The buck stops here …

Richard Best

‘Partnerships’, ‘working together’, ‘collaboration’. These, surely, are essential for the proper functioning of major foundations. Yet during my 18 years at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) we made almost all of our grants alone, with no funding partners. We preferred to cover 100 per cent of costs without sharing the load or the risks.

JRF could have been involved in twice as many projects if we had contributed only half the total expenditure on each one. And working alongside other funders would, no doubt, have brought other benefits – not least the pleasure of forging closer relationships with colleagues in other funding bodies. So why this apparently expensive and anti-social approach?

Each foundation is different. In our case, the founder, Joseph Rowntree, asked his successors to search out the causes of social problems, not to treat their ‘superficial manifestations’. So the emphasis of JRF’s grantmaking is on research and pioneering development projects that provide evidence of how the root causes of social problems – poverty, homelessness, addictions, disabilities and more – can be addressed.

For a hands-on foundation concerned with policy-relevant R&D, I found distinct advantages in going it alone as sole sponsor and funder. The partnership is with those who are funded, not with other funders.

With one paymaster, conflicts are avoided between funders. Research is never entirely ‘pure’ and different grantmakers will have slightly different agendas, politics and ambitions. Disagreement can arise at the outset in agreeing the content, scope, methodology and expected outputs. It can occur during progress of the research/development work when practical decisions – and extra funds – may be needed (perhaps because key researchers or practitioners leave, or changes in government policies change the subject of the analysis).

But the different approaches of different funders become most apparent at the end of the project when the R&D findings are ready for publication. Judgements will be needed on the extent and nature of subsequent publicity and dissemination.

Receipt of a report can never be an end in itself and JRF has always seen that point as the start of the process of using the results to achieve change. But views will vary as to just how significant the report is: could it lead to a change in government policy or to the approach of professionals and practitioners in the relevant field? Does it deserve heavy investment in getting the message across (eg with articles in the quality newspapers, not just in academic journals? a slot at relevant conferences? a presentation to leading civil servants? a launch in the Houses of Parliament?). Who will decide? Who will pay for the next stages? Who will raise the public profile? Who will get the credit?

There is value to a foundation like JRF in being identified with the outputs from the work it has funded: it is possible to create a ‘brand’ and build up a reputation, which adds credibility and achieves recognition for a report that might otherwise go unnoticed. This approach can be undermined, or at least diluted, by identifying the findings from research or pioneering development with a variety of other organizations.

Worse, disagreement between partners can obstruct any ‘communications strategy’ for publicizing outputs.

My experience of jointly financed R&D projects has generated comments like these from the civil servant responsible for research at a government department: ‘I am afraid my Minister could not approve any dissemination of these findings. They run counter to government policy.’ A partner foundation’s chief executive has said: ‘So sorry but my Trustees would regard this as a very controversial issue and, as joint funder, I would be grateful if you could withdraw this draft press release immediately.’ And sometimes it is me that has said: ‘I know we have together put a lot of money into this research and you are keen on publicizing it widely; but, sorry, I think it tells us very little and does not merit further action.’

Acting as the single funder, without involvement in joint working arrangements – which can themselves be time-consuming and costly – means the foundation takes full responsibility for its own destiny. It enables a foundation to be itself, to be true to its own values.

The foundation can achieve accountability through its in-house procedures and interactions: lively debate can be pursued between trustees and with staff; external referees and advisers can be used to the full. But at least for a foundation with a mission to achieve social change, the buck should stop with the foundation itself.

Lord Richard Best OBE was the director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation from September 1988 to December 2006. Email

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