Interview – Astrid Bonfield

The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund was set up four days after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales on 31 August 1997 to receive the money that was flowing in from the public during that time. At the end of December this year, after 15 years of operation, the Fund will close. Its grantees’ achievements in the last seven years include an international ban on cluster bombs and a 42 per cent reduction in child and youth imprisonment.

Making grants as though you’re spending out even if you aren’t is a really good discipline, Astrid Bonfield, CEO since 2005, told Alliance editor Caroline Hartnell.

Was it always the intention that the Fund should spend out?

Yes, right from the early days. The precise timeframe wasn’t agreed, but the decision was made early on that the Fund would carry out a limited programme of work. When I came in, the Fund was already in spend-out mode. I developed the final strategic plan and that’s when we agreed that we’d spend out and close within five to seven years.

Did the decision on the spend-out timescale change the way you operated?

Yes, I think it did. When you know when the end-date is, you really start thinking, ‘what can we do in these final years to make the biggest difference?’ That’s when we decided to move away from a broad approach to working with marginalized and displaced people, often with an emphasis on transition from childhood to adulthood, where we invited people to apply for grants. Under spend out mode, we became an almost entirely proactive grantmaker, reducing our areas of work to four clearly defined initiatives with really targeted outcomes.

So, for example, we wanted: to help ensure campaigners achieved an international ban on cluster bombs; to reduce the number of children and young people in prison; to integrate palliative care in seven countries in Sub-Saharan Africa; and to ensure the rights of young refugees and asylum seekers were upheld, in particular by ending the immigration detention of children.

So we said let’s have total focus on systemic change and go for really ambitious, bold outcomes. Take cluster bombs: we had been working on the issue of explosive remnants of war for a long time, but in your final phase it’s not about providing immediate assistance via prosthetic limbs or clearing minefields, it’s about trying to get rid of the weapons that are leaving the lethal litter once and for all. In working with young people seeking asylum, it’s not about trying to make their situation better, it’s about closing down detention centres that house children like at Yarl’s Wood. That focus came from having an end-date in mind and knowing that you have one final shot at achieving a lasting impact. And we have achieved pretty much what we wanted in our four areas of focus.

Looking back over the last 15 years, what do you see as the Fund’s principal legacy?

For me, it’s all about the outcomes. Helping to achieve the international ban on cluster bombs has to be one of the biggest achievements. Another great legacy is that child and youth imprisonment in the UK has gone down by 42 per cent. Our grant to the Prison Reform Trust was our biggest single grant – approximately £1.5 million over five years – with just one outcome: to reduce the number of children and young people imprisoned for non-violent offences. We had a very light-touch relationship in terms of the tactics they used to achieve that. I’m sure the Prison Reform Trust wouldn’t claim all of the credit, but isn’t that an extraordinary legacy?

Yet another area is our work to champion the rights of young refugees and asylum seekers, which has certainly been a politically difficult area to work on in this country. We haven’t quite done it – detention of children at ports and just prior to departure does still happen – but the fact is that detention facilities for children have been closed down. I think that’s extraordinary. Who would have thought that the government would actually close the family wing at Yarl’s Wood, where 2,000 children were being held on average each year for no crime?

I always tend to talk about the final seven years because that’s when I was at the Fund, but I don’t want to ignore what happened in the previous years. The Cluster Munitions Coalition started prior to my arrival, and the Fund was a founder member of that, and Andrew Purkis, my predecessor, was very personally involved. Without that history we would not have been able to do what we did in the final few years. It’s the same with palliative care – that was a ten-year programme, not five years, and the Fund’s long-term commitment to this issue is testament to the success we’ve had in integrating palliative care into national health systems in Africa.

The roots were all there, I just had to build on them. It’s really important that it was Andrew who did so much of the original, quite brilliant thinking; it would be unfair for me to take all the credit just because I’m here at the end.

Is there any particular achievement that you’re personally particularly proud of?

