When the Participatory Activist Fund and Platform (as it was originally known — catchy, right?) was being put together, the funders behind the initiative gathered a group of folks in their network to help design it. About 40 people from across Europe gathered in Seville to take part in an event, creatively convened by ZEMOS98. The Seville Activist Encounter saw us come up with a vision for the initiative before breaking into small groups to develop prototypes.

My group conceived of an approach that was remarkably practical, but grounded in some important principles. We felt these reflected the intention for this fund to be a ‘different type of funder’. One of these principles was the acknowledgment that people’s work, skills and time must be recognised and compensated. This sentiment was summarised in our final poster with the phrase ‘Activists need to eat!

Seville Activists Meeting. Author: Gema Valencia (CC-BY-SA)

Too often we see people’s work go unvalued. For example, we can see societal power dynamics by looking at the unrecognised burdens placed on women or immigrant communities. Women’s unpaid care work props up whole economies, and this is before we even start discussing concepts such as ‘emotional labour’ that disproportionately affect women. Racial justice activists have raised awareness of the exhaustion they face from having to ‘educate’ their white colleagues.

Although financial compensation is a crude measure of value, and one that is rooted in extractivist capitalism, the current reality is that women, minority communities and other marginalised groups are more likely to struggle financially. This has a detrimental affect on their health and wellbeing, as well as being unjust. In designing the new fund, we felt it was important that any new initiative should strive to address these imbalances.

Funders are often guilty of not recognising ‘less-tangible’ work as valuable work, and in doing so making marginalised people’s efforts invisible. How often has a foundation representative asked to meet with a community group, requiring hours of preparation and an exhaustive day of hosting, before there is any guarantee of funding (or even a recognition that this is a distraction from their actual job)?

Rose Longhurst making a workshop during an EDGE Funders Alliance Meeting. Author: Tobias Troll

In my work with the Edge Fund, we have an aim to influence other funders, and therefore welcomed the opportunity to meet traditional foundations. But soon we became overwhelmed with requests: people wanting to ‘pick our brains’, speak at their events, review their processes… It wasn’t long before we started to wonder why our tiny volunteer-run organisation was spending whole days travelling across London to facilitate meetings for wealthy foundations.

We started to request compensation for the time of our low-income members. (This became especially important when we realised that many of these meetings were more of an ‘interesting chat’ for funders, rather than a genuine opportunity to create substantive change.) People sharing their lived experience to inform funder strategy is no different to ‘professionals’ sharing other kinds of expertise, such as finance advice. And nobody expects accountants to work for free!

Back to FundAction: our group felt strongly that the expertise, and time, necessary to set up a new initiative must be compensated. As well as acknowledging the work undertaken by individuals, it also serves as a means of understanding what is needed to set up such an ambitious initiative. Therefore, FundAction Facilitation Group members are paid. The compensation is not pro-rata: seniority, level of responsibility or even hours spent are not taken into account. The intention is simply to recognise that we all have demands on our time, and that even if we are willing to commit on a voluntary basis, nothing should be reliant on the spare time of over-stretched volunteers.

Although linked, our intention is not simply a reframing of the ‘overhead myth’ that traditional NGOs and funders have been fighting against for years. We aren’t doing this to recognise that there are boring costs (such as purchasing a domain name or paying bank fees) involved in social change. We’re doing this to recognise that any efforts spent setting up FundAction are potentially detracting from many other duties activists may have. It’s political, as well as practical. And even the most committed activist needs to eat!

Activists need to eat was written by Rose Longhurst (Edge Fund. Manchester, UK)