Occasional Ravings – Charities and the cycle of funder abuse

This is a bit seriousy so you might want to skip it if you only like my funny bits. 😉

For many years I worked in the charitable/not-for-profit sector, including periods on both the funder and fundee side of the negotiation table. Despite all the funding appeals you see, it is now extremely rare for a charity to not be largely, and sometimes, totally dependent on funding from Local, State or Federal Governments and/or corporate sponsors. (For US readers, it’s far more likely to be the latter.)

This especially applies to charities tackling ‘unfashionable’ issues, including physical disability, literacy, unemployment and homelessness. Both corporates and governments are dedicated followers of fashion and you can find yourself dropped from their dance card very quickly.

Much of this has occurred as a result of governments trying to cut costs through competitive outsourcing, assuming that charities will deliver on the smell of an oily rag, with the added bonus of having a convenient scapegoat if anything goes wrong. For the charities, it relieves a lot of the fund-raising pressure and delivers what they imagine will be a steady, reliable income.

It was only after some bitter experiences as the CEO of a not-for-profit that I began to see the similarities with the cycle of abusive domestic relationships. So I began to talk about it with my peers with, as you can imagine, very mixed results. Tell me whether you think this rings true.

Build-up Phase: Increased tension

This phase may begin with normal relations between the funder and the not-for-profit via a seemingly mutually respectful contract (aka a marriage, de facto or otherwise) but later changes to an environment of escalating tension, marked by increased accountability about finances and standards. This phase is also usually marked by what I call Jacquier’s Law i.e. the amount of accountability required for a grant is inversely proportional to the size of the grant. In other words, a piddling amount will bury you in paperwork for weeks.

Stand-over Phase: Control and Fear

This phase can be extremely frightening for not-for-profits.  The behaviour of the funder who uses abuse in relationships escalates to the point that a release of tension is inevitable.  The not-for-profit affected may feel that they are ‘walking on eggshells’ and fear that anything that they do will cause the situation to worsen and feels very controlled.

Explosion:  Violence

The explosion stage marks the peak of violence in the relationship.  It is the height of abuse by the funder who uses threats of de-funding and escalating levels of reporting to exert control and power over the not-for-profit.  The funder who commits not-for-profit violence experiences a release of tension during this phase, which may become addictive.  They may be unable to deal with their own financial pressures in any other way. 

Remorse Phase:  Justification/Excuses – Minimisation – Guilt

At this stage, the funder becomes ashamed of their behaviour. They may retreat and try to justify their actions to themselves and to others by denying or minimising their actions.  “You know we get angry when you criticise us publicly”, “It was only a slap on the wrist”, “My funding has been cut too.” 

Pursuit Phase: Promises

This stage can refer to the ‘buy back’.  It’s when the funder realises there isn’t a ready-made replacement for you and promises never to be abusive again.  They may try to make up for the abusive behaviour by saying, ‘I have been stressed by government cutbacks and Ministerial directives’.  The funder may provide top-up funding to help look after the clients, help with navigating the funding maze and appear to be different.  The not-for-profit affected by the violence will feel hurt, betrayed and confused, but relieved nonetheless. 

Honeymoon Phase: Denial – Increased intimacy

In this phase of the cycle both the funder and the not-for-profit may be in denial as to how bad the abuse and violence has been.  Often this can be a time of intense bonding about the need for action, feelings of happiness that they are moving forward together and ignoring the possibility that the funding violence could occur again.  The cycle inevitably continues because the relationship still holds the original problems.

If the cycle is not broken, it repeats forever, with neither side gaining any insight. The only way out is if the not-for-profit decides not to be married to a system that abuses them and builds a new life that involves respectful relationships and never being reliant on an abuser for their livelihood. (In fact, you may even feel sorry for the funder’s new piece of eye candy on their arm.)

Sometimes that involves closing down the organisation and walking away because the game is simply not worth the candle. I have been a consultant to several organisations holding an impossible situation together with exhausted staff and volunteers and a balance sheet that’s gone beyond even being on life support. It’s a bit like a partner demanding steak for dinner when there’s not enough even for baked beans. And you wouldn’t put up with that … or would you?

11 thoughts on “Occasional Ravings – Charities and the cycle of funder abuse

  1. A very interesting comparison Doug. It resonated with my experience and I had never realised how similar this cycle is to domestic abuse. At the core, human behaviour seems to have so many commonalities over quite disparate contexts. I particularly liked the walking on eggshells and inverse relationship comparisons but they all seemed logical connections to me

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t had experience with NFP. The only perspective I’ve had is a realization that “not for profit” (non-profit, here) is a misnomer or, by public understanding, a misunderstanding. The general public pictures all incoming money as going toward the cause when it’s only the money left after paying the employees and administrators.


    • Yes, there is a tiny minority of non-profits in the US and elsewhere that are little more than tax dodges and/or snake-oil salesman doing it only to make a profit. The truth is the vast majority are staffed by people on minimal wages trying to make a real difference in their communities. People looking for an excuse not to give cling on to the exceptions to excuse their miserliness and lack of care for disadvantaged people. Somehow or another, the same people think that charity workers can live on oxygen alone, that vehicles and phones magically pay for themselves, that office accommodation where the roof leaks and there is no heating or cooling comes for free etc etc. And yet, these are often the same people who don’t bat an eyelid about paying their dues to their local church to support their pastor/priest and his ambitious plans for a new church, in the hope of a free ticket to Heaven.

      Liked by 1 person

      • This clearly hits a sore nerve. I’m not trying to do that; I have friends who are just such minimum-paid and charitable folk as you outline. Their ire is directed at the ones on top making money whilst they wish to make a difference.

        As to your jab at the hypocrisy in ‘religious’ attendants, I agree. I do not attend a church with (at least local) paid clergy and believe people should be authentic and honest in all charitable causes.

        Liked by 1 person

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