7 Insight and lessons from working across the funding ecosystem

Louise Armstrong
15 min readJan 11, 2023

And what that means for me in 2023

Funding organisations have a critical role as catalysts for the big changes needed in this time. Which means paying attention to how funds are distributed and how funding organisations work matters. Too often people in funding organisations are the unwitting architects, ‘anointing winners’ and beholders of what can and can’t happen for the change making work that is so critically needed in this time.

Much of the work in my first 18 months of freelancing has been working within and around the funding ecosystem. Specifically the philanthropic space — with family and private foundations predominantly. Working with people and organisations in a variety of different ways — from designing and facilitating learning spaces.

This piece is a curation of some of the themes and insights I’ve observed from across the work I’ve been doing. Each insight points to where further attention and more strategies for change are needed.

1.Funder led collaborations: Catalysts and momentum makers
2.Nature of change: working with the lifecycle of change
3.Role of funders: Funders as multi identity change makers
4.Shifting power: Transforming Governance
5.Posture: Capacious and courageous leadership
6.Strategic approach: Inquiry as strategy
7. Philanthropy as the tip of the iceberg: expanding our understanding of who and how to invest in change

For some things there’s a clear idea of what might come next, for others less so. Each of these will take collective attention, learning and tenacity.

Note: Of course mine is just one perspective on a very dense and rich ecosystem. Others will have very different views and experiences to my own.

1. Funder led collaborations: Catalysts and momentum makers

Having run various collaborations and from supporting and enabling others through coaching and facilitation, I’ve observed that funder instigated collaborations have a few patterns and shared traits. While they’re not unique, the same dynamics can be seen in other collaborations, but they are often particularly stark those instigated or funder led.

Unique characteristics

  • Impatience with the pace of change: change takes time.
    There’s often surprise leading to frustration about how long ‘change’ takes meeting the tension of wanting to be seen to have on the ground impact fast. Having money and resources doesn’t speed up the collaboration process.
  • Overlooking and underestimating the time and skills needed to build strong foundations in a team/collaboration and that being a vital part of this process. Creating a culture and expectation of learning, and reflection that acknowledges the personal practice/inner work for all invovled.
  • ​​Underinvest in the core team: too often relying on 1 (2 if you’re lucky) part-time people to do everything. It’s alot for an individual or small team to do to ensure is enough of an impulse that keeps momentum and a proactive posture while balancing proactive and reactive work at all levels of a collaboration.
  • Enabling a culture of collaboration.
    Collabration is easy to say and hard to do. Too often assuming people know how to collaborate well, not legitimising a different way of being and working.
  • Seeking comfort
    Needing to be valuing and creating safe spaces for not knowing, challenging and pushing the boundaries. If there is no discomfort — ask yourselves, are you doing enough?
  • Clunky toggling power
    Knowing when to lean in / lean out and when to get out of the way, co-creating the most appropriate relationship as you go. It’s often not one of the other but a constant dance between these
  • Being the change
    Seeing yourself as separate from the change you’re seeking to influence outside, rather than a fractal of that same system — your experience having rich insight for how others might be feeling or experiencing the process
  • Valuing the unintended consequences.
    I’ve also witnessed that funders collaborating on such endeavours get so much out of it beyond the work they do together — relishing the chance to work in new ways, experiment with doing things differently and for some having peer support for the first time. Too often this isn’t seen as a key outcome

In 2023 — I’m going to be supporting the Constellating Change program — a supportive space for ambitious collaborations to overcome some of the challenges they face. Find out more on the event on the 20th Jan.

2. Nature of change: working with the lifecycle of change

There has been a phrase that has stuck — whenever I’ve shared it with funding organisations. That’s the idea of working with the ‘life cycle of change’. Our Investors in Change session on panarchy / adaptive cycle model really struck a chord.

L: adaptive cycle R: panarchy framework of nested adaptive cycles operating at different levels of a system

From that I ran a session with New Profit in the US to share this with the team — it opened up a really useful discussion about the different roles and nature of support they play for their social entrepreneurs. Then part of some evaluation work with Paul Hamlyn Foundation — this phrase stuck again — recognising that the nature of core funding they offer enables different things depending on if an organisation is in the early stages and so catalysing activity or an established group looking to pivot or transform how it works.

