Monday, 14 January 2013

Funding Change

There are several reasons why I want to write about funding today.

One is my current circumstance. I find myself sans job and without a place to call my own. I have ambition to do social good in this world, but need some way to make it pay!

Another is that I've recently been reading some books which talk about the problems of funding and costs, and had some thoughts of my own off the back of that that I want to share.

Here's another: funding social change is something that it's easy to shy away from, to let someone else take up the slack, or not to look at realistically. achieve

So over the next few paragraphs, I'll ask why funding for social and environmental change can be a problem and how our culture has influenced how money moves about, both negatively and positively. Then I'll suggest one way through which we might be able to fund the changes that we need, and what a sustainable economy ought to look like.

"This is so obviously a good thing for society, so why will no one pay me to do it?!"

It's difficult being a young unemployed person these days, especially one who is determined that whatever they do must contribute positively to the world.  Those who speak up against our societal system are frequently told to "get a job" and those who are trying get accused of sponging off the state or not having the right skills for industry.  But no matter how hard jobseekers try, its impossible to fill more jobs than businesses create. And where there are skill shortages, isn't it the industry's responsibility, for the sake of the long-term viability of their industry, to train inexperienced workers?

"I want social change, but I can't pay for it!"

There seems to be a mismatch between what people require, and where the money is that might pay for it.  We desperately need to improve the efficiency of our housing stock.  We need tools and appliances that last a long time, to conserve limited natural resources.  We need value creation that improves human well-being, not the bank balances of the few.

But those who need these things just don't have the financial resources to invest in this way, or are under too much pressure from their investors to divert money to these areas of their business.  Local councils' budgets are being cut.  Businesses, meanwhile, are under intense pressure from all sides.  Shareholders want to maximise profit, whilst customers want prices ever lower and lower.  Anything that can be squeezed out of their costs, is.  Even socially responsible companies must compete just to stay in the game, and have to cut down their own profits if they choose to invest in the future or in better business practice, possibly to the point where their business ceases to be viable.

"Let's forget money and just share our skills and resources!"

The first argument which seems to pop up in Transition circles is to remove money from the equation.  To establish the "gift economy".

It all sounds very noble.  It all sounds very nice for society. It sounds like it will increase peace and goodwill to all.  I thought the whole concept sounded pretty attractive myself... until I read two books that give quite substantial evidence for a wealth [sic] of unintended consequences.

In You Are Not A Gadget (which I recently reviewed on my blog), Jaron Lanier criticises aspects of technology culture, particularly the Web 2.0 attitude, where everything should be free and available to all.  Eduardo Porter makes a similar criticism of "free" culture in his book The Price of Everything.  Both give very convincing arguments of how this attitude has diminished our society's cultural advancements and exalted the "Lords of the Clouds" (Lanier) that control the social networks and information aggregating websites. Producers of content (such as musicians and journalists) largely go unrewarded, even when the value of their content is indisputable (like when a YouTube video has several thousand or even million views). I won't describe these arguments in detail here, but if you're not convinced, I can recommend these books, and you're welcome to borrow them off me if you're around the Norwich area.

"Let's print our own money, then!"

So if those who would get the benefit of new economy activity don't have cash reserves to pay for it themselves, how do we create the mechanism for these value creators to be rewarded for that work? Another of Transition's popular policies comes into play here - local currencies.

Why don't we create the money we need ourselves to trade the services which local people need.  It's another of those ideas that seems very attractive at first.  When money is essentially just a social contract, why shouldn't we be allowed to make our own, and determine how it will be used, rather than commercial banks?

It's a good argument, and I'm all for local currencies.  It is important to be aware of some of their shortcomings though. It's often hard to convince businesses of their value, especially when a large proportion of a business's expenses are, by necessity, outside of the local community. As much effort must go into convincing people (mostly business owners) about why the use of a local currency is beneficial to them as the actual infrastructure used to implement it.

Now, this isn't an argument against local currencies, but I am convinced that we can do much of what local currencies aim to do without the need for an actual local currency, at least until we get to the point where we can afford the infrastructure of a local currency.

"So, what can we do now to fund the change we need?"

So another model, which I'm a big fan of, is crowd-funding. Under this funding mechanism, those who want a particular product or service can invest in it before it even exists. Return on their investment is then often in receiving the product or service they want, rather than in financial terms. It is, I suppose, a little like pre-ordering something before it's made.

There are various crowd-funding websites, and they all work in different ways. Some give primarily financial returns (like, which is crowd-funding for renewable energy projects), whilst others focus mainly, or exclusively, on the social and product returns that they provide.

The Transition Free Press is using one such service to raise funds for the launch of their newspaper at Please do follow this link, fund the project, and benefit from a year's subscription and more! Crowd-funding websites often do a lot to ensure that investments with them are risk-free, by only releasing funding once the project reaches its funding target, and requiring business plans or financial projections to ensure that projects are viable.

I think it's important to be imaginative about crowd-funding though.  This applies not just to creative artsy projects (like those on, nor the very businessy "maximum returns" world of crowdcube, but even co-operative housing projects could be classed as crowd-funding. Any point where we can cut out the banks and those with a little cash to spare can invest it directly in business is good, as far as I'm concerned.

"So what does our future model actually look like?"

I envision a world where local sustainable resources, whether they are land, businesses or tools, are owned collectively by the people who use them.  This IS possible. It will take a lot of work, since it does require changing our attitude to money, savings, investment, ownership, sharing and our lifestyles.  It will also require us to claw back, collectively, all those things which we have slowly allowed the very rich to commandeer.

But as long as we look at each other as human beings, co-habiting this planet with the limited resources that it has to offer, rather than statistical consumers or welfare scroungers, we will get there!

P.S.  There's a lot more that I wanted to put in this article that I've had to leave out, so perhaps I'll get round to that in another post, so if bits of it don't fully tie together, that's why! Please leave a comment if you have questions or comments though!

Images: Hire me! (the author); Book cover of "You Are Not A Gadget"; Brixton Pounds; Mika from Japan reading TFP preview issue on a train in Suffolk Photograph of sign at Occupy Norwich.


  1. Edge Fund is very relavant to this post

  2. Some good questions there Simeon. It seems to me that too many people either have or think they have a vested interest in the status quo. Media and advertising lead even the poorest to believe that riches are only a lottery ticket away. Job losses following the industrial revolution in the 19th century gave rise to the co operative movement, which persisted up until the TV age and easy credit. Maybe it will take real food shortages to bring about change again.

  3. So much here speaking to what I think about and try to engage in, Simeon. Thanks for blogging about this vital arena. Look out for the 2013/Q1 newsletter from Sustainable Bungay where you'll find a feature by yours truly which describes an attempt to establish a social enterprise which is sustainable *despite* the various constraints you outline.