‘Fulfilling our promise? The value of foundations in a changing world’ was the title of this year’s conference of the UK’s Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) in London on 8 October. What does it tell us about foundations that they spend so much time discussing their role? One factor is clearly the recognition that philanthropic capital is small compared with the resources of government or the private sector, and it therefore needs to be used to the best possible effect.
As ACF chief executive David Emerson (pictured) pointed out in his opening remarks, foundations are one of the few sources of flexible grant funding, of what is often referred to as ‘risk capital’. Foundations can’t tackle the big issues alone, but they are well positioned to demonstrate ways to address social injustice and poverty, supporting those closer to the ground who have ‘great ideas’. Another reason for all the discussion is probably defensive: a cash-strapped government undoubtedly has its eyes on foundation money, especially for social investment, so it’s important to make clear that foundations are not just a handy pot of money for dipping into. Emerson also talked about ACF itself and the need to defend the space for civil society – a bill that aims to limit UK charities’ ability to campaign and lobby is going through parliament as I write.