Foundations and trade unions: The time is right for greater collaboration


Keiran Goddard


New research confirms that there is little formalised trade union presence within foundation governance structures, despite so many shared areas of interest. But as foundations begin to think more about advocacy, movement-building, and the future of work, greater collaboration with trade unions could be mutually beneficial.

Within a UK context, the newly established Alex Ferry Foundation is fairly unusual.

The origin of the Foundation’s endowment is a case in point. Rather than emerging from corporate profits, ancestral wealth, or a large-scale liquidity event, the Foundation’s endowment is the legacy of an industrial action fund aimed at shortening the working week, to which over 200,000 workers and union members individually contributed.

The Foundation’s governance structure is also atypical, with all trustees except the independent chair required to be made up of trade union officers or lay members.

Both of these factors have implications for the way the foundation works and the approach that it takes to stewarding its assets on behalf of its beneficiaries.

On the one hand, it drives the Foundation’s thematic research focus on issues relating to work, the workplace, workers’ rights, and worker voice. It also shapes the Foundation’s community grant-making programme, which devolves an unusual degree of decision-making power to locally embedded committees made up of trade union members.

Together, these factors combine to create the Foundation’s specific sense of accountability.

Yes, we are a foundation, and yes, we exist to serve our beneficiaries. But we also remain deeply accountable to an organised base in the form of the trade union movement – this means being aware of both the movement’s rich civic history as well as its vital and ongoing function in advocating for the rights of over six million people in the UK alone.

It is precisely because of this particular set of commitments and practices that the Alex Ferry Foundation is keen to play in role in forging greater understanding and collaboration between foundations and the trade union movement.

After all, both types of institution have a vital role to play in upholding a rich, pluralistic, and participative civic life. And they are also increasingly fighting on many of the same fronts; inequality, precarity, mental health, advocacy and campaigning, community engagement, deepening democracy … the list goes on.

In order to get a clear picture of the degree to which this collaboration is already happening, the Alex Ferry Foundation recently commissioned the Blake Stevenson research group to examine the extent of trade union representation on foundation boards.

The research confirmed what most people may have intuitively suspected; that despite so many shared areas of interest, there was little to no evidence of formalised trade union presence within foundation governance structures.

While this may be disappointing, it is also not particularly surprising. The two worlds have long operated with a degree of separation that I would suggest is both non optimal and also ripe for reassessment.

So, while the research confirms that we may well be building from a low base, it nonetheless remains the case that there are numerous potential benefits in greater collaboration, understanding, and knowledge exchange between the trade union movement and foundations.

If we consider the issue of diversity, for example, then perhaps trade unions may have a role to play in extending the scope of ongoing foundation reform in a way that more robustly considers the role of class, ideological diversity, and material analysis of economic power. While at the same time, seeking in turn to learn from the emerging discursive landscape surrounding equity and decolonisation that is rightly gaining prominence within foundation circles.

Likewise, as more foundations than ever before begin to see advocacy and campaigning as an important way of discharging their charitable missions, there would seem to be a natural common cause with a trade union movement for whom the tactics, mechanisms, and realties of such work are an absolute bedrock. And for trade unions, one might wonder whether the incredible work undertaken by foundations around fossil fuel divestment might contain learnings about how best to influence investment practice along other lines such as workers’ rights and representation.

While thematically speaking, there are already signs that the two worlds are aligning. Issues such as post-work, automation, the mental health impacts of precarious labour, movement building, environmental concerns, and the just transition are drawing the focus of more foundations than ever before, all loosely grouped around the terminology of the ‘new economy’.

In fact, the more angles one considers, the greater the scope for closer working and solidarity seems to be. I would suggest that it is probably because, at root, foundations and trade unions are both concerned with democracy, conceived in its broadest sense – as the desire, means, and systems by which someone can influence the conditions of their own existence.

And beyond this they are also both concerned with how democracy in this agentive sense can best be restored, maintained, and helped to flourish, whether that be within the workplace or the community more broadly.

It is for these reasons, and many more, that over the coming months and years, the Alex Ferry Foundation looks forward to exploring how best to bridge the work of the trade union movement with that of the UK foundation community, and we hope to play a meaningful role in establishing lasting and productive links between these two worlds.

If you would like to explore any of these issues further, our door is always open for discussion and exchange.

Keiran Goddard is at the Alex Ferry Foundation.

Comments (1)

Ashante Hummons

Can a company work as a Foundation & Union combined?

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