Blog: What can Anna and Elsa from Disney’s Frozen teach us about stronger foundation practice?
As work and home converge during the lockdown, Max Rutherford, ACF's Head of Policy, considers whether there are any lessons from Disney's Frozen for stronger foundation practice
It’s three months since the initial lock down in the UK, which for staff at ACF has meant a period of working from home. A side-effect of this for me has been thinking about foundation practice in strange contexts – none more so than while listening (again) to the soundtrack of Disney’s Frozen.
During the latest listen it seemed that the film’s principal characters (sisters, Elsa and Anna) are singing, at least in part, about power dynamics in philanthropy, the need for increased transparency, and the importance of involving communities in governance and decision-making?
For example, early in the film, Elsa is trying to conceal her ice-based abilities by locking herself away, wearing long gloves, and refusing to engage with the outside world, only to end up literally striking her community with a blast of frozen fractals.
Often foundations feel uncomfortable about their power, some preferring to hide it away or deny it exists. But doing so risks causing harm to others, being exposed in ways that aren’t desirable, being misunderstood or even feared. As NCRP’s Power Moves initiative has shown, foundations should instead recognise their power, embrace it, and ‘build, share and wield’ it responsibly.
After years of hiding away, her coronation day means that Elsa must make a public appearance against her will and allow her community into the palace. She sings: “Don’t let them in, don’t let them see”.
Foundations are often viewed as private, enigmatic, opaque institutions, with a lack of openness and limited or lacking in accountability. Yet, as one of the contributors to our Transparency and Engagement working group said, ‘nothing was ever made worse by shining a light on it’. As ACF says in its recently published report on this topic, stronger foundations are those that embed transparency and engagement across all their activities – from investments to governance to funding decisions. Some do this by “opening up the gates”, as Anna advocates – for example to their boardrooms and their decision-making, by responding to feedback from their communities of interest, and putting their grants data on 360 Giving.
Learning from failure
Some foundations, like Elsa, worry that if they open up it will leave them exposed. As Elsa sings “make one wrong move and everyone will know”. But the evidence suggests the more open a foundation is, the more able it is to tell its own story, rather than have it told for them. In fact, as ACF’s report on Impact and Learning found, being open about making mistakes and ‘learning from failure’ is a key part of stronger practice.
Some foundations might feel comfort, as Elsa thinks she does initially, in being isolated from others, acting alone, without scrutiny or critique – or, as she puts it in ‘Let it Go’, living in their own “kingdom of isolation”. But as ACF’s report on Strategy and Governance notes, ‘thinking collaboratively’ and playing an active part in the wider ecosystem, while retaining independence, is a key feature of stronger foundation practice. Working alone risks not making the most of resources, not being aware of your blind spots, duplicating effort and even causing harm.
Foundations are sometimes accused of being out of touch with the reality of the communities and organisations they fund (“actual, real-life people”, as Anna puts it), even in the context of major societal impacts such as Covid-19 or the Black Lives Matter Movement, as depicted in this exchange by Anna and Elsa towards the end of the film:
Anna: “I get the feeling you don’t know”
Elsa: “What do I not know?”
Anna: “Arendelle’s in deep, deep, deep, deep snow”
Indeed, sometimes it might even be the funder’s own actions that caused or exacerbated the problems faced by the community:
Anna: “You’ve kind of set off an eternal winter…everywhere”
However, there are also on occasion unrealistic expectations placed on the foundation sector for responding to the challenges faced by society. Foundations in the UK award in grants each year the equivalent of 0.5% of government spending. They can’t fill the gaps left by austerity, or replace the lost income to charities resulting from Covid-19, which sometimes foundations are called upon to do, as this exchange suggests:
Anna: “We’ll, it’s okay, you can just unfreeze it”
Elsa: “No, I can’t – I don’t know how”
As the film draws to a close, Anna suggests to Elsa that the biggest impact they can have is by working in true partnership, conscious of the power imbalance that still exists:
“We can face this thing together, we can change this winter weather”.
Ultimately, Elsa discovers that only intentionally using her power for the good of her community, not hiding it away, will melt the winter her community faces: “Love will thaw”.
Like Anna, charities seeking funding already know what’s required – foundations just have to realise their potential. As Anna replies: “I knew you could do it”.