Two fundamental philosophies exist in our sector: one believes in working to improve the lives of individuals but accepts the world we live in more or less as it is; the other asserts that it is better to try to change the conditions that give rise to suffering by addressing the causes, not the symptoms – in other words, trying to change the world. Both are legitimate and do not have to be mutually exclusive, but my main concern is with the latter, and in particular with the question that follows: ‘How can civil society play the fullest possible role in making the world a better place?’
For funders, just spending money doesn’t constitute a satisfactory answer to this question. No one, not even Bill Gates, is big enough to spend their way out of major social problems. As a sector we don’t have the scale. What we do have is influence, and the ability to achieve leverage as a result. Influence, for example, over the way that others spend their money, over policy debates, over public attitudes, the health of a field, or even the behaviour of markets. This is the real prize of strategic philanthropy, and the way for funders to play the fullest possible role they can in making the world a better place.
Wielding that influence is particularly hard when working in challenging areas like migration or homelessness, where it can feel like things are moving backwards. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate our ability to alter the terrain even when it seems hostile, so that change becomes possible if we are patient. I experienced this for myself a few years ago while working on a project for the Migration Exchange. While hardening public opinion and policy had initially made it feel like progress was out of reach, it became apparent that they had in fact contributed towards a profound change in the way that migration issues were reported in the media. While not their original objective, it marked an important shift in the conditions required to create change over time.
Working at The Royal Foundation has brought these discussions about influence into stark relief. We are a medium-sized funder in UK terms with a grants budget of around £5 million per year, and a minnow internationally. But we are privileged to be able to punch far above our weight in terms of access and the ability to convene because of the soft power our Principals have. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have clearly articulated that in their philanthropic work they are looking for long-term, ambitious systems change. They seek to achieve this through collaboration, through using their influence, and through engaging with those who have lived experience.
In common with many funders we must, however, be careful about how our influence is deployed. It is essential for us to be scrupulously apolitical, and because we work with public figures, to be conscious of any reputational risk to them from our activities. When we are looking at a new area of activity, we must try to identify the part of the system that is not politically contested, but at the same time has the opportunity for substantial impact. This is not easy when dealing with areas like youth violence – a current example – because some of its structural causes, such as poverty, are inherently political.
When judged right though, the potential is enormous. Some of The Royal Foundation’s stand-out successes include the ‘Heads Together’ campaign on mental health stigma, an area in which public attitudes have demonstrably shifted. Then there is our work on mental health within the Armed Forces, where we have been able to influence the MoD to change the way it looks after service people. Meanwhile, our finance and transport taskforces on the illegal wildlife trade have mobilised industry segments.
Not all funders benefit from the soft power of popular royals, but I would argue that the same principles apply across philanthropy. Reflecting on how power and influence can best be amplified and applied to make the world a better place should be our fundamental concern. Of course, one could take issue with the ways in which power itself is distributed, or with the fact that power can be abused – a topic that would require a whole issue of Alliance in itself. However, I believe that one of the most common abuses in the foundation sector is to neglect to use the power we do have to change things for the better.
Rob Abercrombie is Director of Programmes and Partnerships at The Royal Foundation, the philanthropic vehicle for The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and The Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Prior to this, he spent seven years at New Philanthropy Capital as Director of Research and Consulting, where he led on strategic philanthropy and systems change.