On day one of the UK Community Foundation’s 2019 conference in Glasgow, its CEO, Fabian French, asked the plenary audience how many of them were attending for the first time. The room filled with raised hands – a sign of how much new energy and thinking there is in the UK network of community foundations, and how many people were joining the conference from further afield.
But it made me pause to think this was my sixth conference for what is now UKCF and was CFN when I first came to the movement a decade ago. I was reflecting on this when fellow attendee Jan Despiegelaere of the Community Fund for West-Flanders, Belgium, wondered aloud on Twitter whether the network hadn’t moved much forward since his first UK conference (also mine) in Nottingham in 2009. And Jan has a point. In the afternoon plenary we debated the relative importance of community empowerment, engagement, convening and leadership alongside ‘traditional’ grant-making and endowment building. These are conversations we’ve been having in community foundations – and in trusts and foundations more generally – for a long time.
Does that mean we’ve not evolved? Perhaps – but with so many new people in the room, the conversations were fresh even if they – like the problems we seek to address – have been around for a long time. And old issues are being seen through new lenses – for example, the PACT, an outcome of the Commission on the Future of Civil Society, which we also discussed on day one. While the PACT (which stands for power, accountability, connection and trust) was unfamiliar to lots of attendees (perhaps an issue there in itself) the ideas around shifting power and our legitimacy as funders and philanthropy vehicles were not.
And one thing we were not talking about was delivering funding programmes for others (government bodies and national foundations). That is quite a shift. I remember Matthew Bowcock, then chair of UKCF and now a leading light in the UK’s Beacon Collaborative on philanthropy, describing such schemes as community foundations’ methadone. Perhaps we have now weaned ourselves off that addiction. Instead, I see a great appetite for being conveners and leaders in our communities. Partly because what’s also changed in 10 years is the landscape around us: a shrinking role for local government, a weakening of local sector infrastructure and ever greater demand on the philanthropic pound.
But old questions do come back for good reasons. During our discussions, colleagues raised critical challenges to the idea of convening being front and centre of our work. Because, without endowment giving, how will we guarantee we can serve our communities for generations to come? Without grant-making, how do we have the legitimacy to lead?
After a day at the conference, I still have Jan’s challenge in my mind. During the rest of our time here, I hope we can show we are evolving, while recognising that, perhaps, we are still some way from answering all the questions we need to if we are to reach our full potential as a UK – and international – movement in philanthropy.
Rob Williamson is CEO of Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland