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Making a difference on a deadline - Engage magazine

Friday 1st May 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, says that fuller debate is needed to stem the tide of short-term thinking in sector funding. This article appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of 'Engage' magazine.

A little while ago, asked to speak about some of the ethical issues around the current economic crisis, I ventured the thought – not very original – that one of the major contributory factors to our misfortunes had been the extraordinary obsession in many walks of life with short-term results or output from different kinds of activity. The sort of investment that assumed you'd need time to develop relationships and allow a steady and sustainable pattern of growth in an enterprise had been shouldered out by transactions that would guarantee rapid returns – which is largely why trading in money markets was so much more appealing to so many than more conservative kinds of investment.

And this is a disorder that affects many areas of our life beyond the markets – or rather, it imports a particular kind of market mentality into inappropriate contexts. One area in which it has not yet received anything like the level of attention it needs is the funding of voluntary enterprises. A few years back, the Church's report entitled Faithful Cities, which discussed the ways in which churches played a crucial part in regeneration programmes of different kinds, noted the nature of funding regimes as a serious problem for responsible and effective planning in these programmes. Sadly, the point was barely mentioned in the coverage of the report; but the issue is still urgent.

The prevailing conventions for funding voluntary projects mean that as soon as a grant is won, work has to begin towards the next application, which will probably be needed in eighteen months' time. Scarce administrative resource is tied up in crafting applications. And the philosophy of grant-giving tends to assume that a second application must be significantly different from an earlier one – a fresh project with its own rationale.

It is a recipe for deep frustration and disappointed hopes. It overlooks the importance of accumulated skills – a recurrent general problem now in an employment climate where long-term expectations are not encouraged – and it flattens out the surface of voluntary programmes into a landscape in which the specifics of a situation's needs are ignored. Worst of all, its effect is to deepen the sense of powerlessness in many communities or interest groups: change has been initiated but can't be kept up, expectations have been created that can't be met, doors of possibility have been opened that are abruptly shut. It should not be surprising if the overall result is a degree of cynicism and a suspicion of the whole regeneration vision in many places, not least among younger people.

It is of course entirely right that grant-giving bodies should seek to ensure that their money is well-used and that there is measurable output. What is not helpful is the idea that measurable output can be guaranteed on a standard timescale and measured by what can often seem abstract criteria. There is nothing magical or sacrosanct about a three-year cycle, for example, given the wide variety of projects that are likely to fall under the general heading of regeneration: a project that looks to make a difference to the under-20 population of an area, for instance, may have to be thinking about how those who benefit from one 'cycle' of work can be trained to pass on what they have learned to the next age cohort; and this will need a high degree of institutional and resource stability over several years.

So the question is surely what kinds of interim scrutiny are best placed to offer assurances of good practice and effective expenditure – which in turn poses the far from simple question of what involvement a grant-giving body has in what it funds over and above bare requests for documentation and invoices. This, I realise has its own resource implications for donors, but it is something worth raising. And if the criteria for effective grant-giving included clear understanding of the sustainable impact of what's given, this should militate against inflexible timescales.

As I hinted at the start, this isn't just about effectiveness and responsible use of money; it's also a moral issue. A morally serious practice of giving indeed requires some measurement of the difference made – but that difference needs to be seen as lasting difference and difference that continues to give to those most in need of it a sense of their capacity to shape their own lives. It is time we had a fuller debate about this in our society.

© Rowan Williams 2009

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