ACF Conference: Carol Mack’s speech

This speech was delivered by ACF's Chief Executive Carol Mack at our Annual Conference on 08 November 2017.

The future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed

Hello and welcome to the 2017 ACF Annual Conference. I am absolutely thrilled to see you all here today. Thank you so much for coming.

Over the past few years we have used the conference to think collectively about issues such as independence, time, and, most recently, trust. This year our approach is slightly different, moving from ideas to recent events – and attempting to address head on some of the many social, cultural and political challenges of the current moment. 

In doing so, we will tease out the implications for your work as funders, as investors, as innovators, as preservers, and as agents of social change. 

We have taken the decision to focus in this way, because, frankly, how could we not?

Regardless of your politics, your area of focus, the level of your excitement or depths of dismay, the landscape we collectively face seems radically altered in ways that seemed unlikely even a few short years ago. 

I (and perhaps some of you) can vividly recall conversations we had back in 2008, in the aftermath of the financial crash, when we asked ourselves ‘is this the new normal?’. But now, almost a decade later, perhaps we should ask ourselves, are we really any closer to an answer?  

And in the face of the complexity we see around us, is such a question still a meaningful way to frame either our understanding or our response? 

Would we have predicted with any confidence the range, scale and persistence of some of the issues that we now find ourselves grappling with as a society? 

Let me name just a few.

A sitting, but shaken, government having to publicly defend capitalism – an economic orthodoxy which many had seen as unquestionable. Deep challenges to the post-war consensus about the nature and role of the state. Movements toward regional, national and supra-national independence. Polarised views finding homes within mainstream political discourse. And an unprecedented global crisis of human displacement. All of that is before we even get to issues of technology and the changing nature of work. 

How on earth do we understand, locate and relocate ourselves in the midst of this? What does it mean when the pace of change outstrips our ability to understand and adjust to the roles we now could play – collectively and individually? And crucially, and now as foundations, what tools do we have at our disposal to help us navigate this terrain, meet its challenges and amplify its opportunities?

As your membership association, ACF is in a privileged position to hear about and witness the many ways in which foundations of all shapes and sizes are thinking about and responding to some of the questions posed by the current time. 

As an example, I have been struck by the increasing number of funders who intentionally view their activities through the lens of community, geography, or place.

And perhaps this increase is not surprising, given that the people and initiatives we support all exist in space and time, even if we may sometimes revert to the professional shorthand that leads us to talk in terms of our funding categories, sectors or outcomes. 

This can so easily disguise the reality that it is into physical city squares across the globe that people have marched and gathered to assert either their support or their resistance. It is across actual land and national borders that refugees and asylum seekers have travelled toward a different life … and it has been knowable, located communities that have suffered first hand such horrors as the Grenfell Tower fire that I know many of you have responded to, often through working powerfully in partnership.

Time and again I have heard foundations asking what they can do to better support their grantees and partners, to make better use of all of their assets, to build capacity and leadership, and to strengthen cohesion across divides of age, race and identity.

They are asking what we mean when we refer to a group of people as ‘hard to reach’ and what the language of ‘going into’ a community might reveal about how we frame our practice. 

And increasingly, funders across the foundation sector are asking what role they might play in the formation and support of non-physical, online communities or in movements where power and action are digitally distributed. 

Similarly funders working in preservation, the environment and heritage are continuing to consider the deeply interconnected ways that politics and social attitudes can shape the fate of buildings, natural resources and cultural artefacts over the longer term.

And many funders are questioning whether and how they could and should respond when the state draws back; whether to put their weight into service delivery or campaigning for change; and how they can make ever better use of all of the resources and assets at their disposal.

As ever with foundations, many of which finance their work from their endowments, the broader economic context has a particular role to play. And here perhaps the best summary is a sense of ongoing uncertainty. 

The relationship between economic growth and human wellbeing is increasingly fraught – and it can feel bewildering to unpick the cause and effect of economic change. We are facing an economic picture of ever increasing complexity that covers everything from bond markets and equity markets to black markets and super markets. 

