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  • Owen Gunden

Scalability and Funding

Looking through lots of grant applications, I've been struck by the disconnect between what people want to do and the pool of funding available. There are lots of impactful ideas, but sadly there isn't enough money in the movement to fund them all.

Most of the applications we receive don't address the funding question. After all, you're here at Phauna because we're supposed to solve that problem, right?

We'd like to if we could! But it feels about like this:

Funding in our movement is scarce

While I have heard people in our movement speak in a negative way about a “scarcity mindset”, the reality is that resources are finite.

One consequence of scarcity is that organizations that wish to be funded by foundations end up in competition with every other organization that wants to be funded by foundations. This, coupled with the fact that funding is existential for most non profits, creates an incentive for groups to make themselves look more attractive to funders even to the point of possibly modifying the mission or strategy of the organization.

This game-theoretic arrangement creates challenges for our movement. And we don’t have all the answers for these challenges, but in the meantime, projects who put effort into developing a thorough fundraising and scaling plan tend to stand out.

Funding needs to be part of the strategic vision

One of the ways we evaluate a project is to think about how it scales with additional dollars. Does impact scale in a linear, sub-linear, or superlinear fashion with additional funding?

We also look at the long term vision: what financial resources are necessary to scale your project from a pilot to a fully-realized initiative, and how will you obtain them?

Consider a project that works in a particular geographical area, say a city or university. You're having a great impact in that local area, and you want to expand. If your model is such that the second locality costs the same amount as the first, and the third costs the same, etc., then the math is pretty simple (and usually prohibitively expensive).

This isn't to say that local work should be avoided. We find such projects appealing if they incorporate fundraising and economic scalability into their strategic vision. But if, on the other hand, your only model for scaling up is: "and then you'll fund us more," then we're likely to send you back to the drawing board.

Alternative models

Here are some ideas:

  1. Build a broad-based donation base. This model might suit organizations with large stakeholder bases, like grassroots or volunteer-driven groups. It provides resilience against funding withdrawal, independence to focus on your mission, and accountability to your supporters. We believe a mix of broad-based and foundation support is healthier than relying solely on foundation support.

  2. Bring more money into the movement. Somewhat paradoxically, if you have a compelling plan to bring more money into the movement, you will very likely get funded! Here are a few ideas, we're always interested to hear about new creative ideas as well:

    1. Approaching wealthy individuals and bringing their support on board

    2. Getting our movement to be more commonly named as estate beneficiary

    3. Bringing in foundations that are currently focused on other types of work

    4. Approaching businesses for corporate sponsorship or other types of assistance

  3. Employ a more economically scalable model. Finding ways to scale your impact in a superlinear relationship with costs can really help. Volunteer-driven models or revenue-generating strategies can be compelling ways to scale your impact economically, and we welcome other creative ideas.

Of course, not all organizations will align with these options. Some may indeed primarily depend on foundation support and that’s understandable.


We urge organizations to step back and take a broad strategic view of the movement, and how we might reach our goals with limited funding. Include fundraising and scalability in your strategic vision, and communicate this to us in your application. For other guidance on how to apply, see our guidelines for grantees document.

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