CEO blog | The role of UK foundations in an evolving philanthropy landscape

26 March 2024

Carol Mack, ACF chief executive, reflects on rich discussions about the role of foundations at our recent spring reception for trustees.


The philanthropy sector has undergone significant transformation in recent years. Back in January, I looked at how emerging trends are poised to continue reshaping the landscape. But what role do charitable foundations play in this evolving ecosystem? And how can foundations continue to support charities and forward their missions amidst a time of global polycrisis? These were some of the questions that brought us together at ACF’s recent spring reception - a gathering of nearly 50 trustees representing a wide range of our member trusts and foundations.

We were delighted to hear from Rory Brooks CBE, a board member of the Charity Commission for England and Wales appointed for his significant philanthropic expertise. Rory outlined the initiatives he is leading to catalyse greater and more impactful philanthropy, including harnessing the Commission’s unique data insights and shining a light on the impressive contribution of the philanthropy sector.

Persistent financial challenges stemming from the cost of living crisis and a tough funding climate continue to exert pressure on charities and the communities and causes they support. While philanthropy cannot possibly fill all of the gaps, unlocking more philanthropy is greatly needed. So the regulator’s increased focus on fostering philanthropy is very welcome, as evidenced in the Commission’s newly unveiled five-year strategy under the leadership of its Chair, Orlando Fraser.

The Commission rightly recognises the distinct contribution of foundations in promoting and advancing philanthropy in the UK, along with the benefits the foundation model brings. As Rory put it so eloquently: “Foundations have an integral role in maintaining and developing the culture of giving in this country.”

ACF’s own strategy echoes this perspective, centred around the belief that, at their best, foundations are the most transparent and effective way for private wealth to be transformed into public benefit. We will continue to work in collaboration with the regulator and other stakeholders on our shared ambition to grow the size and strength of the sector.

Rory also reflected on why the UK context provides an optimal operating environment for foundations. As seen in recent years, foundations can achieve significant impact through embracing risk and innovation, working with longer-term horizons, working collaboratively and being agile to respond effectively during periods of rising demand. This underscores the ongoing necessity for a supportive and lightly regulated environment, ensuring that the UK continues to be one of the best destinations for philanthropic foundations.

Contributions by Dinah Cox OBE, chair of Devon Community Foundation, and Sufina Ahmad MBE, ACF trustee, highlighted some of the many positive stories of foundations, particularly their proactive, flexible response in the face of crisis. Dinah spoke passionately about the unique value of philanthropic funding – illustrated through the example of a community food larder – offering independent funding distinct to statutory and private sources, supporting less popular causes, and acting as an anchor to draw together different networks and partnerships. This is something we hear across our membership – foundations effectively leveraging their assets and pursuing their charitable missions, in spite of strong headwinds.

The abundance of power, privilege and resource within the foundation sector puts an onus on us for positive transformation, even while we respond to pressing need. Aided by a supportive regulatory framework in the UK, I have no doubt that philanthropic foundations possess the key components for realising a better future – both as individual institutions and, crucially, as integral parts of a dynamic, interconnected ecosystem. 

And, as the sector’s membership body, ACF will continue to strengthen trusts and foundations so they can rise to the challenges of our times with ambition, determination and confidence.