The Money Is the Bait, Not the Fish

Can funding be used to precipitate change?

I believe it can. The trick is to ensure that funding is the bait, not the fish. Which is to say, the money is used to reveal and extend local assets, not to replace them.

There are some great examples of this happening in practice, chief among them is the Seattle City Council Neighborhood Matching Fund.

The Matching Fund has been running over 20 years, with investments by the City in excess of $50 million USD. More importantly though, because of how the fund is structured, there has been a match “in kind” of nearly $90 million USD from local residents across Seattle’s neighbourhoods. The resident match mainly comes in form of social capital. Of even greater significance, is the fact that hundreds of thousands of citizens have become engaged in civic action, that would not have done so through previous methods of community engagement employed by the City.

So how does the Neighbourhood Fund work? It’s a simple 50:50 match arrangement. But, the City’s money plays second fiddle to the social capital in the neighbourhoods. The agreement is that the City will match yours and your neighbour’s sweat equity, by valuing every hour you pledge to put in to doing something about the things you care about. The value on average is around $15 USD an hour. This approach to funding reverses more traditional funding sequences. Traditionally, City Governments unilaterally set the criteria for what they consider to be worthy of funding, following which local associations apply. Then the City reviews applications, and where they are deemed to fit the criteria, disburse agreed amounts to local groups and audit them to ensure appropriate use of public funds. This is a vertical, top down process.

In Seattle, citizens within local neighbourhoods connect with each other and agree their priorities, they then sub-divide them into the following categories (this is a horizontal citizen to citizen, bottom-up process):

  • what they want to work on together,
  • what they want some outside help with, and
  • finally, what issues they want addressed by institutions.


Here the “fish” is social capital, not fiscal capital, in fact fiscal capital is only used as bait to draw out, and productively connect latent social capital. Seattle’s Neighbourhood Matching Fund aim to invest in and resource citizen associations to achieve things that are important to their wider communities, they are not aiming to disguise cuts, under investment, or shift burdens of institutional failure onto community groups. Nor are they trying to recruit volunteers to do on the cheap what practitioners are best placed to do.

In last week’s blog Empathy not Sympathy I talked about the difference between Sympathy and Empathy, this week’s blog takes us a little further beyond empathy towards hospitality. Here the City plays humble host to its citizens, and in so doing says: “you tell us what matters to you and how we can better steward funds in that direction.”

There are many levels at which agencies and helpers in general can operate:

  • Pity
  • Sympathy
  • Empathy
  • Hospitality.


Hospitality in this instance sees the host also taking care to be a good guest in the lives of the people they serve. This isn’t without thought and provisos, for example the Seattle Neighborhood Matching Fund sets criteria around inclusion and sustainability, and they feature highly, but other criteria are set by local residents through facilitated conversations and community building processes.

Such approaches recognise and move beyond what I call the “experts’ dilemma”. The dilemma may be explained as follows: when the expert insists that they know better than us, they run the very real risk of never knowing us better, hence ensuring their expertise will never be fully utilised. Getting your valuable expertise used as an outside funder starts by genuinely getting to know those you serve, not getting them to know what you know.

The Seattle Neighbourhood Matching Fund is predicated on the assumption that the primary inventors of better neighbourhoods are the people who live there. The money hovers like a magnet attracting folks with metal in their bellies to step forward and bring others with them.

Hence, the money is the bait, not the fish. It is of course always worth remembering that bait can as easily lure up a blind alley, as reveal invisible social capital. That in mind, it’s helpful to apply these principles with a view to Thinking Differently About Funding. Some believe funding is critical to getting anything worthwhile done in their communities, others believe it fundamentally gets in the way. Both are right, some of the time. But funding in and of itself is neither the solution nor the problem. It is how it is used and when that counts. The treasure is much closer to home, and funding can either obscure or reveal it.

Cormac Russell


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  • ‪A great model in principle but one our grants operates like this and the amount of paperwork , data gathering and reporting our small charity has to cope with to draw down the funds is totally onerous . Light touch needed. ‬
    Solva Care

    March 30, 2018 at 8:57 am
    • Thanks for your comment. That’s precisely what I’m saying too. So we are in agreement. BW Cormac

      May 30, 2018 at 2:36 pm
  • Very very informative article. It’s so much useful. Everyone should know about it. Thanks for sharing this post with us!

    July 21, 2020 at 11:20 am

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