Grants rage prompts entrepreneur to push for grants reforms

Posted on 21 Mar 2022

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, SmartyGrants

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A late-night vent about time being wasted on grants has prompted a grantseeking social entrepreneur to take matters into her own hands.

Margaret O'Brien
Social entrepreneur Margaret O'Brien is pushing for grants reform

Young Change Agents CEO and founder Margaret O’Brien was stunned by the response to a LinkedIn post last year in which she bemoaned the amount of her work time – 20% – being absorbed by grants.

Ms O’Brien said the post about the time she needed to spend on applications and reports “struck a chord”, prompting hundreds of comments from funders, grantseekers, support organisations and others, and spurring her into starting a movement for grantmaking reform.

The result has been the formation of the “Reimagining Grants” working group, which now boasts 113 members, including SmartyGrants representatives, senior NSW public servants and some of the country’s largest funders. The group continues to grow organically as colleagues and other contacts are brought to the table.

This year, the group is tasked with addressing two streams of work:

  • systems change and long-term strategy
  • low-hanging fruit, and grantmaking practices that can be changed in 2022.

“That’s an amazing response to something that was loosely formed on LinkedIn,” Ms O’Brien said.

“It is clear that there is a lot of pain and frustration including burnout and wasted talent on the grantee side and disappointment and process issues on the funder side.”

The collaborative group has brought together a wide range of stakeholders, conducted surveys, held meetings and shared existing research and problems about the issue. It has also formed a committee to steer a larger conversation.

Ms O’Brien said she had been energised by the response and now felt compelled to continue the work, despite the effort and the fact that grants now take up more than 20% of her time.

“I feel I am in a unique position, as a social enterprise founder with experience on the other side of the fence.

“I can see that there is great intent from every side, and that there is a lot of money out there but also so much waste.”

She said the volunteer steering committee and other pro bono support had created more momentum for the group.

“You realise you are on to something and need to make something happen.”

Earlier in her career she ran a literacy program for 300 youth in Colombia on a budget of just $30,000 a year, and she remembered the lessons from that experience.

“I absolutely hate waste in the social sector, as I know what good money can do.”

Time to break down the silos

Ms O’Brien said the Reimaging Grants group was helping to increase collaboration between grantseekers too.

“My hope for the project is that the working group can make some real change. Grants create silos and often competition between organisations that should be working together to solve challenges.

“It shouldn't feel like a lottery, and charities shouldn’t have to fundraise $50,000 to $300,000 a year just to pay for staff to complete and report on grants.

“We need to have the mentality that every dollar counts, and I think we have lost sight of that.

More funders needed for the group

Ms O’Brien said it was heartening to see funders joining, but more should be involved.

“We need to see more funders involved for real systems change to occur.

“One funder reflected to me that they had ‘never had these kinds of open discussions before’ and that previous conversations with grantseekers had been ‘overly polite and grateful’ as they were seeking money.”

She said that demonstrated the “power imbalance between funders and organisations seeking support”.

“My hope for this group is that we produce a lot of ‘aha’ moments that flow on to have a positive effect on the sector and the beneficiaries of our collective work.”

To get involved, email: [email protected].

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