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Mission, Knowledge, Power, Accountability and Connection: New Stronger Foundations Report

The Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) has published a new report on five cross-cutting themes from its Stronger Foundations initative, alongside a new self-assessment tool for foundations to measure their own effectiveness.

‘Five cross-cutting themes: Mission, Knowledge, Power, Accountability, Connection’ is the most recent in a series of reports coming out of ACF’s Stronger Foundation initiative that has involved over 100 ACF members examining six different aspects of foundation practice (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; Impact and Learning; Strategy and Governance; Transparency and Engagement; Investment; and Funding Practices). Six thematic reports published to date have set out 40 pillars of ambitious practice, with which foundations have set themselves a high bar to aim for.

Download the report here

Today’s report highlights five key themes running as golden threads through the Stronger Foundations initiative, which ACF hopes will inspire foundation trustees and staff to pursue and achieve ambitious and effective practice. The report stresses that “at their best, charitable foundations are the most transparent, intentional and efficient way of transforming private wealth into public benefit” and that the climate and Covid-19 crises mean it’s more important than ever that “foundations are their best selves”. Delivering their missions as effectively and ambitiously as possible is necessary to address the immediate and existential challenges we all face.

In her foreword to the report, ACF’s Chief Executive Carol Mack comments: “Mission, Knowledge, Power, Accountability and Connection: All five of these concerns recognise the independence of foundations and that every foundation has its own unique charitable purposes to fulfil, expressed in its mission, or reason for being. And they all recognise that a foundation cannot achieve anything on its own – it is how it uses its knowledge, power and resources to connect with others that counts. But they also indicate that in a society increasingly distrustful of power, and where good intentions do not exempt you from scrutiny, embracing accountability is key to your licence to operate”.

On power, the report notes that: “Foundations have significant and unique power, derived principally from their financial strength, which enables independence and influence…With power comes responsibility, and those in power should be held to account, receptive to feedback, and responsive to challenge and scrutiny”.

The report also says that foundations should use their independence as an asset, but embrace accountability: “While this [freedom] can be a great strength – giving foundations independence from political and market cycles that allows them to set their own risk appetite, back both popular and unpopular causes, and take a short and longer-term view – a lack of direct accountability can draw criticism and threaten the impact of a foundation’s efforts in pursuit of a particular goal. It also risks leading to complacency or poor practice.”

To further support members in pursuing these pillars of ambitious foundation practice, ACF also today launched a self-assessment tool based on the 40 pillars of stronger foundation practice, enabling foundations to reflect on their own performance and plan future actions. These new resources follow on from the ’10 Pillars of Stronger Practice for Chairs’ report published by ACF in October, which outlined recommendations of particular relevance to Chairs of foundation boards. 

At ACF’s Conference last week, Paul Ramsbottom OBE, CEO of Wolfson Foundation and Chair of the Stronger Foundations working group on Transparency and Engagement, reflected on his involvement in the initiative: “We found ourselves asking the big existential questions that other working groups asked, how do you break down power dynamics between funders and recipients? How do you make philanthropy more representative of the society it purports to serve? And above all, how can we make our own organisations more effective in pursuit of our charitable aims?”

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