Philanthropy’s trust issues


Rachel Heydecker


While the UK was taking to the polls for a European election we had not expected to take part in, I was with over 500 representatives from philanthropic organisations at the European Foundation Centre Conference in Paris. Being surrounded by individuals from across Europe and beyond, discussing the wide-ranging work and focus of our organisations, our approaches to working, and a variety of topics from gender and digital technology to inclusive leadership in cities was a welcome opportunity to look beyond the UK’s domestic context and learn from others.

Many of the Conference parallel sessions, as well as conversations with delegates, touched on the idea of trust – acknowledging that as well as increased distrust in politicians there have recently been questions raised around the role of philanthropy, its transparency and accountability – is philanthropy merely seen as a symbol of the elite?

Reflecting on the Conference with the concept of trust in my mind, it seems that philanthropic organisations can take advantage of our freedom to comment and act on issues, our long term vision rather than focus on seeking the next opportunity and our relative acceptance of – even appetite for – risk. Philanthropy can support work which improves public trust in that area, which can then help improve trust in and understanding of the world of philanthropy as a whole.

In a session about keeping science relevant to society, we heard about how citizens do not always trust scientific research, seeing it as something that is ordered by and dictated by its funders, to show what they want it to show. Aiming to involve citizens and communities in health research is the Public Programmes Team at Manchester University NHS Trust, and its Director Bella Starling spoke about the Team’s work in connecting and involving communities with health research. The idea of co-production is something that the Carnegie UK Trust is interested in, and it was fascinating to see how Manchester is using arts and culture to promote the active involvement of local people in science research and is considering how co-production can help to increase trust in scientific research.

A citizens assembly has recently been proposed in Scotland, where the Carnegie UK Trust is based, so I was keen to hear from Ashleigh Gardere and Marcin Gerwin about their experiences with involving citizens in local decision making in New Orleans and Gdansk respectively. Using new models of engagement gave residents a voice in their local area in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as well as promoting the idea that residents are ‘experts in their communities,’ who know what is needed. Ashleigh spoke about the need for residents to trust the idea of place-based decision-making initiatives, and to believe that getting involved was in their own interest. A lively discussion about how to ensure citizens assemblies and other engagement activities are inclusive and reflective of the whole community provided considerable food for thought to take back to Scotland.

I left Paris with not just purse full of business cards but a brain full of ideas – and a renewed sense of what it means to be part of a European network of philanthropy, and how we can work together to engage people with our work and goals.

Rachel Heydecker is Policy and Development Officer at Carnegie UK Trust

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