Building Strategy: Masonic Charitable Foundation

In this series, we are taking a closer look at what role strategy plays in foundations’ work, and how they determine what it involves.

The fifth and final article in this series comes from Andrew Ross OBE, Chair of Charity Grants Committee, Masonic Charitable Foundation.

This series first appeared in September 2017’s Trust & Foundation News. Read the magazine here

It’s important for any organisation and all its members to have a sense of where it is going. We are a large grant-maker with many different stakeholders and in particular, the people administering the grants need to have a clear sense of what we want to fund, what we want to achieve, what kind of impact we seek, and also of what we won’t do. That’s where strategy comes in.

The Masonic Charitable Foundation is a coming together of four large charities with histories going back to the 18th century. We have to respect that history, the legacy and the expectations of donors past and present. At the same time there has been a sense of newness, a partly blank sheet, which necessitated having a process to negotiate and refresh our charitable grant-making strategy.

It began about three years ago, when I started chairing a working party whose task was to review the strategic approach to grant-making of the new charity. As part of that work we conducted a survey of donors to establish the priorities they would like to see for the new foundation.

We had a strategic planning day last November for the grant-making committee, with an external consultant to act as a facilitator. That was very helpful, as it meant we could all focus and contribute to the content, rather than the process. We also invited an outside expert – Andrew Stafford from Dulverton Trust – to discuss how his trust does things and to offer a view of grant-making in the current environment of local authority cuts, an ageing society and so on.

We wanted to see the three essential masonic principles – brotherly love, relief, and truths – expressed in our grantmaking. They translate very easily to having a collective sense of compassion; a desire to make a positive difference to those experiencing poverty, distress or disadvantage; and to do so with integrity, effectiveness and professionalism.

Creative discussions like that can often become somewhat messy and unstructured, expressed in 1,000 post-it notes stuck around the walls. It was challenging to distil a consensus, but by the end of the day we had a sense of what we had to work on. The remit is very broad – making grants to help people live a fulfilled life and participate fully in society – to overcome some of life’s obstacles, whether from social disadvantage or ill-health. We also decided to focus on revenue needs rather than capital projects. Katrina Baker as our Senior Grants Officer was given the task of writing that up. The report – A positive place in society for everyone – was then discussed at another strategic planning day involving all trustees, before ratification by the board.

I was surprised at how long the process has taken. The foundation has been in existence for a year, and the four charities were talking about the new organisation for some time before that. I think it has taken so long partly because of the newness of establishing the foundation, involving property considerations, recruitment, streamlining administrative processes and so on; it was a bit like a merger. That meant considerable time was spent looking inward at the structure of the organisation. This matters as people have expectations. A year ago they were heralding this new charity that was going to be bigger and better than what we had before. Identifying how that is actually going to happen takes time, and there is no way round that.

We are also a fundraising foundation. The money for our grant-making we hold in trust on behalf of 200,000 freemasons who contribute regularly. That brings with it an accountability that many endowed foundations do not have. We want our donors to see what we are doing and be proud of it. We hoped we could make some grants that would catch the eye, where we could be seen to be making a difference. I thought we would soon identify a couple of big ideas, but they are proving elusive.

Our plan going forward is to offer Funding Plus. There are 200,000 freemasons, with units – lodges – in towns mostly across England and Wales, so that is a huge resource of people and skills, as well as halls that are not used all of the time.

Similarly, there are many masonic funds, so we will look at responding to local need by working in partnership with parts of our organisation in different places. If they commit to a project, within a certain limit, we might match it. We are also considering partnering with some of the community foundations, who have the capacity to dig down into pockets of need that we might not otherwise identify.

We are also committed to being open about our grant-making. Freemasons have had a reputation of being private and secretive, which has not been the case for quite some time, but prejudices are hard to dispel. Being part of the community of grant-making foundations is important to us – hence joining ACF. We aspire to contribute to best practice and have committed to publishing our grants data in an open, standardised way through 360Giving.

We already publish guidelines on our website which make it clear what we will and won’t fund. While the overall strategy and values will not change, we also aim to be flexible, to adapt and evolve, and are keen to receive feedback.

Andrew Ross OBE
Chair of Charity Grants Committee
Masonic Charitable Foundation


Other articles in this series:

Building Strategy: Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust 
Building Strategy: City Bridge Trust 
Building Strategy: Andrews Charitable Trust 
Building Strategy: John Lyon’s Charity 

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