Funders, Evaluators, Change makers

It's time to pull up the floorboards

As core costs grantmaking spreads –
how do accountability and evaluation need to fundamentally change?

Pulling up the floorboards report cover

Funding core costs: the revolution starts here

Many foundations are taking or considering the radical step of moving from funding projects to funding grantees’ core costs.It is a very welcome (and overdue) shift, but funders must follow through on its revolutionary potential.We think this is a moment to pull up the floorboards of philanthropic social change, address its fundamental flaws and build a more equitable system.

What are “core costs”?We are referring to philanthropic funding that covers the operating costs of a grantee to do business on a multi-year basis, not restricted to a particular program or expense.This can also be known as “general operating support”, “unrestricted funding” or “multi-year, general operating dollars”.

This new configuration means:

Resetting power dynamics between funders and organizations implementing the work, and the communities they are part of

Deep re-examination of what is important in the funder-grantee dynamic and who gets to decide it

Fundamentally reorientating evaluation and how effectiveness is defined and measured

“Adopting a core cost model is a revolutionary opportunity to reset the power dynamics between funders, grantees and communities”

Reorienting accountability

In conventional grant making accountability is primarily to funders.Accountability to the communities that foundations intend to support exists more in rhetoric than in practice.We think the change to core costs funding opens up a key opportunity to reimagine the dominant model.

A radical shift can put communities at the center of the grantmaking equation, with accountability flowing from funders towards grantees and ultimately to communities – and not from them towards funders.

Traditional accountability

Grantee is accountable to Funder: Fulfills fiudciary requirements, Reports on what has been achieved

Upended accountability

Funder is accountable to the community: Responsive to community priorities, Shares and builds power, Uplifts community leadership, Lives up to values, Acts as an ally. Grantee is accountable to Funder: Fulfills fiduciary requirements

Accountability relationships in a core cost grantmaking model

Accountable to...

Funder//Operates according to values // Is a good allyIs a legitimate actor // Is guided by the community // Shares and builds power
GranteeFulfils fiduciary standards//Is a legitimate actor // Is guided by the community // Shares and builds power
CommunitiesHold funder accountable for being an ally // Contribute to funder participatory processes to allocate resourcesHold grantee accountable for engaging and representing community // Contribute to grantee's participatory processes to provide feedback/develop learning//

This is a simplified version of how reorientated accountability could look. You can download a more comprehensive table here and we set out more details in the report.

“We have to take up the floorboards and look at even the most ordinary piece of thinking”

Mary Midgeley

Reimagining roles for funders

This is a time of debate and uncertainty about foundations’ roles and legitimacy. But there is a clear path for funders who want to be able to channel communities’ priorities in their decision making.In our paper, we propose that funders should operate as a trusted ally and partner, developing a legitimacy to act through the deep relationships they build with partners and communities.

This means:

  • Being community-guided and centering participation

  • Being accountable to grantees, movements and communities and taking that accountability seriously

  • Asking fundamentally different starting questions

  • Thinking differently about effectiveness and who gets to define it

“The intrinsic logic of a core costs model means evaluation needs rebuilding from its foundations”

Rethinking how we evaluate

Conventional evaluation practices - exploring how projects deliver results - are not fit for purpose in a core costs model. Instead:

Evaluation frameworks must lock in learning and mutual accountability by remodeling the questions and measures that funders, grantees, civil society, and communities use to measure effectiveness.

Effectiveness should not be equated with the results a single actor ‘delivers’ but instead considered in terms of responsiveness, accountability, relationships, allyship, and the sharing and building of power.

Let's talk

Our report does not have all the answers. We know that many others are grappling with similar questions. We hope we can make a contribution to improving the system alongside you and we would welcome the chance to discuss these issues together.We are also keen to work with funders or others to help put changes into practice. If you are interested in exploring what this might mean for your own work, we are happy to collaborate with you, testing approaches and learning from them.

Please get in touch via email or Twitter – we would love to hear your reactions, reflections and challenges.

Jim Coe

Jim Coe

Rhonda Schlangen

Rhonda Schlangen

We are learning and evaluation consultants focusing on advocacy and social change, each bringing over 20 years of professional experience in public policy, advocacy and evaluation.

Our publications

Pulling up the floorboards report cover