Funding the Social Service Sector

Robert L. Conconi Foundation is an active funder of the social service sector in British Columbia. Our mandate is to help alleviate poverty in our Province. Therefore, we choose to focus on strengthening the well-being and economic security for those on the margins. Below, we explore six questions and answers that are top of mind and welcome your thoughts and comments.

1. Q: What’s the limiting factor?  A: The right type of funding and operational structures.

We believe the social service sector needs more flexible and patient capital which can catalyze some structural shifts.

The questions we’re asking are complex. We are complex beings, living in an ever more complex world, changing in exponential ways with lightning speed. To an outsider, it may seem like so much funding already goes to support the social sector. So why continue to pour money in? It may seem as if we keep on having the same problems or rather escalating problems. But, if you’ve spent any time around a social service agency, you would have seen dedicated skilled staff working with incredible empathy and creativity and often on a shoestring budget, relative to what the actual needs are. In today’s context, organizational and sector structures must be responsive and able to evolve quickly as the needs and complexities increase. We think how and what we fund plays an important role which we will explore further. To start, who is responsible for funding the social sector?

2. Q: Who is Responsible?  A: Everyone is responsible.

It is simply an illusion that an individual relying on social programming arrived at such point out of their own volition and choice and if they only wanted they could get out of it.

It is in our human nature to try and explain things. We look for the root causes and related consequences. It is also in our nature to seek blame and responsibility. Traditionally, most of the sector’s focus has been on dealing with the consequences. In addition, we’ve seen progress in understanding and even addressing some of the root causes. Where we collectively still stumble is with the blame and responsibility.

RLCF believes that it is everyone’s responsibility to support our most vulnerable population. It is not just the job of government, or religious institution or an odd anonymous donor. We all make up the fabric of our society and are collectively responsible for both individual successes and failures. Robert Conconi, our founder, explained that his reason for starting the foundation was precisely this need to give back to the community which enabled his success.

3. Q: What role can funders play? A: Defining new ways of funding and operating.

Are current funding models perhaps the first stumbling blocks? 

First of all, we don’t prescribe to the philosophy that all new, shiny things are better. However, we must look at ourselves (the funders), our funding models, incentives, and priorities and ask what works and what doesn’t. What role, whether intended or unintended, are we playing? How are we shaping the social sector? Because the incentives we as funders put forward have a way of shaping organizational structures and outcome. Second, the “right kind of capital” is a phrase often used in the investment world, but also appropriate in this context.  Usually, it refers to a form of investor capital which will best enable organization’s long-term success. We see ourselves as investors in the social capital of our communities and take a great deal of responsibility for our actions. As such, we take a long-term (value) view as oppose to short-term outcomes. Consequently, RLCF continues to evolve across key areas:

  • funding mechanisms – how we fund
  • funding priorities  – what we fund
  • engaging and evaluating – how we operate

4. Q: What can we fund? A: Funding capacity and infrastructure.

We believe that an especially relevant piece of the funding puzzle is an investment in human infrastructure.

Our friends from InwithForward define human infrastructure as the time, the talent, the data, and the networks – to illuminate what’s not working, to cook up alternatives, and to move practice from here to there. So imagine if we:

  • … fund capacity (talent) building within the social sector and individual service organizations?
  • … invest in building up staff instead of burning them out?
  • …use the breadth of existing creativity to catalyze an innovative and iterative culture of person-centered services?
  • … fund capacity (staff time) to pause and think beyond crisis management mode and dedicate staff time to thinking and developing long-term solutions?
  • …pool it all together in a form of social R&D infrastructure?

5. Q: What does this mean to us?   A: From Safety Nets to Trampolines. 

We believe it is possible to create conditions so that the population on the margins has a chance to lead meaningful and healthy lives.

Another observation from InwithForward is that social safety nets should act more like trampolines. We deeply buy into this idea.  To get to that point social research and development can play a major role. In other words, having social R&D along other core operating areas of a social service organization, like program delivery and fundraising. Because, according to InwithForward, to become “trampoline-like” three big shifts must happen:

  • Purpose: from health & safety to capabilities & relationships
  • Roles: from formal supports to informal networks
  • Functions: from service delivery to delivery & development

6. Q: What does it look like in practice? A: Testing our assumptions with Grounded Space.

To explore some of these questions and inklings of ideas we, together with other like-minded funders, funded Grounded Space.

Because rather than guess if the “right type of capital” can drive structural changes that lead to better outcomes we wanted to test it and see it in action. Grounded space, stands for social research & development collective. The group works with social service organizations to build some of this capacity and make it a permanent part of the organizations and their cultures. To help ground some of this work in practice we wanted to share a few examples from the front lines.

  • PosAbilities Grounded Space: Burnaby based organization assisting persons with developmental disabilities to lead meaningful and healthy lives.
  • Kinsight Grounded Space: works alongside families of children, youth and adults with developmental delays and disabilities to set and achieve goals that will increase opportunities for growth, development and greater independence.

Stay tuned for more on how this thinking is shaping our future direction.

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