Fit for purpose foundations and the ‘grant making tango’

A couple of days ago Jake Hayman posted this fascinating post on the widespread flaws among grant making trusts and foundations (and thanks Alice Evans for sharing it). In it he set out his many frustrations with the way that charitable funders operate – whilst acknowledging that not all are like that all of the time – gleaned from 10 years of working in the charity sector.

Overall I found the piece refreshingly direct, honest and insightful and much of what he said resonated with things I have seen over the 25 years I have spent working in the sector. However – inevitably with a piece such as this – I also felt that many notable exceptions exist and that a many foundations are quite different to the picture Jake painted.

 http://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/files/jrf/0953804038.pdf

The Grant Making Tango

My experience is of ‘both sides of the fence’ having been a grant maker for the last 15 years – including a stint on the board of the Association of Charitable Foundations (the membership body for charitable trusts and foundations). I’ve also done my share of fundraising and run organisations seeking funds for many years. I recognise that my experience is therefore not typical, as I’ve been fortunate to be able to see ‘behind the curtain’ into what foundations are thinking and doing and to get to know many funders personally.

My first observation is that grant makers are very much like the rest of the not for profit sector in their diversity and so to talk about them as a homogenous group is as misleading as lumping together the Oxfam with my local friends of the park group. Some are large scale operations with teams of staff – though often far fewer than you would imagine – and capacity and resources to do things. Others are much leaner affairs with one, or even no, dedicated member of staff responsible for running the entire organisation along with a board of trustees. Clearly capacity and resources makes a difference to how they operate – though I would also suggest that the values and principles you adopt still affect your approach.

Secondly, I suspect many foundations would agree with much of what Jake has levelled at them. They are often aware of the weaknesses and I have attended more than the occasional angst-ridden meeting where grant-makers have expressed very candidly their desire to improve their work. However their money and power brings an inevitable inequity into many of the relationships and discussions they have – people are often cringingly deferential towards the purse string holders. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be nice to funders – we should be nice to everybody – but the brown-nosing that goes on is vile.

Thirdly, I think many of the criticisms levelled at foundations can equally be applied to the public sector. In fact I think that in many respects the state is far more guilty of some of the points made. Public bodies are generally more risk averse, do far more box ticking (indeed often ticking the wrong boxes just because they are easier to tick/measure), distrust charities, base processes around their own convenience….I could go through nearly the entire list. Far more money is spent by public bodies than by trusts and foundations. Though there are – like foundations – many exceptions the general trend is in my view similar.

My fourth observation – which is probably most likely to irritate people – is that I believe the sector is partly complicit in the current situation. Too many charities – in particular the larger ones with the resources and capacity – play the game. Rather than doing what Jake has done and raising their concerns in a way encourages debate they keep their heads down and try to make the best of the circumstances. Of course that is understandable – their responsibility lies with their beneficiaries and so doing what needs to be done for their benefit is perfectly fine. But that does, to a greater or less extent, perpetuate the problems we’re trying to solve.

There is a dishonesty in the games that are played – grant-seekers overstate what they will do and report impact than they don’t achieve. If you added up the total fiscal and social benefit of the grants that foundations make according to beneficiaries it would, I would guess, dwarf the economies of the G8 every year. Similarly if I had a pound for every project that promised to ‘be sustainable at the end of this grant’ actually was financially viable, I would be able to set up my own endowed foundation. Grant makers have no incentive to challenge these fantastic claims and results as it makes their impact more impressive – after all they are reliant on others to help them achieve their aims. The dance goes on.

Julia Unwin, now CEO of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, wrote a report back in 2004 for the Baring Foundation called ‘the grant making tango’ about the strange relationship between the funders and the funded and ways in which it could be strengthened. I think there is still a great deal in there which would help address some – though not all – of the issues Jake has raised.

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3 thoughts on “Fit for purpose foundations and the ‘grant making tango’

  1. Pingback: Tardy and tired: Have I Got Social Enterprise News For You | SSE

  2. Pingback: Have I Got A Social Enterprise Year in Review For You | SSE

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