Probably the Fund’s palliative care work. I lived in Zimbabwe when there was no treatment, and HIV/AIDS infection rates in Harare were 1 in 4. It was a grim time, and people were dying very quickly. The treatment action campaign was great as it led to people getting treatment and being able to live with HIV/AIDS, but I’d never thought about palliative care. In Africa palliative care is not just  about the end of life; it’s about treating all the symptoms from the moment you’re diagnosed with a life-limiting illness, which is why palliative care as an approach is transformational. Particularly with HIV/AIDS, it’s about the whole care agenda in terms of the continuum from testing to treatment and care. For example, someone can have oral thrush and not be able to take their anti-retrovirals. Previously that could have led to death, but palliative care treats the oral thrush, then the person can eat and take their drugs and go on to have a long and healthy life. I’ve been truly touched to see the step change as small pockets of great practice start to get integrated into actual health systems.

You have always worked in broad coalitions with other actors, foundations and NGOs. How do you attribute which part of the legacy is down to the Fund, or don’t you think it matters?

I don’t think it matters. That’s one of the greatest things about working at a foundation: it frees you to do some quite high-level things without attribution getting in the way.

The reduction in child and youth imprisonment, for example, comes against a backdrop of a global and economic crisis. When it costs so much to incarcerate young people and recidivism rates are at 90 per cent, an economic argument starts to have a lot more weight.

Another thing that has helped the Fund is the introduction of governance arrangements that enabled the senior management team to sign off grants of less than £500,000, which meant we could act very fast. One of the grants in the cluster bombs campaign was made in 48 hours because a debate was happening in Parliament the next week. Our board were fantastic and decided to concentrate on the strategic direction of the organization and really scrutinize the strategy and outcomes rather than just focusing on the various inputs.

Do you feel that most of the organizations you have been supporting regularly over the years are in good shape to carry on without your support?

As part of our exit strategy, we’ve had a very careful programme of capacity building, particularly with our partners in Africa. Our strategy in Africa is to take a health systems approach to integrating palliative care, so we’ve approached it on all levels, getting policies into ministry plans, developing a teaching curriculum and so on. But at the ground level it’s also been about small palliative care organizations going out and doing the work. They’re very fragile, so it’s been an important part of our final year to ensure that they have some stability for the future. We’ve taken this very seriously and I feel confident about that.

This capacity-building hasn’t really changed our relationship with our grantees because we’ve always had such close partnerships with them. We’ve never taken a ‘we’ll fund your project but not your staff costs’ approach: it’s the people within organizations who do the work after all. The funding certainly has been appreciated by our grantees.  But ultimately stability comes from a system change, so if you want to see palliative care integrated into district hospitals it can’t be about supporting individual organizations. We need to create an environment where there is demand for palliative care.

Looking back over your time with the Fund, do you have any regrets?

With hindsight there is of course lots we couldn’t do or we could have done better or more quickly, but as we get ever closer to closure, no regrets at all. It’s been an absolute privilege to work for the Fund and I’ve loved it: great staff and great board, and all single-mindedly focused on doing the best that we can do with the money that people generously gave in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales

Do you have any regrets about having to spend out?

I think it was the right thing to do. If we hadn’t had this push for the finish line, I don’t think we would have done what we have done as quickly or made as great an impact. We couldn’t have committed the amounts of money we did if we had been committed to keeping going. It would have been more of an evolution, rather than the revolution we made.

Has the name of Diana, Princess of Wales ever been a problem for you?

Well, a downside has been negative attention when we’ve worked on contentious issues. When you work with refugee and asylum seekers, for example, you can get a very negative response from some of the tabloid media. We carry the name of Diana, Princess of Wales, which is of public interest. But you have to be robust about that – other foundation colleagues, at the Big Lottery Fund, for example, have had similar problems. It shouldn’t stop you trying to do difficult work; it’s just sometimes a bit tricky when you see excellent work being unfairly discredited on the front page of a tabloid.

But the asset of having the connection with the Princess’s humanitarian work has so outweighed this. In Africa, the Princess’s name certainly opens doors, and it was very helpful with the cluster bombs campaign because of her involvement with the landmine issue.

What would be the single key message you’d like to give to people considering whether or not to spend out?

I think you should trust the future to future generations: the Gates Foundation, the biggest foundation in the world, didn’t exist 15 years ago. Future generations will have their own philanthropy, which will be appropriate to their vision of the world.

