Benchmarking stronger foundation practice: A flying start for ACF’s new Self-Assessment Tool

A month since its launch, 1 in 10 ACF members have already used the Stronger Foundations Self-Assessment Tool by completing at least one of its six thematic surveys – an amazing response. It’s clear that foundations are keen to explore their strengths and weaknesses, and describe their plans to work towards the ambitious practice described in the ‘40 pillars’ set out in the original reports. In this blog, ACF’s Head of Policy, Max Rutherford, investigates the initial results and the positive feedback from foundations that have engaged so far.

Stronger Foundations is a flagship ACF project that aims to help grant-making charitable foundations identify and pursue ambitious practice. After two years of enquiry involving more than 100 foundations, ACF produced six thematic reports with a total of 40 'pillars of practice', as a benchmark for foundations to ensure their resources are maximised for social good.

Last December ACF launched a Stronger Foundations Self-Assessment Tool, comprised of six short surveys based on each thematic report and their pillars. These enable foundations to review the extent to which they are achieving the pillars now, and the steps they are taking now and in the future to enhance their practice.

The Tool and the results can be helpful in a variety of contexts, such as board-level discussions, staff away days, strategic reviews and team meetings. We recommend that foundations repeat the surveys at regular intervals to enable them to track progress against any internal targets that they may set.

What are the initial findings from the self-assessment tool?

A month after the Tool’s launch, around 40 responses have been received across the surveys that comprise the tool from about 10% of ACF’s membership, and already the results are showing some interesting trends.

Who is completing the surveys?

While all submissions are anonymous by default, we do collect information about the types of foundations completing the surveys. This shows that, like ACF’s membership itself, there is a variety of foundations using the tool, with a range of size, geography, remit and grant spend – from £250k per year to more than £5m.

Which survey is most popular?

Foundations have a choice of which survey they complete. Some foundations may wish to complete all six in one go to set a benchmark for themselves across all 40 pillars, or to prioritise one or two areas to begin with. So far, all six surveys have had good levels of responses, with those on Impact & Learning and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion the most popular.

What are the initial trends?

While the initial 40 responses are not fully representative of the foundation sector, it’s clearly emerging as to where foundations are feeling confident, and where they report self-identified weak spots. Across the six surveys, foundations are highlighting good progress and strength in areas of impact measurement, funding processes and stakeholder engagement, but a lack of confidence or more limited progress in diversity, equity and inclusion, aspects of investment and areas of transparency.

The five pillars that foundations are reporting the most progress and confidence (scoring ‘At a fairly advanced stage’ or ‘Fully embedded’) are:

  • We regularly review funding practices as part of a culture of learning and think collaboratively to enhance our impact
  • We seek to achieve positive impact beyond a financial contribution
  • We identify and select funding practices that are most likely to fulfil our mission, and design our processes in accordance with our values
  • We recognise the unique and vital role of grant funding and are aware of the variety of grants that can be made and the implications of each type
  • We understand our mission and the impact we are trying to achieve

The five pillars that foundations are reporting the least progress and confidence (scoring ‘Not yet considered’ or ‘Just getting started’) are:

  • We express our DEI commitment, policies and practices publicly
  • We produce and review strategies that will implement DEI practices
  • We collect, track and publish data on our own practices and performances
  • We pursue transparency and respond to scrutiny
  • We understand that responsibility for our investments sits with each and every member of our trustee board

The five top-rated pillars are from the Funding Practices and Impact and Learning reports, while the five lowest-rated pillars are from the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and the Investment reports. On DEI, we know that foundations feel they are starting from a lower base compared to some other themes, but throughout our work on these topics we’ve seen evidence of a desire to improve and change, all of which accelerated during 2020. 

There is a lot of action planned for 2021, particularly on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Foundations gave themselves relatively low scores against the pillars relating to DEI, so it is reassuring to see encouraging signs of intent and action. This survey has been the most popular of the six to date, which also reflects the keen interest in the original report on this topic and the popularity of subsequent events that ACF has held – such as a webinar last summer on racial disparity and Covid-19 that was attended by more than 200 ACF member representatives.

As well as scoring themselves on where they are right now, the surveys give space for written answers on plans for action in the future. The DEI survey has the most data in the free text answers on future planned actions on this topic.

Some of these plans include:

  • Ensuring a DEI strategy is fully integrated into the foundation's work
  • A plan to improve focus on BAME-led grant holders in 2021
  • Strengthening our governance, particularly in terms of diversity, and offering tailored support to committee members
  • We will research, discuss and learn about DEI practices with respect to funding operations, and update current delivery plan to include measured improvements
  • We will review our forms to ensure we improve the way we reflect and implement DEI practices into our funding practices.

In addition, although most foundations scored themselves as at an early stage of their work on DEI, most reported concrete actions already taken, such as:

  • We have a fully dedicated post within the organisation actively promoting these issues and are working to launch a new DEI strategy to enhance practice.
  • We undertook a review of grants made in relation to BME beneficiaries and BME led groups and used this to identify a conscious focus on DEI in our new strategy.
  • We have started developing a strategy/approach to this involving the Director and one or two Trustees, with more planned for 2021, which will involve all staff and Trustees.
  • We ensure active inclusion of lived experience in governance, changed policies to break down barriers to participation, and improved our gender balance.
  • We have a visibly diverse staff team and Board, and some reference to DEI in our recruitment processes. This was a clear consideration in recent Board recruitment.
  • We made DEI more prominent in our funding guidelines, e.g. DEI considerations for Board and staff of an organization
  • We speak out about key issues affecting civil society and particularly underrepresented groups, including government policy changes, legislative developments and funding programmes that may cause harm

There were also many actions described in relation to other surveys too:

  • Responses to the survey on Investment reported plans to explore mission-aligned investing, social investment, joining the Funder Commitment on Climate Change, and training for all board members on investment decision-making.
  • Those completing the Transparency & Engagement survey highlighted plans to allocate more resources to external engagement, undertake more peer learning, improve information on websites and make grants data compatible with the 360 Giving standard.
  • Actions in other surveys included undertaking anonymised grantee perception surveys and moving funding towards the use of unrestricted funding by default.

Foundations want to compare themselves to their peers and hear about sector trends

At the end of the survey, we ask those completing them to tell us what they think about the Self-Assessment Tool itself. Feedback is positive, with helpful suggestions for the future, such as giving an instant snapshot of how foundations compare to their peers, and a regular briefing on trends. As more foundations complete the surveys, we will be able to break down the results further, summarising trends for foundations by size, remit, geography and grant spend. Foundations sharing positive actions will also help others consider what they might do next.

Although it’s only the first month, the signs are that foundations are enthusiastic about using this self-assessment approach. We hope it will become the norm for foundations to review their own practices as part of furthering the ambitious plans they have to pursue their mission. 

If you want to complete a survey…

ACF members can log in to their account and find each survey here, along with instructions on how to use them

Non-members are welcome to read any of the Stronger Foundations reports, including our briefing for foundation Chairs of boards, and our new report on cross-cutting themes. 

Please email if you have any questions

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