Enough is enough: why it’s time to independently and publicly rate foundations

 

Danielle Walker Palmour

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There is something wrong at the heart of philanthropy in the UK.

On one hand, a range of recent reports has highlighted the substantial strengths of our sector which have shone brightly during the Covid-19 pandemic, such as: huge capacity for flexibility in funding, responsiveness to the needs of the sector and to communities, willingness and capacity to take risks, ability to see the long-term issues exacerbating the emergency, and the fierce independence to speak truth to power.

Yet, the control of philanthropic capital in UK remains overwhelmingly white, male, over 60, and appointed by word-of-mouth networks. Although there is so much value placed on lived experience in terms of effective projects we fund or in the design of effective programmes to address social problems, this value does not always extend to the boards of charitable foundations.

These issues are not new. They have been the subject of discussion for years. A new initiative led by Friends Provident Foundation supported by eight other UK foundations is designed to accelerate progress on them. Collectively, we are funding a rating of UK foundations according to their diversity, accountability, and transparency. All the foundations funding the rating will be assessed, as will dozens of other independent UK trusts and foundations. The ratings will use only publicly available information, and we will publish them – annually, for at least a few years. It will look at key aspects of not what foundations fund, but how we fund.

This initiative was announced last month, and we then ran a public consultation to help determine the criteria, and both got a large response.

The research team commissioned to carry out the work is Giving Evidence, headed by Caroline Fiennes. They are carefully sifting through the consultation responses and designing the methods for the research and the analysis, informed by some key principles:

  • Standing on the shoulders of giants: The aim is to be as objective as possible and thus not make value or subjective judgements on what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Wherever possible, the criteria will use existing criteria or metrics. For example, Giving Evidence is using ideas from Equileap which creates a gender equity index for the financial services industry, commercial bond ratings, and some transparency practices of UK science funders.
  • We all have work to do: All the funders supporting the work will be rated, as will others drawn from the UK’s Association of Charitable Foundations Giving Trends report (~300 UK foundations), plus UK community foundations. Every organisation has strengths and weaknesses and the criteria  are designed to be realistic bases for improvement.
  • Not a treasure hunt: If trusts have data on their website but a researcher is unable to find it within 30 minutes or so, it  arguably might as well not be there. In these instances, it counts it as not existing.
  • Stimulating change not shame: The process will use real data about what foundations are doing. It will use real examples of good practice to show that good performance is genuinely possible.
  • One size does not fit all: As they say, ‘If you see one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation’. Not every criterion will relate to every foundation – for instance, a foundation with only one staff member will not publish pay gap data. We are ensuring that foundations are not penalised (nor rewarded) in such circumstances.

We hope that these principles will serve as an underpinning for what is an innovative approach to foster openness to new conversations in philanthropy in the UK – about who we are, our accountability for our actions and how transparent we are about our decision-making.

Danielle Walker Palmour is director of the Friends Provident Foundation. For more information email Danielle@friendsprovidentfoundation.org.uk.


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