Building ‘Stronger Foundations’ Together

We were delighted to launch ACF’s Stronger Foundations project on 1 December, with over 50 foundations, frontline organisations and representative groups coming together to consider some of the pressing issues that foundations are dealing with.  

The event began with a stimulating set of challenges from Julia Unwin CBE, chair of the Civil Society Futures inquiry. Julia highlighted major societal shifts that frontline organisations – and foundations – will need to grapple with, if they want to remain relevant in future. These included changes to markets, public services and family life, as well as four big ‘D’s: democracy, deficits, digital and demographics.

In response to Julia’s thought-provoking speech, participants undertook a ‘SWOT’ analysis of what the implications might be for the work of foundations. Those present felt that foundations had a number of strengths that should enable them to be responsive to changing circumstances – such as their independence, flexible time-horizons (able to fund immediately; able to fund over longer-term) and highly-dedicated trustees and staff.

But there was also an acknowledgment of the need for continual reflection and improvement on how best to achieve foundations’ charitable objectives and how best to support civil society at a time of great challenge. The discussion that ensued was wide-ranging - so many ideas were explored that it is impossible to reflect them all here – but to give just a flavour, they included everything from the nuts and bolts of how to improve grant-making processes; through to strategic discussions about foundation governance, and the role of collaboration and advocacy. Better engagement with data and digital were seen as important to facilitate some of this work.

The launch continued with breakout discussions on six themes, each beginning with a ‘provocation’ from an external contributor. Again, there were too many to report in full, but to give just three examples: -

One breakout group considered the challenges for foundations around learning and impact. The ‘provocation’ came from Arthritis Research UK, who spoke about their engagement with Artificial Intelligence which was enabling the charity to reach a far wider number of people – but which also required greater risk appetite and emphasis on learning and iteration.

A second group, focusing on foundation endowment practice, heard from ShareAction about opportunities for foundations to exercise their rights as shareholders in encouraging businesses to engage in more responsible or ethical practices – such as paying staff the Living Wage.

A third group looked at issues of equality and diversity, with input from the Runnymede Trust and discussion about the value of diversity in bringing broader community insight and heightened awareness of power relations to foundation deliberations.  

Conversations like this are what will drive this project forward. My hope is that foundations will find it inspiring and stimulating to be part of a project that seeks to identify excellent practice, and which helps them grapple with the changing external context in which they work. There won’t be any one-size-fits-all solutions – indeed the diversity and plural nature of the foundation sector was widely seen as a strength – but there ought to be opportunities for foundations of all shapes and sizes to learn from and inform each other.

There is a place for all ACF members in this ongoing, collaborative conversation, and we will be seeking your input as the project progresses. Initially, the initiative will take the form of a number of working groups during the course of 2018 as well as online discussion. If you would like to find out more about the project and how to get involved, please email

Carol Mack
Chief Executive

We support UK foundations and grant-making charities