Philanthropy – past, present and future


Moira Sinclair


This article was written for the European Foundation Centre as part of a specially commissioned blog series celebrating Its 30th anniversary. Click here to read more posts from some of the most influential thought-leaders on philanthropy discussing the past, present and future of both the EFC and the sector.

It may be a bit of a cliché to suggest that the world moves a lot faster, that the pace of change is greater now than 30 years ago, when EFC was founded. I’m increasingly of the view that it’s a feeling rather than a reality. Yes, technology is having an impact, and the way in which we communicate and hear about change is much quicker than it used to be (remember the days when fax was the biggest innovation in getting information across the globe…) But, in many instances, the changes in society, in people’s circumstances, in improving lives are glacially slow, and it certainly seems today that some of our past progress is actually stalled or reversing.

For me, the predominant characteristic is not so much of change, but of profound uncertainty. And it is in this context that I am considering the role of foundations and of philanthropy, and the need to challenge and improve our own practice.

Questions are being asked of us all – not least in what legitimacy we have to act, how we make sure we are connecting with the very best, most relevant organisations to fund, and whether we are fleet enough and rigorous enough in this environment. And rightly we are being challenged in how we are using all the assets at our disposal to safeguard those organisations against market volatility. I, and my UK peers, recently had a robust conversation with colleagues at the Charity Commission about what role we all play in supporting a resilient civil society. And I have just finished Robert Reich’s ‘Just Giving’, which looks at what he sees as the undemocratic nature of wealth and philanthropy, and argues for considerable changes to make giving more transparent and accountable in service of democratic values.

Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation says that ‘we must practice a better vision of philanthropy, one that improves itself and the societies of which we are members’ and I agree with him. For some time now, at Paul Hamlyn Foundation, we have been exploring just how to make that aspiration authentic and tangible. I believe that the EFC can usefully provide the space and time for all of us to come together, to listen and learn, and it’s in that spirit that I share some of the ways in which we are beginning to do things differently.

Trustees and staff asked that we do more than notice the need on our own doorstep in London’s Kings Cross. Our new Neighbourhood Fund will tether some of our capital locally, committing 1% of our grant funding to forming deep relationships with the charities working within a mile of our office, who really know their local circumstances. It is early days for this approach, but we hope that we can offer our people and our building too, as assets in addressing the hardship which is evident in the streets around the Foundation.

Things are changing inside too. With the appointment of two young people to our advisory panel and staff with lived experience of the fields in which we operate, our assessment and decision- making processes feel even more relevant and informed. Diversity in our organisation is not a matter of ‘nice to have’ – it is a business imperative. Our grantee and applicant survey last year told us how important the quality of those relationships was to everyone who comes into contact with us, and we are taking steps to improve them. That also means building in time to develop our people and to make sure they have the confidence, time and information to have really excellent, open and honest conversations.

And, with our trustees’ full backing, we are extending our commitment to long term funding and to providing core support, with a suite of funding approaches from support for R&D through to endowments. Our Backbone Fund, underpinning the policy, advocacy and membership services for our sectors, is now well established. And we are experimenting with ten-year grants that free up talented charity leaders to show the way by delivering best practise in the fields we care about. We are also collaborating more with partners because we can see that the problems society faces are complex and need concerted effort.

None of this, in itself, is rocket science. But when taken together, it does represent a response to the challenge, one we first articulated in 2015 when I joined Paul Hamlyn Foundation and we launched a new strategy. Some four years on, the vision for a more effective philanthropy is starting to be realised, one that is, I hope, truly supportive of and useful to the pioneers, leaders and organisations pressing for a more equal and just society.

Moira Sinclair is Chief Executive of Paul Hamlyn Foundation

Tagged in: Next Philanthropy

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