The Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) has published a new report on the crucial importance of strategic thinking and strong governance practices for charitable foundations that want to be ambitious and effective with all their resources. Many foundations are aspiring to live up to these standards – but there are still gaps, and according to Jo Wells, joint chair of the Stronger Foundations Strategy and Governance working group that published the report, if you look across all seven pillars of stronger practice the report sets out, ‘not many’ are there yet.
Part of ACF’s Stronger Foundations initiative, the new report ‘Strategy and Governance: The Pillars of Stronger Foundation Practice’ is the third in the series.
It sets out seven characteristics of excellent foundation practice, which include being aware of the external context and its role in the wider ecosystem, publicly articulating its vision, mission and values, and continually strengthening its governance arrangements, including board diversity. These pillars, the report asserts, can be interpreted and pursued by all foundations whatever their remit, size or starting point.
Based on more than a year of evidence gathering, the report asserts that stronger foundations are those that are both pursuing long-term objectives while pivoting to best meet the needs of today. Stronger foundations are also those that pursue short and long-term goals, and regularly review their own perpetuity – an ongoing debate that has surrounded questions around climate funding for years and has now been pushed further into the limelight since the outbreak of COVID-19.
According to ACF, the report argues that stronger foundations involve people with lived experience when setting strategy, seek out and respond to criticism, and find ways to be accountable to the causes and communities they care about.
But on the ground, there’s a gap between this aspiration and reality. ‘It is conspicuous that, overall, foundation trustees are still mainly white, mainly posh, and mainly male. Many have little or no lived experience of the issues they’re funding,’ said Giving Evidence Director Caroline Fiennes. ‘Clearly, for some funders or foundations, that can be difficult to solve – e.g., a foundation of a wealthy family, whose board is by definition drawn from the family. But even there, these things are rarely insurmountable.’
Fiennes commented that she welcomed the report and hoped it would spur change in a positive direction, adding that a level of accountability for Foundations would also make a difference.
‘I’ve often said before that foundations could start by just having their decision-making meetings in public. City Bridge Trust already does. All foundation boards are meant to be operating in the public interest. What’s to hide?’
Though there may be a divergence between the stronger foundation practices highlighted by ACF’s report and what is happening on the ground for some foundations, some suggest that progress toward these goals is being made, even if it is happening slowly.
‘It feels as though many Foundations are ‘thinking’ quite a lot about lived experience,’ commented Wells, ‘listening, power, and accountability in a way they perhaps weren’t five years ago, and you can point to a small but perhaps growing number that are taking specific steps, often related to a particular aspect of their work or a specific programme where it feels most appropriate for example, participatory grant-making.’
Elika Roohi is the Digital Editor at Alliance magazine.