Crossing boundaries, borders and barriers – environment trumps all yet is still ignored by majority of foundations


Ciorsdan Brown


I always look forward to the ACF conference as it’s a really good chance to catch up with friends, to learn, challenge and connect. I wondered what the theme around borders, barriers and boundaries might actually mean and whether or not it would be relevant to all delegates. I was pleased that the plenary session on said topic was pretty thought provoking, personally making me think about borders and barriers within my own community but also within my work environment, the board of trustees, relationships with grantees and my own personal relationships too. As always, Ruth Ibegbuna spoke powerfully about her own experience with barriers and borders in different contexts but strikingly in an educational context. She witnessed the same level of enthusiasm and eagerness in kids from state and private schools but the drastic lack of expectation placed upon the former to flourish in positions of power.

As Carol Mack, CEO of ACF asked, in this ‘Age of Walls’, are we, as foundations or people who work within them, able to speak truth TO power or do we speak the truth OF power? I think for most foundations, unfortunately, the latter is true. We perpetuate power imbalances by remaining inactive on issues deemed too tricky, instead of just getting on with it. Laborious processes, complacency, low motivation to change and lack of staff resource very often lead to inertia.

Then came a few questions from the floor. One of the most provocative came from Danielle Walker Palmour of Friends Provident Foundation when she asked the panel and the room full of delegates – ’How can we, as foundations, ameliorate the problems that we are adding to?’

This was a challenge I believe, on many fronts. Ruth Ibegbuna tackled Danielle’s question with a call for foundations to act on diversity and expertise. She queried the traditional view of expertise and encouraged people to look beyond their own networks and recognise that expertise comes in different forms – particularly from the communities we are trying to support. The elephant in the room i.e. the question of harm caused by investments held by foundations, was not answered.

This was rectified to a certain extent when I attended the ‘Old Dogs, New Tricks’ session, which was jointly held by Hetan Shah, Chair of Friends Provident Foundation, Sian Ferguson, Trust Director of three of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts and Debbie Pippard, Director of Programmes at Barrow Cadbury Trust. Many of their points resonated with me, including the need to work systematically, upstream, to have an open recruitment policy, to delegate grant-making powers, to respond to demand now and to create change through capital. The most stark was the last one, which relates to the question asked earlier about foundations and their questionable impact on the world. Sian Ferguson, reported on the Ashden, Mark Leonard and JJ Charitable Trusts’ Climate Change Collaboration which funds projects seeking to reduce CO2 emissions quickly. Crucially, they also seek to create environmental change through the positive use of their endowment, something both Friends Provident Foundation and Barrow Cadbury are also heavily invested in.

However, this is something that countless funders have shied away from. A surprising number of foundations actively state that they ‘don’t do the environment’ and many focus their grantmaking on projects supporting social justice, bizarrely disconnected from anything environmental. But what is missing from these conversations is the human cost climate change currently and imminently has on all of us and particularly the people we seek to support, through our grantee partners and communities, indirectly or directly. ‘The Environment’ is an issue which may not fit into a particular box because instead it wraps around it, encompassing all of those other problems. There is so much more we could be doing to help, but it is yet again in danger of being ignored.

We must act now as, bluntly put, we face catastrophic consequences if we don’t. With the top 300 foundations in the UK holding approximately £65 billion in assets, but making around £4.5 billion in grants (from ACF’s Giving Trends, 2018), how much more leverage and impact could we have if these assets were used to ameliorate environmental and social issues as opposed to simply extending the life of foundations who wish to exist in perpetuity but are doing more harm with their investments than ‘good’ with their grants. Next year, let’s hope that environment is further up on the agenda – it is, after all, the most pertinent issue of our time – crossing boundaries, borders and barriers.

Ciorsdan Brown is Grants Manager at Goldsmiths Company

Comments (1)


Bravo! The Elephant in the room, well described ... no mention of related “elephants” ie the investment management industry that works very hard to erect barriers to maintain the status quo of investing regardless of consequence to give away investment returns to solve the very problems created by their investments

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