Thinking about the framing of the life cycle of change, recognises that all change has a natural pattern and cycle to it. Bringing greater awareness and recognition to this I think is an unlock for others wanting their resources to have greater impact. It supports groups to move beyond the growth at all costs model. It helps recognise that nature, scale and type of investment — beyond money — is different at different stages of change and can allocate resources more effectively.

Thinking about the lifecycle of change is also intimately connected to how we don’t value, talk or resource endings, not recognise them as a critical part of the transformation process. There is increasing recognition of this — at least cognitively — but currently little practice nor investment to match this understanding. Much of the Stewarding Loss work I’ve contributed to delves into this further (and there is more to come on the need to invest in an ending ecosystem on par with the startup ecosystem).

In 2023 -i’d love to facilitate a session to those who want to play with the life cycle of change funding and how this might support strategic choices/ direction.
Seeing the endings infrastructure and ecosystem is also an ambition for the coming years.

3. Role of funders: Funders as multi identity change makers

There is a false assumption (that I have held in the past) that funders, specifically the people that work within these organisations, are a one size fits all type. Assumptions that their access and proximity to money and resources makes them all powerful. I’ve heard people describe people they know in funding organisations as walking cash cows. But few people working within these organisations are wealth holders themselves- but employees. Yes these roles come with inherent power and privilege which is perhaps inevitable in an unequal society, but it doesn’t always translate to a sense of agency.

I’ve heard those in funding roles feel deeply saddened to be seen in such a singular way. But what if we saw them as change makers- pollinators- the passionate humans they are.

Today, the dominant mode for funders is to wait for great people and ideas to come to you and enable them with financial resources. Not wanting to overstep or dominate, being necessarily cautious (or you could say nervous) to take charge even if they feel they could play a useful role. But not using power can be just as dangerous as over exerting it.

What would it look like for mainstream funding practices to go from a passive enabler to proactive creator and co-learner. Playing more proactive changemaker roles. The language and practice of prototyping, experimenting and taking risks are common in the wider change making field but often less explicitly in funding organisations. This proactive and experimental role requires a different posture, to be able to move and make choices, even if you’re not sure where. To not be paralysed by perfection, but to get things wrong and learn from it. Reconsinging ourselves as playing a vital part of the very ecosystem you are supporting, not distinct or separate from it.

“What would need to change for funders and investors to feel a more embodied connection to the purpose of their work, and a more visceral sense of urgency about the change that’s needed? How can funders and investors address the inherent power and privilege of their positions, without freezing and getting stuck in that work?”

Sophia Parker & Cassie Robinson Reflections on New Frontiers event

But for this to truly happen it will take two way mutual relationships. It will require change makers not in funding environments to shift our perceptions and relationships and habits — not sucking up to, or letting those in funding organisations off hook, bringing level of accountability and challenge where needed. By keeping things sweet, saying what we should say, so as not to rock the boat or undermine future funding potential. The culmination of this can create inauthentic relationships and unspoken cultures of distrust.

Of course we’re in an era of relational funding that is trying to counter this — and I’ve seen some great practice that counters this — so things are changing, but it also feels there are real shadows to this relational approach as well which feel less spoken about.

In 2023 — there is more to explore for individuals in funding that see themselves as changemakers, those willing to explore notions of layered and plural identities, role fluidity and letting go.

4.Shifting power: Transforming Governance

It is now not uncommon to hear funders talk about shifting power to communities. It seems like the case has been made by many and we’re now seeing significant amounts of money go to projects, communities, collaborations where local people are taking the decisions and ownership over what they do and how they do it. It’s great this narrative shift and practice is happening, I’m delighted this is the case (it was a key message from the Civil Society Futures Inquiry I worked on).

But what you don’t hear about and can feel at odds with is the hard, messy work of shifting power within the very same funding organisations that are shifting financial pots to communities. Sadly too often the external narrative is great and admirable but look inside and the everyday interactions and cultures aren’t supporting the power shift there and at worst are doing the opposite. Legacy programs and projects not matching and at worst undermining current intentions and direction of travel, perceiving short term ease in keeping them than winding them down.

