11 May 2020

Will the pandemic harm diversity in grantmaking?

This post originally appeared on the Kone Foundation website

This spring, a new viral disease has caused a global crisis, spanning all aspects of society: health, social interaction and the economy. The crisis has served as justification for exceptional measures, and the Emergency Powers Act has curbed some basic rights in Finland. The centralisation of power seems acceptable in Finland now that the threat is big enough: an easily transmitted and lethal disease. However, it is important that the state of emergency does not last longer than is absolutely necessary.

Finnish grantmaking foundations have acted rapidly during the crisis. Some grantmakers in the arts, in collaboration with the publicly funded Central Arts Council, put together a support package for artists, while medical research funders organised a quick funding call on COVID-19. Many individual foundations have made special calls as well. The economic crisis will hit the finances of foundations, too, especially if the flow of dividends dries up, according to the wishes of the president of Finland, who suggested that companies should stop paying dividends. Still, it is possible that private funders will launch other funding calls and not cut their annual funding budgets this year.

The power of private grantmaking is in its diversity. When research, art and civil society are supported by both public and private funders, more opportunities are created for applicants. Funding decisions are not made by a select few but by a significant representation of society, since decisions are based on peer review. Recently, exact figures on how much Finnish foundations support research, art, and civil society in Finland were published by the Association of Finnish Foundations. Its members, 200 in all, spend half a billion euros annually. For instance, in 2018 medical and health sciences received 86 million euros and the arts 63 million euros.

In a crisis situation, demands have been made among private foundations that everything should take place efficiently. Yes, of course, no one wants inefficiency. But, in all, foundations are not slow or democratic, and they do not require emergency legislation in order to act rapidly. Foundation administrations are generally quite flexible and allow for fast and agile movement.

Problems can ensue if efficiency is correlated with centralisation. When the Association of Foundations and Trusts polled its members how they have reacted to the corona crisis, the responses included suggestions that grants should be made in coordination, even by a coordinating body. In such a way, “arbitrary” decisions could be avoided. It seems that even among foundations, there is a will to behave like nation states, with emergency principles. Such wishes may be a symptom of a broader atmosphere of centralisation and control.

Should diversity be abandoned in a crisis? It sounds alarming. What happens when the crisis ends? Will the coordinating bodies continue their operations? If the will to centralise increases, one can then demand that research funding focuses on issues crucial to the state, such as viruses, developing substitutes for plastic or improving the birth rate. Such issues are important, but increasing the centralisation of research funding would cause other important issues to be set aside, which might then become our next challenges.

Seemingly efficient centralisation would easily turn into control. When key decisions are left in a few hands, it is easier to ensure that funding is directed to the “important” research targets mentioned above or that all funding have an “impact”. If the political climate takes a turn for the worse, centralised entities can be seized and then make research and art subordinate, for example, to a neonationalistic need for information and data.

In all, do we want to centralise – and control – the work of private grantmakers? Or, rather, should we build new and better forms of collaboration between different funders? Kone Foundation favours diverse funding for research and the arts, which enables activities to take place even without immediate impact. We also wish to collaborate with other actors. We believe that in such a way, the diversity of academic research and art will be maintained and humanity will be both more prepared for new crises and wealthier in spirit.


Photo credit: Sharon McCutcheon / Unsplash

Photo of Ilona Herlin by Verna Kovanen


Ilona Herlin

Vice-chairperson of the Board of Trustees