From Charity to Creativity: Philanthropic foundations in the 21st century

In the foreword to this book, Lord Smith of Clifton raises issues concerning the state of philanthropic foundations in the UK today. First, that little is known about them. Second, that they enjoy a light regulatory framework. Third, that in contrast to American grant-givers, they have escaped critical review by both academic commentators and the general public. Fourth, that they are having to adjust to living alongside a state which funds and contracts through quangos and the lottery. Fifth, that as they have become more professional, they need to explore new ways of working. Seems a good and relevant agenda. Do the authors adequately address it in the text that follows? Sadly, I have to say, no.

Leat and Anheier start with a review of what is known about trusts in the UK. Their report is thin on data. They could, for example, have made much more use of Cathy Pharaoh and Jeremy Vincent’s excellent survey of 1,000 trusts carried out three years ago and the Directory of Social Change’s data. They comment on the growth of trusts in the post-war world, but seem to ignore that this was in a period of high direct taxation (personal giving peaked in the same period). They say nothing about the recent growth of company-sponsored foundations, which have a strong ‘PR’ role. They say absolutely nothing about the thousands or so parochial trusts in the UK, which shore up the UK voluntary sector and often prove to be most creative with their grantmaking.

The authors chastise trusts for not addressing need and diversity (they could have highlighted the disproportionate amount of money spent on social research), yet fail to acknowledge that trusts’ giving patterns are not too different from those of the general public, or from government or academic influenced agendas.

Do they provide ideas for reform and change? The report takes up many pages explaining how organizational change occurs and looking at the determinants of innovation (as opposed to ‘pure innovation’ and the ‘locus of innovation’). We have a lot of management ‘flipchartese’. It’s probably all good stuff for an office seminar (in the vein of a currently popular BBC comedy series). But beware, foundations, you cannot win. You are advised to be footloose – to ‘migrate to your competitive advantage over other institutions’, but if you are too footloose you will fail to be accountable. And you mustn’t be traditional when you should be modern. Nor can you simply give a grant – you must find some added value somewhere, preferably with an evaluation package!

Oddly, the authors do not address the new actors in grantmaking – the professional fundraisers. Most trusts are reactive, and it’s often the fundraisers, who are more creative than ever, who spearhead the need and so influence us. The authors could well have spent some time looking at how foundations interact with this new profession.

Does the report say anything about international grantgiving? Possibly, but I couldn’t find it. Now if UK foundations would set up endowed parochial charities in the villages and small towns of Africa, Asia and South America, then we would have something creative. But it is really such an old-fashioned idea!

Rodney Hedley is Secretary to the Trustees, Hilden Charitable Fund, London. He can be contacted at

From Charity to Creativity: Philanthropic foundations in the 21st century
Helmut K Anheier and Diana Leat Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust/Comedia £12.95

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