Values in trusts and foundations


A few weeks on, we’ve been reflecting on the issues raised in the session on trust and foundation values that we ran at the ACF 2018 annual conference. Thirty-five people signed up for our session indicating there is a real appetite right now for work on defining and implementing meaningful values in the UK trust and foundation sector.

We decided to offer this session because recent scandals and controversies in the voluntary sector have put a focus on ends seeming to justify questionable means (dubious fundraising practices, safeguarding failures, unethical investments, etc); public confidence in charities is in question – at least according to the new chair of the Charity Commission; and research shows the persistent gender pay differential and lack of diversity (particularly amongst senior leaders and trustees) across the voluntary sector.

As part of the voluntary sector trusts and foundations are not immune from these failures. As an example, the recent report from ACF and Cass Business School (‘The Awareness and Effectiveness of Charity Trustees in Grant-making in England and Wales’) highlights the obvious lack of diversity in our sector. If we believe in the values of social justice, fairness and equality – why is the trust and foundation sector still led almost exclusively by middle class white people?

The three of us are involved in ACF’s working group on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion – part of the Stronger Foundations programme which aims to help grant-making charitable foundations identify and pursue excellent practice.

Our learning in the working group has helped us to appreciate how there can be a distinction between our ‘espoused’ values, which we profess to believe in, and our ‘values in action’ which actually guide our behaviours – personally or organisationally.

In organisations, values (explicit or implicit) set the culture, inform the priorities and influence decisions. Values should be carefully selected through an inclusive process and then used to guide and inform everything a foundation does. Not doing so results in a foundation’s values being those of whoever happens to be making a decision at any given point in time – risking all sorts of personal biases determining things like who gets appointed, which organisations get funded and how we invest our endowments.

We believe that problems arise when values are:

  • Not defined
  • Not shared
  • Not communicated
  • Not real
  • Not enacted
  • Not monitored
  • Not resolved (eg when values conflict)

The issues raised by the participants in our session – a mix of trustees, directors and senior staff who were from a wide range of foundation types (big, small, family, corporate, place-based, NHS-linked, etc) – indicate that there are some common themes when it comes to the values gap in trusts and foundations – including:

  • Lack of clarity about who is responsible for defining values within trusts;
  • Trustees who cannot see the point of having explicit organisational values;
  • Uncertainty about how to manage differences and tensions between sets of values (eg commercial and charitable);
  • Uncertainty about how to go from a values statement to values actually guiding actions.

In preparation for our session we reviewed a wide range of publications aimed at helping organisations to understand the benefits of, and develop, clear values. In our view, a good place for trusts and foundations to start would be the report ‘Living Values‘ (Community Links – 2006) which helps explain the business case for values and contains helpful exercises to explore the topic further:

‘Values are the beginning – they are what inspire us; values are the means – they are what we do and how we do it; and values are the end – they are what we strive to achieve.’

We believe that clear, shared values should be the ‘golden thread’ running through everything we do – giving each of our trusts a strong sense of identity and a foundation on which to carry out our work and evaluate our performance.

We believe there is more work to be done at this moment in time to help and encourage trusts and foundations to be explicit about their values and to demonstrate to themselves and others how those values underpin and reinforce their work. And we remain keen to explore how best we can collectively take that forward.

Writing in a personal capacity:
James Fitzpatrick is Director at Joseph Levy Foundation
Melanie Griffiths is Director at Cloudesley
Fozia Irfan is CEO at Bedfordshire and Luton Community Foundation

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