Blog: Sound and silence

At ACF's annual conference in November last year, a straw poll of delegates revealed that a majority were either undertaking or considering work that they broadly categorised as advocacy. In his first blog for ACF since joining as Head of Policy in April, Max Rutherford describes how an increasing number of foundations are thinking of their voice as a key asset in pursuit of their mission and considering the implications of staying quiet.

ACF’s membership reflects the tremendous breadth of mission in the foundation ecosystem. Many members focus their efforts and resources on restoration and heritage projects, supporting the arts, catalysing local development, providing international aid and enabling scientific research. 

Others have a long history of activism and direct engagement in social policy. They may be overt in this endeavour, based on a founding articles that incorporate clear campaign goals, or they might have developed short and long-term targeted programmes, in-house initiatives or dedicated grant portfolios that aim to achieve specific societal changes. 

For many foundations seeking to engage in and support policy and advocacy activity, grant-funding is a principal resource, used in ways that include government-facing campaigns, policy and research aimed at building an evidence base or shifting public opinion, or projects that give platforms to those who may otherwise go unheard in the corridors of power. 

In addition to grant budgets, many foundations tell us they are increasingly thinking about how to make use of all of their assets – such as financial independence, intentional investment of endowments, staff expertise, convening capacity, diverse networks, longevity of action, brand and political impartiality – in order to pursue a ‘total mission’. 

In the last year, a number of foundations have been actively considering their place in civil society in response to consultations on this theme (e.g. the DCMS Civil Society Strategy consultation and the Civil Society Futures inquiry). As NPC reported: "Trusts and foundations are increasingly looking to become agents of social change themselves as well as funders of it” (More Than Grants, p. 3).

This has led some foundations to redefine their identity, for example Friends Provident Foundation, who told us that: “We moved our attention from a focus on our marginal spend (grants) to our whole capital base and this is now how we evaluate our impact – we are a capitalised charity, not a grant-maker” (Danielle Walker-Palmour, CEO of Friends Provident Foundation, Trust and Foundation News, p. 32).

A growing number of our members tell us that external factors and reported pressures on grantees (such as the impact of austerity, increasing socio-economic inequality and a shrinking space for advocacy) has led to an increase in their advocacy activities both in terms of funding it and establishing in-house initiatives. 

Relevant to this is a newly launched US initiative of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), ‘Power Moves’, which aims to increase the impact of foundation action and affect positive change, particularly on entrenched social justice challenges. It states that with assets comes power, and that foundations should give consideration to how they ‘build’, ‘share’ and ‘wield’ their power. This includes thinking through how a foundation can use its voice to create change and seek influence on policy and practice, as well as the implications of staying quiet:

“Consider how the absence of public leadership may lead to confusion about your purpose, missed opportunities to collaborate or influence policy and less strategic impact. Silence can provide an open field for institutions on the other side of an issue that have ample resources, a public leadership strategy and an appetite to apply it. Leaving a vacuum to be filled by others with values and objectives at odds with yours and your grant partners’ undermines whatever impact you seek through your grantmaking. If your foundation has previously embraced a quiet approach, it’s a good time to think about the advantages and disadvantages of staying quiet versus establishing a powerful voice” (Power Moves, p. 48). 

As part of the ongoing discussions about how to use their voice and amplify the voices of those they support, the foundations involved are asking: How can this become a central strand of our strategic planning? Like NCRP, many have concluded that opting for silence isn’t neutral and should be viewed as a deliberate choice, and that wielding the power of their voice is crucial in the pursuit of their mission. 

At ACF we will continue to facilitate and listen to these discussions, and use our voice to share with our members and others the range of views we hear. If you’d like to be part of the conversation, please let us know.

Max Rutherford
Head of Policy

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