Where are all the lived-experience leaders in grant making?


Selina Nwulu


It may not come as a surprise to hear that the foundation sector needs to diversify. For those of us working in and around the sector, words such as ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ are buzzwords that have been passed around for some time now, but what has truly changed?

If recent data from the Association of Charitable Foundations is anything to go by, then not a great deal. The research reveals foundation boards are 99 per cent white and typically over 65, males trustees outweigh women at a ratio of 2:1 and most are recruited through close pre-existing networks. Given this largely homogeneous picture, it is hard to conceive of where space is given for the views and leadership of those with lived experience in the cause areas foundations fund. Meaningful engagement needs to go beyond outreach, rather it needs to be embedded as an integral part of any foundation’s core operation.

What can we do about it?
We are inviting the sector to change. 2027 is a new coalition which has been launched to support talented frontline workers from working class communities into decision-making roles in trusts and foundations. Kick-started through support from Big Lottery, it is a 12-month placement programme that will run over the next ten years, with remaining income amassed through contributions from participating foundations. Crucial to the programme is a fundamental understanding that this is not an internship or access scheme designed solely to help 2027 Associates, but, in the words of our project partner Baljeet Sandhu, ‘that this is also about helping trusts and foundations improve their decision-making practices through the inclusion of diverse perspectives gained from lived, as well as learnt, experience.’

We are excited about the potential of this programme and the real impact it could have on the sector. Set to launch in October 2018, we received over 200 applications from frontline workers coming from a whole range of different backgrounds, experiences and passions. Trusts and foundations are currently signing up to take part with most places already allocated.

Creating a sector for long lasting change
Our hope through this programme is, not only to encourage foundations to diversify their leadership to be more in sync with larger society, but to urge the sector to value lived experience more meaningfully and equitably. All too often, those with lived experience are consulted while strategy and decision-making are reserved for those from predominately white and middle class backgrounds. This creates a dynamic where those with lived experiences are viewed more as ‘informants’ while the sector maintains its very rigid notions of leadership and vision.

Within many of the conversations we’ve had in developing this programme, there has been a concern that the 2027 Associates wouldn’t be qualified enough, or that their lived experiences would somehow blur their ability to carry out ‘effective’ strategy or leadership. There are many things to unpack with this; firstly we need to move past this paternalistic understanding that believes people with lived experience are unable to use this insight in a professional setting. No group of people are a monolith and this also discredits the ways in which many people with lived experience are already leaders, creating change for the better within their communities. Moreover, the successful 2027 Associates have gone through a rigorous assessment process, through which we have come to understand their experiences and skills sets so that we can place them in the best host foundation possible.

Historically, change has happened with lived experience leaders at the helm, it is inconceivable that landmark changes within gender, racial and LGBTQI equality, to name but a few, could have happened without the leadership and drive of those directly affected. It is time for the foundation sector to open its doors to lived experience leaders – we cannot create the long lasting change we’re all working towards without them.

Selina Nwulu is a senior consultant at Ten Years’ time, a founding partner of the 2027 programme.

Comments (3)


This is fantastic news! (And a great response to the depressing ACF stats.) I look forward to hearing more about raising the profile of lived-experience leaders.


This is a very interesting and catalytic initiative. How Can we know and get other Country Foundtaions and Family offices to participate. Spreading the word for change. Its time to accelerate change

Kelly Brown

Congratulations on this effort. It is a much needed effort. As the world continues to change, any organization that expects to be effective and relevant in the future must evolve with demographic and cultural changes. I am the former Director of the D5 Coalition a similar effort based in the US. I invite you to visit the D5 website www.d5coalition.org to look over the materials, webinars and learning we developed and curated to help US philanthropy be more impactful and effective through diversity and inclusion. Perhaps these resources will be helpful to you in your effort.

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