ACF Conference - Carol Mack Keynote

ACF Virtual Annual Conference – Carol Mack's Keynote

Carol Mack, ACF's CEO, opened ACF's Virtual Annual Conference with a keynote speech on 25 November 2020. This is her speech in full


Last November, we met together at BMA House in London. This year we’re meeting virtually, sitting in our homes, relying on our Wi-Fi and on Zoom to keep it all going.

Despite the changing circumstances, there is still great benefit from being together in one place as a foundation community after a year that has tested all of us – both personally and professionally. But whatever challenges we face, I believe we face them best when we face them together. I hope these two days will be a chance for us all collectively to reflect, to recover somewhat and to renew our resolve.

We don’t know exactly when and how the Covid crisis will end. But we do know it will end and that it will leave a tough legacy.

  • Unemployment - One in ten workers are forecast to be unemployed throughout 2021, with young people particularly affected for years to come.
  • Some sectors are still effectively shut down – museums and heritage, arts and culture all face a bleak winter and NCVO research shows that charities in that sector have much lower levels of reserves than others.
  • During the lockdown half of those with pre-existing medical conditions have had care reduced or cancelled.
  • Black and minority ethnic communities have been much more affected by the pandemic – both from the disease and from the economic impacts.
  • And there is worrying evidence about how disabled people have fared during lockdown. Inclusion London reported that:
    • In a survey over 60% of Disabled people reported that they had struggled to access food, medicine and other necessities during the first lockdown
    • Nearly half talked about inaccessible information and confusing guidance, with 1 in 3 reporting increasing levels of psychological distress.
  • Internationally there are fears that with a vaccine now in sight, rich nations will turn inwards in their race to protect their populations – with clear impacts on countries less able to do this

Over the last ten years, here in the UK charities’ income from government has declined and they have innovated to draw more on public fundraising and on trading. But now in this hour of need those income streams are much more difficult.

Charities have been trying to do more and more, with less and less resources, dwindling reserves, and with a donor base that could well take a hit from high unemployment.

Given this background and overwhelming need, I am really proud of how ACF members and many other funders have stepped up this year.

I am generalising from a range of experiences but I think one can see four broad responses.

Firstly – many of you acted swiftly to provide immediate emergency funding – whether to support the search for a vaccine, or to meet basic community needs – like food and PPE.

A second broad response was to help existing grantees. One member told us: “We have suspended all formal reporting, in favour of picking up the phone and checking in with our partners how they are doing, how we can help and what they need from us”.

Thirdly, as the pandemic unfolded, many looked of you for where there are gaps in funding and where new relationships are needed to address them. EG; Foundations looked again at how they work with BAME-led organisations and communities.

And lastly foundations are thinking more and more about how you work together to maximise your impact in response to Covid – and several of you will be sharing your experience of this at a breakout session later today.

There is much to be proud of but no room for complacency - and I’m sure the sessions over the next two days will help us avoid that – but it is worth saying that your work this year has been recognised by many – including by the Chancellor Rishi Sunak. He referenced the part that foundations had already played when he announced a government support package for charities in April.

I also want to touch on the way that the Black Lives Matter protests this year have shone a spotlight on structural racism. They have galvanised public attention and much needed action in many institutions.

This spotlight can be uncomfortable for some of us here today. But that’s a discomfort we need to embrace. Its necessary if we are to shift the dial and finally get to grips with this issue for once and for all – as many of you are already doing.

Becoming a more diverse, equitable and inclusive sector is a journey not a destination. And it is a journey that demands us all to move at speed. As with all journeys, the critical point is to make a start, to head in the right direction and continue to ask hard questions about progress. And that is something we can all do – individually and collectively.

It’s important in all this that we reflect back on 2020 and the lessons it shows us.

Learning from extreme crises can often illuminate how our day-to-day work can sometimes fail to live up to the ambition we all hold to deliver our mission, our charitable purpose, in the best way possible.

So the importance of learning from the pandemic will be the focus of today’s plenary sessions. And tomorrow we’ll build on this as we look ahead to other challenges that the decade will bring. We will draw on the findings of ACF’s Stronger Foundations initiative – that so many of you have worked on over the past 2 years - and which sets out in detail what ambitious and effective foundation practice looks like.

2020 has tested our sector – it is a year like no other.

But the fundamentals for individual foundations remain the same now and in the future – and came out very strongly through all six of the Stronger Foundations reports:-

  • The primacy of mission – and the value of being intentional in what you do
  • The recognition that a foundation cannot achieve anything on its own – it is how you use your knowledge, power and resources to connect with others that counts.
  • And the need to embrace accountability – in a society that is increasingly distrustful of power, and where good intentions do not exempt you from scrutiny.

As the CE of ACF – I always want to champion the amazing work that foundations do. The breadth and scope of your activity – individually and collectively - and the thought that you give to your work takes my breath away. I find it a constant inspiration – and now of all times it is never more needed.

I firmly believe that at their best foundations are the most transparent, intentional and efficient way to transform private wealth into public benefit. I want us all to be able to say that with confidence – and point with pride to the role of the foundation sector in the life of our country.

To do that, we need to be relevant, and show that we are alive to and addressing the critical issues of our time. And increasingly as others have said, we need to be more than the sum of our parts. I hope that during the next two days this conference will provide the space for us all to reflect on what this means; to recover our perspective on the past eight months and what we can learn from them, and to renew our resolve to be ambitious individually and collectively in the way we use our precious resources for social good.

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