Diving In...

Reflections from the deep sea of grantmaking by Suzanne Mieko

I've never been on the funder side of a grantmaking space before.  I've always been on the side of trying to respond to RFPs to get money for projects, pulling together documents and budgets and the metaphorical blood, sweat, tears and maybe even urine all the while complaining about how arduous the process of applying for grant funding is and how, if I were on the other side, I'd do it differently.  Ha!

TICAH and the British Council have teamed up to design and manage a small grants fund for cultural practitioners in East Africa, so I've dove into the deep end of grantmaking to listen and learn from both sides (grantseekers and grantmakers) as much as I can.  And my idealism has definitely eroded a bit during my education.  

First of all, money in general is often problematic and messes up a lot of good things (relationships, trust, values, etc).  On top of that, grant funds are not all created equal and are often not neutral.  We are just trying to navigate our way through this reality with the community.  Luckily there are many amazing grantmakers around the world who have already been forging a new path in the grantmaking sector in an effort to move away from the capitalistic (ROI) and corporate structural systems and values that much of the sector has decided is “best practice.”  Many people are working tirelessly to dismantle the current systems to take them back to trust-based and community-led.  And luckily, the small grants fund we are developing is within the TICAH world that values listening, indigenous practices and systems, and emergent thinking.  The team and I are grateful to be in the mix of such pioneers and alternative spaces for the development of this work.

It’s this context that bolsters our (TICAH and the British Council’s) resolve for this small grants program to be something different.  And now we have traversed through the first phase of challenges in this space.  I now see how difficult it is to create something different when so many of the tools and systems of our world are designed from a corporate "efficiency" perspective, which is great for processes, robots, AI and bottom lines but not so great for inclusion, equity and justice, especially when class and economic disparities are so huge from place to place.  

How do we communicate and build relationships knowing how differently people connect physically and online?  How do we, as a community of cultural practitioners, engage in the accountability of our own sector - of the support that we provide one another, of the way we build community to advocate for better policies and resources, of the way we relate to donors and bring them into our work (or not)?  And from a grant-makers perspective, how can we shift all our structures to be more trust-based, knowing that supporting communities means that projects will end up being as dynamic as we all are and that we all could benefit from an updated mutual understanding of accountability based in relationship?

My team, my wonderful, patient team, knows that I will continue to push them to find equitable solutions to the challenge of "the grant application system."  I'm quite serious when I say I want the whole process to be about receiving and supporting good ideas and community and not for everyone to get hung up on writing ability, log frames and budgets.  And I'm quite serious when I say I'd like ideas to be able to flow without a lot of hassle on the side of the applicant.  "Let's accept video applications or voice to text applications, or both!" I shared.  This is so much easier in my brain than in reality it would seem, or at least with a small team and a limited ops budget.  If we could afford a caravan around East Africa to listen to all the ideas and meet everyone who could make good use of this program, I would, but alas we can't.  We need to work with what we have and to find creative ways to reach these communities.  Technology, of course, is helpful but it's also limited in this space.

As an example, just last year, in the art program at TICAH, we decided to invite a traditional dancer who lives in a far corner of Kenya to be part of a residency that we run.  Despite our existing relationship and previous work together, reaching him still required us to call someone else in a village near where this mzee lives, to ask them to get in touch with mzee and organise a call with us. Our amazing dancer doesn't have a phone and, to be honest, has never really seemed that interested in them anyway.  We know that this is how it is to work in community, to respect people’s ways of living and to follow indigenous pathways to reach people, but it also makes a grantmaking program and process a challenge. I would love to reach cultural practitioners like this wonderful mzee with our current grant opportunity and I will continue to look for ways to make this possible, knowing that our small team and limited funding can only do so much.

I've learned a lot in my deep sea expedition into grantmaking so far and I know that I will continue to bang up against (and potentially perpetuate) some of the same man made issues in this space (and in general) that I find comical that we have all become so behooved to.  Think about it... people... human beings came up with the systems that we all work within.  If the systems aren't working for us anymore (reminder, "us" as in the people who created the system in the first place) then we should be able to change them to something that will.  This seems to be the crux of the matter, at least for me.

In the end, after listening and reading and researching and designing and redesigning, we've had to compromise here and there to make things work within the systems that exist for now and that's just how it is and that's ok; change takes time.  Luckily, I'm still excited to see what will come of this work and am still determined to figure out how we can reach those phoneless wazee!  

Usually this is the point in articles like this where the solutions to the challenges are stated, and honestly, it would be disingenuous to say we have all the answers.  I suppose what I have to offer for situations like this that we are trying to navigate is just to stay in the discomfort and mystery and frustrations and continue working through them in community to find new ideas, paths, systems.  I understand that this is not an especially helpful solution in a lot of ways (haha) but it’s honest and it’s the reality of a change process.  

Stay tuned for what happens next as the Braid Arts & Culture Fund progresses.