The Social Justice Philanthropy Conference, held on 1 March in London, looked at the implications of social justice for practice and policy, particularly in relation to foundations. Yet it seemed that in the course of discussing the broad topic of social justice philanthropy, many interesting thoughts emerged on the broader role of foundations in civil society.
Referring to the values of the Barrow Cadbury Trust, Chief Executive Sara Llewellin spoke of how the Trust’s founders taught their family to give away their money to the best possible effect. She stressed that despite being a Trust, they should not be defined simply as grantmakers, as their aim is to be changemakers. There are many effective ways that social justice can be worked towards other than with a grant – through advocacy, engagement, community development or whatever is most appropriate to the issue being tackled.
Balihar Sanghera presented research on Understanding foundations and social justice: opportunities and constraints, which conducted interviews with leaders of a number of social change and community-based foundations on the concept of social justice within their organization. Sanghera suggested that the term ‘social justice’ implies that the decision making processes of foundations are open to scrutiny, when in practice these may lack impartiality and openness. He noted that foundations gain their legitimacy from the state by requiring them to register with the Charity Commission; however, other than submitting a number of reporting documents, they have no accountability with regard to being effective. While this may offer some advantages, such as – at least in theory – the ability to take risks which are too dangerous or costly for the state, others view a lack of accountability as an inherently unjust situation.
Discussion touched on what constitutes a values based business – and on the relative value of companies having ethical business practices as opposed to doing good with profit earmarked for charitable causes? Yet surely this question can also be applied to foundations; the lack of ethical investment within foundations was a significant tension that Sanghera highlighted. If the effect of a foundation’s investments outweighs the good done by its other activities, its net impact could actually be negative. (The importance of mission investing for foundations is discussed in detail in Buzz Schmidt and Clara Miller’s article in the March 2013 issue of Alliance magazine).
Another tension within self-proclaimed social change foundations which was highlighted is the fact that many trustees are drawn from a relatively narrow social background. It was asked whether foundation leadership is actually a closed system – with staff and trustees drawn from a comparatively small pool. If so, what effect does this have on the dynamics of an organization and their view of the issues they are involved with? As noted by Diana Leat, grantmaking already involves a certain amount of tension between effectiveness and fairness – there is something inherently unfair about choosing what to fund and what not to fund. If decision makers are all drawn from a similar background, does this limit the scope of which projects and issues receive funding? A presentation from the Edge Fund about living one’s social justice values highlighted that there are other ways to bring about social change that many foundations have not yet considered. Even changing existing grant application systems may open the door to highly effective projects that might otherwise be excluded.
Karl Wilding of NCVO noted that the most interesting thing about foundations is not what they fund but how they fund. Perhaps one additional point to add is that who is providing the funding can also be important.
Jenny Conrad is Communication & Circulation Officer at Alliance magazine.