I’d say to someone considering whether to spend out: imagine you’re spending out, and make grants as though you’re spending out even if you aren’t. This is a really good discipline. Ask yourself: if this was the very last chance, would you do things differently? We’ve been fortunate to work with some like-minded organizations, trying to get to the roots of problems. None of them are spend-out foundations, but they still want the big win; that approach is more of a mindset, I think.

But if you do decide to spend out, I’d say ‘congratulations, go for it’; it’s going to be an extraordinary experience for all involved.

You say on your website that you are ‘committed to telling the story of your work and sharing the learning acquired over your 15 years as a grantmaker’. How will you do this?

Two years ago, we started the process of carrying out an evaluation of some of the Fund’s approaches; we’ve had a whole series of meetings this year with people in the sector looking at all the ways that we’ve worked: being a proactive grantmaker, doing advocacy, and so on. That report, A Funder Conundrum, has just been published.

In addition, all sorts of publications have been created during the lifetime of the fund, and the copyrights of those are being handed over to our partners, for example the African Palliative Care Association and others, and they’ll be the repositories from now on.

Finally, we are placing the Fund’s grants files in a social archive because we think they will be of great value as social history – rather like the Rockefeller family did nearly 40 years ago. Diana Leat, one of our board members, has been a great advocate for this. She did a fellowship with the Rockefeller Foundation, visiting their Archive Centre, and I looked at some of the material that was coming out of there, for example the letters written when foundation staff were trying to get Jewish academics out of occupied Europe, and they were absolutely extraordinary – even though they didn’t know it at the time.

What we have as foundations is an overview of a particular sector at a particular time, and I think that can be very valuable.

Can you see a way, as well as being social history, that this information could be part of a system in which all foundations share their grant information? So that, for instance, if I was an organization wanting to support palliative care in Africa, I could learn from your grant files and so on and benefit from your experiences.

There is a group for spend-out foundations in the UK, so if you’re going to spend out, you don’t have to reinvent the process. You don’t have to get your lawyers to write a different type of grant closure letter, you just take it off the shelf.

In terms of the actual subject areas, foundations who want to access our experiences from a practical point of view will be able to look at our archives. But because we’ve worked so much in collaboration, our partners will be repositories of knowledge too. If you are a foundation working on palliative care, for example, you will be working with the True Colours Trust, and everything that we know, they know too. The True Colours Trust isn’t closing, so they become the beacon carrying the knowledge forward.

I hope ACF [Association of Charitable Foundations] will, over time, grow to be a repository of this sort of knowledge, for example through their ‘funder network’ knowledge-sharing website. But if you’re starting up a new programme, I think the first thing people do is go and talk to people.

Data sharing is a perennial issue for foundations. I used to chair the European Group for HIV Funders. In collaboration with the US-based Funders Concerned About AIDS and UN AIDS, we counted how much money was going from foundations to HIV/AIDS from Europe, where it was going, what the key trends were, etc. It’s an enormously complicated thing to do, and the problem for all of us is that there is so much data out there; it’s more about the analysis and getting it into a format that you can actually use.

We have talked about how the Fund changed when the decision was made to spend down five years ago. But what about the last few years?

It hasn’t been different in terms of how we do it, but never underestimate how much work it is to close an organization down. All of our partners and staff have known about our spend-out plans since the launch of our strategy in 2007, but I’ve still produced maybe 800 letters this year, just reminding them that we’re closing and  thanking them for all of their help over the years. It has been a huge amount of work to get the closure tasks done – archiving papers, sorting out legal matters, closing off all the grants, getting the evaluation done. It’s been a real sprint to get to the finish line; you think it’ll get quieter and quieter, but we still wait for a quiet week.

Will there be grants carrying on after the 15 years? Will there be some system of reporting on them?

We like to think that the work is continuing through our grantees but, administratively speaking, all grants will be closed by the time the Fund shuts its doors in December.

For more information


A previous interview with Astrid Bonfield was published by Alliance in January 2009. This interview looked at the success of the campaign by the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund for a global ban on cluster bombs. Read the previous article.

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