Healthy practices would look like shifting the power from trustees and boards to staff teams. Family members letting go. No tolerance of micro management. Leadership teams trusting staff on the ground.

Funding organisations are not immune to the very human dynamics all organisations experience — and if anything they’re the most heightened I’ve seen than in other non funding organisations. To bring the vision, potential and admirable strategies to life of the funding organisations I believe they will need to transform their governance systems and structures to do this. Not relying on the operating system of old. I think paying more attention to the internal transformation presents a big unlock for where and how resources can flow.

From the work I’ve been doing and organisations I’ve been supporting, it’s felt like all roads lead back to board dynamics as the apex of these challenging relationships. I don’t believe board dynamics are the only manifestation of governance, but for funding organisations- it feels like the natural place to start to explore this further. Starting by listening, understanding what the nature of the relationships looks like today, uncovering who has been testing ideas out for shifting dynamics and collectively experimenting with how to shift these relationships .

In 2023 -i’d love to help host a sharing space for people to share the wins and the challenges or trying to shift funder board dynamics, creating a safe and supportive space to share experiences and start to get ready to really transform how this works. A complement to the Transformational Governance work that is underway.

5. Posture: Capacious and courageous leadership

Today it can feel like there is little incentive and limited support for people to take risks, challenge and try out new things from within funding organisations. Funding organisations are often comfortable yet hostile places to exist within. It can feel like one person against a monolith of a system or organisation. A CEO or Director can have their job and reputation on the line if the Board lacks confidence in the direction she/he wants to go in.

The system and established ways of doing things have a powerful reflex of resisting and creating a backdraught to change that can appear to threaten it. For individuals trying to create change from within these spaces — it can come at great personal cost. It’s too easy to scapegoat and alienate individuals willing to challenge — leading to mental and physical health challenges and burn out. In a capitalist system that exposes people as individuals and pain and trauma — and at worst leaves people isolated and unsupported.

I’ve also seen a growing number of tenacious, quiet, committed groups of people creating change from within acting on a deep belief and commitment to change and integrity.

But I’ve also seen a pattern of people giving so much of themselves — not being supported or being worn down to the point they have to stop, leave these spaces completely, too traumatised and jaded to step into the space again. New energy and ideas about how we can do things differently are lost. And this is happening at a time where we need to have capacious* and courageous leaders to step in and take the responsibility of bringing to life new systems.

(*I first heard the word ‘capacious’ from Farzahna Khan at the New Frontiers event when talking about this being a time to be ‘capacious’. Applying this to the leadership of the funding ecosystem feels particularly alive.)

Dictonary defintion of Capacious

In 2023, how to best care for and celebrate, nurture the people doing this today and spread these qualities far and wide across the ecosystem.

6. Strategic approach: Inquiry as strategy

In a space and wider world of so many big, intractable questions and all of us existing in a fast changing environment. Quite naturally and out of necessity, many people and organisations are adopting an inquiry approach to how they work. An inquiry approach looks like pursuing questions, combined with action, to unlock new insights, ways of doing things and ways of being. Sensing and responding to what is emerging and adapting as required. The severity of the pandemic — forced and emergent and inquiry strategy for so many. The Covid emergency response funding was a great example of the funding ecosystem doing this — with so many funding organisations iterating how they do things, what they fund and the pace at which they do it.

Since then so many funding organisations I’ve encountered have been reviewing their strategies. Not yet letting go of the idea of the 2 or 5 year strategic plan — doing all sorts of organisational contortions about how to justify different bits of work, going round in circles and getting lost and overwhelmed by the many different ways to organise the and make sense of this necessarily complex and messy work. Not recognizing or valuing that a sense and respond — inquiry as strategy approach — is a valuable strategic approach and a critical skill to hone in this time. This approach has many useful and adaptable frameworks (e.g. three horizons, multi level perspective, iceberg, panarchy to mention a few) which encouragingly see being increasingly picked up and adapted by funding organisations and I think more of this could have real benefits for others too.

These frameworks and processes help structure and make sense of the different scales of question and action.

There are some many questions that transcend organisational boundaries, here are a few that I hear popping up:

  • What does it means to exit place base funding commitments well?
  • What is the future of civil society infrastructure?
  • How do we best support necessary endings and closures to bring forth change and transformation?