What we can know with some certainty is that foundations’ role in this broader picture is changing. Research conducted by ACF, showed that foundations are giving more than ever, almost £3bn a year in grants alone, underpinned by a robust growth in asset values.

But what about the context of that giving? The amount of government grants to the charity sector has been steadily shrinking for years. The result is that foundation grant-making is now comparable in scale to that of government.

So as one of the few sources of pure grant funding, what does this mean for the demands placed on foundation resources, both in terms of scale and focus? And will the picture alter still further with the ongoing Brexit negotiations? 

Historically, foundations have been well placed to cope with this kind of uncertainty, using their independence to make difficult decisions, respond creatively and ensure the needs of their beneficiaries are met. 

But for many funders now, especially those working in areas such as housing, tackling poverty, financial and social inclusion, or health and social care, the scale of those needs may appear to be growing at a rate that requires new ways of thinking or working. Some are exploring new solutions such as deeper collaboration, cross-sector partnerships or by funding exclusively within a systems-change framework. 

Others are intentionally taking a long-term approach, looking even further ahead and assessing the possibilities of greater automation, clean and sustainable energy sources and scientific or medical advancements that might allow us to live longer healthier lives. 

Indeed, across the range of foundation practice, from those that have existed for many years, have many staff and give many millions, to the newest foundations – often the initiative of a single family or company - what has struck me time and again is how ready foundation staff and trustees have been to think flexibly about their role. 

For example, I have heard robust conversations about the role of impact measurement, about how best to quantify the effect of funding, about the role of data in accountability and how best to ensure it supports an organisation’s decision making.

But I have also heard many of you wanting to examine the possible limits of this approach. Can it give us the answers we need in the face of complexity? And does getting to grips with new challenges require us to adopt a different set of metrics?

And perhaps more than at any other time I can remember, I have seen foundations thinking about deconstructing and improving their grant-making processes, about the use of power, the importance of good leadership and about the role of collaboration with partners we may have previously seen as unlikely.

And for those for whom it makes sense, many are considering the role of lived experience within their decision making, or are considering again their relationship to trust, to risk, to patience and to urgency. 

The quality and variety of the debate is genuinely inspiring, and myself and my team are grateful to be able to play a role in supporting such a range of thinking and practice – and bring it to a wider audience, through forums such as today.

And for our part, ACF is changing too.

We are continuing to enhance our policy voice, raising vital issues at the highest levels of government and with the regulators. We are launching a member-led project that will work with you in articulating what leading foundation practice looks like across a number of areas. We are investing in delivering more, better, and more accessible member services, both online and in person. 

Increasingly we are linking with and learning from networks across the world. We are enhancing the evidence base around the role of philanthropy (which you might say is more important than ever in this era of fake news). And as ever, we are remaining committed to our tradition of holding and protecting the spaces which enable you come to together and share with your peers. 

I mention the importance of coming together as peers last, not only because that is what we are doing here today, but because regardless of the challenges and opportunities we face, I strongly believe we meet them best when we meet them together.  

Because, to address, the title of the conference directly, how else DO we navigate the now? 

I would argue, that while we may not have a map, while we may not be able to firmly fix and know a finite terrain, we are in possession of something that is more like a compass; something that allows us to orientate ourselves and take our next steps with confidence. 

Our independence, our values, our charitable purposes – or missions if you will, our ability to form new ideas, models and narratives, our passion, our strength in combining rigour and flexibility, to hold firm when we have to and bend when we need to, and our long history of facing challenges head on regardless of their nature and scale. This is what will collectively guide us in the years and decades to come. 

We cannot break the clock.

The world is unlikely to get simpler.

Your decisions are unlikely to get easier.

But now more than ever before I am confident in foundations’ ability to rise to the challenges, to meet change head-on and to continue to play a vital role in supporting a thriving, pluralist society.

And as you do this, myself and my team look forward to being there to support you every step of the way. 


Carol Mack
Chief Executive


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