Association of Charitable Foundations 2014 conference: all about time


Caroline Hartnell


Money is the asset usually associated with foundations – though advocates of ‘funder plus’, venture philanthropists and others are quick to point out that they are about ‘more than money’. The September issue of Alliance suggested that people, the ‘talent’, might be just as important as money if not more so. The Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) conference, held in London on 5 November, bringing together over 350 delegates from across the UK, was all about time – as suggested by its title, ‘About Time: Appreciating the Asset’.

ACF chief executive David Emerson talked about time in his opening speech. Members of ACF, he said, mostly endowed foundations with an ongoing and comparatively secure source of income, experience time differently from those who have to depend on fundraising, who have to think in the short term. Three ACF members were founded before Magna Carta in 1215 – how many entities have lasted that long?

If we view time differently, can we see it as an asset and use it better? he challenged his members. Having time means we can devote all our attention to the mission, no matter how long it takes. Foundations can be patient; they can devote 20 years to an issue and know they can see it through. They can operate in the territory of ‘don’t know’ for longer than others; they can build evidence bases over years, and fund longitudinal studies that take generations to yield results. They can remain when others give up. When UK foundations supported delicate peace-building initiatives in Northern Ireland, there was no foreseeable end in sight. Foundations are perhaps the only ones who can put the ‘patient’ into ‘patient capital’, he suggested. The knowledge that you have a future makes all this possible.

Foundations can deploy time themselves, and they can grant it to others, for example in the form of planning grants to charities to give them time to develop their plans. For small and medium organizations struggling to survive, time to plan is invaluable. Nick Perks of Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT), talking in the afternoon plenary on ‘Putting time to work’, reiterated how good it is for a small organization to be able to stop and reflect. Funders can offer time, money, freedom, solidarity and continuity, he said.

Perks described change as ‘long term and lumpy’. You can support something for 18 years and suddenly the political context changes and something happens and it’s on the policy agenda, as with the Freedom of Information Act.

He also challenged those foundations like JRCT who pride themselves on being in there for the long term: how can you distinguish between being patient and supportive and long-term and being complacent and not very good at your job? Should we have more trust and less evaluation? someone asked. Sometimes it’s good to evaluate, he felt.

Avila Kilmurray of the Global Fund for Community Foundations, formerly with Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, also stressed the value of time. If you’re serious about engaging with the most marginalized, she said, you need a developmental approach and this means time – to talk to people, build relationships and trust, support organizations that can’t fill in application forms or handle grants. Social change doesn’t fit into logframes: in Northern Ireland, it was two steps forward, one step back, a rollercoaster. Foundations have the luxury of being able to plan for the long term, she said. They can be thoughtful and reflective; set up joint learning programmes; invest alongside grants. This is a strategic use of time as an asset.

But … her caveat: we need to remember important outcomes that can be achieved by timely small grants. In Northern Ireland crisis grants could be made in 48 hours.

Members of the audience had some of their own caveats. With the planet hotting up, do we really have as much time as we think? What about the many foundations for which long-term, sustainable change is simply not their focus? Isn’t this an odd, almost perverse, time to be talking about time in this way, when continuing low interest rates are calling into question our assumption that the value of endowments will hold up indefinitely?

Caroline Hartnell, is editor of Alliance magazine.

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