Each of these questions that call into question the nature of how today’s funding organisations collate and organise their resources in new ways to meet the scale of the challenge, what happens if the funding ecosystem starts to organise and collaborate around these more?

In 2023, I’m dreaming of shared learning and inquiry spaces to explore some of these topics and more. If any of these resonate — I’d love to hear from you.

7. Philanthropy as the tip of the iceberg: expanding our understanding of who and how to invest in change

Perhaps the biggest and most surprising insight for me over this time has been that philanthropy is only really the tip of the iceberg. This is so much to be done in improving the practice of philanthropy, but in reality it’s just a paper thin layer relative to the vast resources locked up in trusts, endowments, offshore accounts that exist.

In an unequal world — there is abundance of wealth hiding in plain sight.

As change makers we are totally naive to the scale of what sits behind the curtains of the grant pools of philanthropic organisations we’re so dependent on building relationships with. If I’m being cynical though, the mechanisms that drip out philanthropic resources (which are absolutely necessary and valuable) — are just facades that hide these vast piles of wealth and systems designed to uphold, preserve and grow them. Questioning and challenging that — cuts off the vital life line — so as change makers — we don’t.

These beyond philanthropy resources have whole industries of people designed to accumulate — wrapped up in complex legal and financial structures designed to be incomprehensible.

The New Frontiers event that happened in July 2022 did a great job of expanding the framing and lens to include more mainstream investors- so I am hopeful the 2023 version will continue this. There is an important advocacy and influencing role those in philanthropy today can play to expand who is in the conversations about investing in new systems.

As change makers in philanthropy and beyond, we have a role to play in working together to best unlock these resources and see them being invested now — this critical decade — where we most need them…otherwise we’re all trapped and part of this dynamic

In 2023 I’d love to explore what reframing investment could look like. What narratives or campaigns might need to be seeded to increase financial literacy and understanding amongst changemakers? How can we support and advocate for those in funding organisations to unlock further sources of investment?

Edges and future needs

As well as these insights, there are some emerging themes and inquiries coming up for me. Things I see being lesser spoken and swirling below the surface of the funding ecosystem.

  • Exploring the relationship between grief, money and wealth
    As part of the talk I did at new frontiers I made a provocation that grief is at the route/ the source DNA for many of our funding organisations and institutions. So how do we work with these powerful, currently taboo and inevitable forces? In many senses grief is the foundation on which we design legal and organisational structures which shroud and distort the grief and in turn infuse the funding and change making ecosystem.

“stock markets and banking then are the constant restless shuffling of increasingly concentrated grief deferred from past loss, in an attempt to outrun our grief and to force our grief deficit to bear interest in an already ravaged world”
From the book ‘The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise’ by Martin Prechtel

  • Shift to to spend out/down
    There is a growing narrative about philanthropy not being able to exist. I know there is a (small) move for foundations to be spending down. What does this mean for the practice and future of philanthropy? What can we learn from those embarking on this journey and does stewarding the endings of this practice look like at scale? Who is leaning into this and wants to explore this in community?
  • A connected and supportive enabling ecosystem for funding organisations
    I’ve been one of many freelancers, consultants, advisors and trusted people who are working in and around this funder ecosystem. I’ve got to know, collaborate and learn with a handful of people- through circumstance rather than by design, but we’re often working alone. It’s tough work — challenging entrenched forces and in some instances toxic environments. It feels like a lot could be learnt from and could be created if there was more connectivity and learning spaces from those working in and around the ecosystem. Not having this means at worst we’re each undercutting and unravelling each other’s work — at best an even more supportive ecosystem could unfold.

So now what?

These insights are also informing my own choices about the role I play and where i’m standing in this ecosystem (read more here). This piece also draws a line for me of supporting and enabling funding organisations from the outside to me choosing to take on a role within a funding organisation — Thirty Percy.

I know this change of role shift and moment of standing in a different part of the ecosystem of change, means that the insights I’m sharing here will take on a new resonance and I will need spaces to process, make sense and reflect on these and other things that emerge. So if any of this resonates -and there are fellow travellers who’d like to explore and navigate some of these ideas and issues — I’d love to hear from you.



Louise Armstrong

#livingchange / navigating / designing / facilitating / doula of change