All that is solid: foundations and the question of borders

This speech was delivered by Carol Mack at ACF's Annual Conference on the theme of 'borders, barriers, and boundaries'. Find out more about our conference here or on Twitter #acfconf. 

I want to start today’s conference by briefly taking us back in time, to the year that ACF was founded. That year was 1989. 

And for many, it was a year when it seemed as though the world was finally emerging from the shadows of the Cold War and entering into a period of renewed hope and open cooperation. Coincidentally, it was in the early days of November 1989, that more than half a million people gathered at the foot of the Berlin Wall, demanding the removal of a barrier that had stood for almost three decades. 

Within the week, Mauerspechte (or wall-peckers as they were known) were carrying home fragments of the Berlin wall as souvenirs, perhaps to be looked back on one day as a reminder of a darker, more divided time. 

But what we now know -with the benefit of hindsight - is that the fall of the Berlin Wall was not a beginning … it was an exception. 

In fact, in the years that have passed since 1989, the world has undergone a period of what has been described by some historians as ‘mass-bordering’, to the extent that today, more than one third of the nations on earth are physically, and often militarily, walled off from their neighbours. This is a state of affairs last seen at the very height of the Second World War. 

We find ourselves then, in a very particular moment. We find ourselves as funders,  as investors and as agents of social change, operating in what the writer Tim Marshall has called: “The Age of Walls”. 

So, what does this mean for our practice and for our thinking? 

Throughout today, and particularly in this morning’s plenary session we will be asking what role borders – whether they be symbolic or literal – might play in our work. And how they might prompt us to rethink our relationships with the organisations, causes and movements we support.

I’m going to start the ball rolling by sketching out a few ways in which I think the border lens is especially relevant to the work and role of foundations. I hope that this will give you an insight into why we chose borders, barriers and boundaries as our conference theme this year.

Essentially we wanted to suggest that: as foundations, you are all in the border business, whether you are building and maintaining them to preserve that which is under threat, or erasing them in order to create, catalyse or discover. To illustrate this, I’d like to touch on three ways in which I feel borders are relevant to your practice.

The bordering of space, the borders of our sector, and the borders of ourselves. 

First let’s explore the bordering of space. Or geographies and communities. 

There are many funders in this room who already work with borders in a very direct way. They are responding to the mass movement of people, a large percentage of whom are fleeing destitution, climate change, famine or religious persecution. I have heard these funders talk powerfully about the role that territorial borders play in dictating who is entitled to rights and how and when such rights are granted. They ask what role borders play in upholding the unequal allocation of material resources and in shaping and defining what and who is considered to be acting within or outside of the law.

Most of you do not work directly on the issues surrounding national borders. Nevertheless there are broader resonances from this work that perhaps might help us all to think about our individual missions in new ways.

To give you an example – we can think about funders who work on issues of social exclusion. They are concerned with questions of who gets to access certain places and how those boundaries are upheld, whether directly or through the enforcement of social norms that deny, restrict or control access, that give a notion of who is permitted to be where, when and by whom. All of this involves working intimately with borders, questioning how they are policed and often striving to dissolve them or make them more porous to people and communities who have historically been excluded. 

And then there are those of you who view your activities in relation to a particular, geographical place. On the map your area of benefit will be neatly and clearly and precisely defined. But if you take a closer look these geographies are often a kaleidoscope of individually bounded entities and identities, some of which occupy a very tightly defined space within your area, while others will extend beyond its borders. And to add a further layer of complexity, people will be moving in and out of the places – leaving and arriving, forming and reforming time-limited communities as they go. So while borders are helpful – might they tell us more about the map than about the territory?

Now let’s take a look at sectoral borders.

It has become a bit of a truism to talk about the shifting borders between the work of funders and the work of the state and the private sector. In fact, throughout my time working with foundations, there seems to have been a persistent rhetoric that we need new solutions for new times, and new partnerships to face new problems. A decade on from the financial crash, this still seems to be the case. It has felt like a constant process of adaptation to ‘new normals’. This has prompted many foundations to work cross-sectorally where missions align but also to work in opposition when the causes they support are placed under threat.  

Many of you have always thought about your work in this way. But over the past few years I have felt the sector begin to grapple with these questions more intensely and systematically.

For many, it has become less a question of finding the ideal partner in government or the private sector, the one that perfectly mirrors your values and approaches. Instead, I am seeing the debate move towards how best to embrace differences in the service of a common goal. I am increasingly hearing foundations ask how they might use their independence of resource to work in productive tension with other actors. 

How might foundations use their status as a trusted partner in order to traverse boundaries, offer new and challenging perspectives within a system or model innovative ways of doing things in the hope of widening the scope of what is possible?

This way of working is certainly not without its challenges, but they are challenges that I see the foundation sector being more and more willing to meet. 

Because while it remains true that most systems and organisations evolve in a way that makes them resistant to change, this resistance doesn’t mean we have to walk away, or remain siloed and bounded within our own spheres of easy influence. Our own echo chambers. Instead, we might see this as an opportunity to be willing to adjust, to learn mutually and forge new solutions with actors that, while they might seem unlikely, might also prove to be indispensable. 

And using our independence in this way, to bear the discomfort of working across sectoral borders may well be increasingly vital if we are to continue to seek to preserve historical social goods but also discover and imagine new ones in the decades to come.  

Thirdly, and lastly, I would like to touch on how borders impact us from an interpersonal perspective. How do they reach into our everyday life and come to shape our practice as they do so?

We all have borders, boundaries and barriers. We carry them with us into the work that we do and the relationships that we build. To think critically about them involves becoming intentional about how identities are formed and fixed, about what practices move us toward connection and openness and which ones risk keeping us closed off and removed.   

Along these lines, many of you are already asking the very boldest of questions. 

How are we complicit in how barriers are created and maintained?

How do we build bridges in a culture of division?

How can we use our independence of action and assets to break down historical boundaries of access?

Are we able to speak truth to power?

Or are we only ever able to speak the truths of power?

But as ever, and perhaps more than ever, I am convinced that those foundations here, those in the wider ACF membership, and those in the sector more broadly, are well placed to grapple with these questions, and prepared to work both within and through their complexities and their implications. 

Because while our individual missions and priorities may vary, there is much that unities us on this question of borders. 

Our independence allows us to uphold and protect spaces, yes, but perhaps it also demands of us that we create and enter spaces where we feel uncomfortable – even vulnerable.

And if we understand borders in their broadest sense as the creation, maintenance and policing of difference, we are in a strong, and to some extent unique position to be aware of them, to question them, and consciously and intentionally choose whether to strengthen and protect them or work across and against them. 

Foundation activity, whether that be what we fund, how we fund, or who we fund alongside, can expose borders as being contingent, dependent on other factors, products of history, ideology and habit – not necessarily eternal, immovable or beyond negotiation. 

On the contrary, and as we will hear more about as the day progresses, while foundations have the resource to hold the line and protect barriers where and when they are useful, they also have the ability to highlight the many ways in which they are artificially constructed. 

In doing so we can create spaces for new stories and new action, around access, around communities and around power, but also around preservation, tradition and values.  

I know that as funders you are already having these conversations, and living them every day as your pursue your mission and I sincerely hope that today’s conference can add positively to that discussion.

And I will end by saying how thankful I am for the trust you show in increasingly, and I mean increasingly inviting ACF into these fraught, challenging, inspirational but utterly vital conversations. Navigating boundaries has never been an easy endeavour, but foundations have both the tools and the will to take up the task.

Myself and my team very much look forward to supporting you as you continue to do this. I wish you all an excellent conference. 

We support UK foundations and grant-making charities