The opening plenary set the bar high for this year’s Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) conference. The session featured stirring, insightful and complementary contributions on the changing role of foundations from Theo Sowa, Julian Corner and Cliff Prior.
Prior, CEO of Unltd, an engine for social entrepreneurs, argued that the ‘old days’ of clear demarcations and roles between government, business and civil society have given way to new realities shaping civil society. The posture of government has been shaped by retrenchment and the consequent need to mitigate the impact of cuts. The ensuing government innovation and experimentation, Prior argued, has created new challenges and opportunities for civil society organizations. Similarly, the shift among companies from corporate social responsibility to corporate social investment has created new civil society-business innovation. Several examples were cited including the partnership between M&S and Oxfam and Unltd’s own digital social venture partnership with Telefonica. In this environment, conventional sector boundaries matter less than securing effective outcomes for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.
Prior’s suggestion that the empowerment of local people and communities, otherwise known as ‘asset-based community development’, is a fruitful route for philanthropy was particularly apt as was his reminder that interventions should be underpinned by the decency, trust and value that characterises the best philanthropic activity. Prior’s closing question set a perfect stage for Julian Corner’s presentation ‘does our work leave excluded and disadvantaged people more capable of taking control of their own lives?’
Corner, CEO of the LankellyChase Foundation, identified a clear role for civil society and foundations to ‘germinate’ unusual ideas and challenging existing assumptions. Citing his experience as a civil servant, he noted that many of the innovative solutions to prison reform came from the voluntary sphere with support of independent foundations rather than government. Yet Corner identified a disturbing paradox at the heart of foundations work centred on issues of power: namely that foundations’ independent private wealth, privilege and power are in tension with their public mandate to tackle poverty, inequality and injustice.
Corner proposed two solutions to address this challenge. The first was an urgent need to shift to socially responsible investment. He pointed out that global corporations derive more money from foundations than grantees. To change this, he argued, means translating more of the economic power of foundations into social investment purposes.
The second proposal was for foundations to use their unique assets, including their research, communications and convening capabilities to empower small charities. He also called for foundations to be more accountable to small charities in return for the legitimacy they provide.
Ultimately, Corner’s vision held out the promise that foundations can play a role in addressing social needs but need to mind the gap, both material and psychological, between their wealth and the poverty of their beneficiaries.
Drawing on her considerable experience as CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund, Theo Sowa also emphasized the potential of foundations to advance change. Two aspects of her presentation stood out. First that African philanthropy is rooted in traditions of ‘solidarity’ as much as financial largesse. Second, she emphasized that although the need for partnership and collaboration between foundations and the rest of civil society was essential, foundations should also make use of their non-economic assets as well as financial power.
Her call for humility chimed well with her argument that the new framework for the International Development Post 2015 should think globally about poverty rather than treating it as just a ‘southern’ problem.
In asking difficult and searching questions of foundations, this impressive opening plenary set the tone as well as the scene for much of what followed.
Charles Keidan is a philanthropy expert and visiting fellow at Cass Business School.
This article will be published in the forthcoming issue of ACF’s Trust and Foundation News.