60+ funders to UK PM: race report findings unhelpful, divisive, damaging


Elika Roohi


‘We believe this to be unhelpful, divisive and potentially damaging,’ said 62 foundations, signing an open letter to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week co-ordinated by the Association of Charitable Foundations, addressing the UK government’s report on institutional racism.

The report, which was released last month by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, has been widely condemned, including by the United Nations, after it concluded that the UK was free of institutional racism.

‘The history of our organisations reflects the wider history of Britain. We recognise that this joint history is connected to inequitable power structures, including racism, and that these structures still have repercussions today on people of colour and marginalised people in the UK,’ reads the letter, whose signatories include the Barrow Cadbury Trust, Comic Relief, the Garfield Weston Foundation, and Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and several Sainsbury family trusts among others.

Continuing, the coalition of funders assert: ‘While the report is disappointing in many respects, evidence within it does highlight the work that is needed across the board.  Collective action to address structural and institutional racism (and all forms of discrimination) is needed. This action should centre around the voice and experiences of those who – despite having contributed much to our society – face the most disadvantage. It should place value on the nuanced perspectives people with lived experience of these issues provide.’

Foundations respond with outward commitments, inward changes

The sea change set off last year after the murder of George Floyd prompted many philanthropic organisations to take a closer look at their own priorities. Many funders have responded by committing more funding – data from Candid reviewing grants pledged by U.S. foundations last year found that more money was given to racial justice in 2020 than during the previous eight years combined. And the pledges last year included big commitments from big funders: $168 million from the Hewlett Foundation, $220 million from Open Society Foundations, $330 million from the Ford Foundation, and $90 million from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, to name a few.

But beyond the mere allocation of funds, philanthropic organisations are also looking inward at their own operations and asking how they can apply the principles of racial justice within. With their funding announcement, Hewlett also detailed a plan to approach its ongoing programmes and operations with intentional efforts to add a racial justice lens including a high-profile appointment of a racial justice champion to its team.

In the UK, several foundations established in 1904 by Quaker philanthropist Joseph Rowntree released statements[1] acknowledging the origins of its foundation’s wealth in slavery, colonialism, discrimination, and anti-union tactics.

‘It is well known that the Rowntree Company benefited from colonial era trade, but this has rarely featured prominently in narratives about the company’s history. Instead, these have tended to focus on the firm’s domestic business practices,’ wrote the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) Trustees and Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust (JRHT) Board, which announced plans to fund the investigation of its history more fully in order to repair the ‘harmful impacts’ of its ‘forbears’ past actions.’

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation were both signatories of ACF’s letter.

In a crisis of ‘gaslighting’, consider your language

The race report has added to a ‘viscerally hostile atmosphere’, wrote Director of the Inclusive Mosque Initiative Naima Khan in Alliance, adding that: ‘Many funders have released responses to convey that they understand the Sewell Report impacts millions of people in the UK. I commend them for this, but I fear the urgency of this gaslighting crisis hasn’t hit home and that funders aren’t attuned to how they too participate in gaslighting.’

What else can foundations do beyond releasing statements of support? Reviewing your vocabulary is a good place to start, Khan suggested.

‘I would urge funders to consider, where relevant, using terms like injustice and ‘systemic oppression’ in your institution’s communications. Especially in places where internal stakeholders, grantees and applicants will see it: your newsletter, your website, your application forms and your intranet, rather than just your downloadable policies and strategies.

‘The words you choose should reflect the words your grantees use with each other to convey their experiences. I say with each other because often charities will adapt their language to that of the funder. To truly support your grantees, consider an exercise in understanding the language they choose to use when carrying out their work, not only when they tell you about their work.’

It’s language that the signatories of ACF’s letter is calling for, as they joined together to ask the Prime Minister to publicly commit to actively tackling racism and make clear that the UK government does not agree with narratives denying the harm caused by racism in society.

‘For our part we will remain resolute and continue to drive towards a just society that tackles racism, discrimination and disadvantage and values everyone equally,’ write the foundations signing the letter. ‘We look forward to your response.’

Elika Roohi is Digital Editor at Alliance.


  1. ^ The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust put out its own statement, as did the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

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