Responding to the Coronavirus crisis – lessons from ACF’s Stronger Foundations initiative


Max Rutherford


Over the last 18 months, the Association of Charitable Foundation’s Stronger Foundations initiative has sought to help UK-based charitable foundations identify and pursue excellent practice. During the course of 42 meetings, the last of which was a week ago, six working groups involving more than 100 foundations gathered an immense amount of evidence on what stronger practice looks like.

At this time of global and domestic crisis, now more than ever foundations must be at their very best, and deploy all their resources to make the most positive impact. Below are some key lessons from each working group that are directly relevant.

Embed diversity, equity and inclusion in decision-making: The Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) working group showcased the importance of involving diverse communities and people with lived experience in decision-making. This improves the quality of decisions, amplifies impact and increases legitimacy – all vital in the months ahead. There is also a need to pay particular attention to groups who are likely to be hit hardest by the virus – such as people on precarious, low or no income, disabled people (particularly with the suspension of the Care Act), people involved in the criminal justice system and those who are homeless. Considering the intersectional nature of the impact will also be key, for example gender and ethnicity dimensions.

Use the whole toolbox: The Impact & Learning group highlighted the need for foundations to pursue positive impact with all their resources – the whole toolbox – from funding to investments, from advocacy to evidence. This includes how a foundation behaves, how it uses its voice, its ability to convene and access those in power. For example, this might mean foundations speaking up more for the groups and causes they care about, amplifying the voices of those with less power to officials and ministers, or using local and national media to make the case for support.

Be agile and take the long view: The Strategy & Governance group considered the importance of foundations knowing who they are accountable to, how they can be challenged, and how they change as a result. It also showcased the importance of being agile and responsive, while also taking the long view. This might mean pivoting towards emergency funding for groups most in need, ensuring that changes to strategy are clearly articulated, while still providing reassurance and support for groups who relied on previous funding streams.

Share funding data: The Transparency & Engagement group heard evidence about the importance of foundations making their grants data open source, using initiatives such as 360Giving. It’s incredibly important that we have the most accurate picture of where funding is going and, crucially, where the gaps are. All funders should consider how they can make their grants data available open source, so that the most comprehensive understanding of funding is available to ensure decisions about the allocation of precious resources are evidence-led.

Use investments for good, not just for income: The Intentional Investing group determined that ‘intentionality’ on its own isn’t enough when it comes to endowment investment. Stronger foundations consider their endowment as a key asset in pursuing charitable purposes, deploying it to achieve good as well as to generate income. This might include opening up part of the endowment to offer social investment, interest free loans, and investing in companies that have a clear social purpose. Many foundations will also consider the extent to which they might draw down on their endowments to boost their grants budgets at this time of utmost need.

Funding processes matter: Lastly, the Funding Practices group agreed that the way foundations give away their money is crucial to the overall impact their money has. From programme design to the application process, from monitoring to type of funding awarded, it’s more important than ever that every choice a foundation makes about its processes aims to have an impact that is positive for applicants and funding recipients. The Covid-19 funder commitment highlights the importance of flexible, adaptive funding, and has already been signed by more than 230 funders, and a European version has just been launched. Many funders are converting project grants to unrestricted funding and offering streamlined application processes, to enable groups most in need to access funding quickly (as this blog from this group’s chair sets out in more detail).

At this time of crisis, stronger foundations are ideally placed to respond – resourced, independent, agile, responsive, open, vocal, evidence-led, connected, collaborative, mission-focused, charitable, experienced, rigorous, influential.

Now is the time for all foundations to play their best hand. 

Max Rutherford is Head of Policy at the Association of Charitable Foundations (UK).

Tagged in: Covid-19 Funding practice

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