in the global south don’t communicate in English as a first language.

A funder’s every essence should be focussed on “how do we make the lives of our grantees easier so that we spend more time achieving the things that matter?” From grant processes and reporting, to capturing and sharing knowledge so that others can learn and adapt.

Grantees shouldn’t be seen as a portfolio of performing investments, but rather as a members of a team, who can contribute to achieving a vision.


Therefore, like any team, the relationship needs to go beyond “payment for outcomes”. It needs to be a human relationship.

When you hire someone into your team or organisation, you trust (beyond their qualifications) that they will have the right character and attitude to achieve success in their role. Assuming you’re a good leader, if they stumble you help them up; if they make a mistake you reflect, learn, correct and give them a second or third or fourth (…and so forth) chance; if they succeed you praise them; if they do something really well that could benefit others you make sure it is shared; if they need help you facilitate their work.

You trust your teams to work collaboratively and purposefully.

How can funders change?

Funders can continue seeing your relationships as contracts; that start and end, that have outputs and outcomes. Relationships where they fund and grantees implement.

But funders would be missing out on an enormous opportunity to achieve the social change they envision and contribute to world’s body of knowledge on what works and what doesn’t.

Grantees are often asked: who are your partners? How long has the partnership existed? How has the problem you want to address been identified? How involved were the community in developing the solution? How were beneficiaries involved in implementing the solution?

But how often is this “participatory” approach used within the funders' own systems? If a funder were to mark themselves against the same criteria, would they conclude themselves to be worthy of funding?

Funders, I feel, have three duties for which they are wholly responsible and accountable for:

  • To make the lives of their grantees as easy as possible in the pursuit of achieving the grantees’ missions;

  • To collect, summarise and widely share easy to understand knowledge so that it is accessible to everyone to adapt to their context; and

  • To develop long term relationships and see their grantees as team members to support and nurture, rather than as portfolios of assets.

By simply providing the financing without creating the facilitating environment we may be missing an opportunity to make real progress towards the SDGs.

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