Foundations and Risk: The Sylvia Adams Charitable Trust

In this series, we are taking a closer look at foundations’ attitudes to risk. We will include perspectives from across the UK and from funders with a number of specialisms and approaches.

The fifth article in this series comes from Jane Young, Director of The Sylvia Adams Charitable Trust.

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

For our grant-making, the most important part of managing risk is the assessment work before the grant is made – the stages of the application, the face-to-face meetings, and the background research. Once we have made the grant, we have concluded that the charity intends to use it properly. We then have processes in place to monitor the use, but for us it is essential to do as much work as we possibly can before we enter into a contract with an organisation. Then we trust them to do their level best to deliver. We recognise that even with the best will in the world on both sides, not everything will always go to plan, and accept that level of risk.

For added security for funds donated, no grant is made without a contract being signed, setting out the conditions. We take reporting back seriously but go for a light touch, and proportionate to the size of grant. Occasionally a grantee is unable to spend the money as agreed but when they tell us, we talk to them about redirecting funds or getting funds returned.

We have deliberately chosen less well supported areas of concern. We have never been worried about tackling more difficult issues, and have selected our focus areas from research that has established for us where the greatest need lies, and where our expertise, as well as our grants, can make the biggest difference. Following our recent review we have chosen two areas of funding that are not currently well served – preventative work for 0 to 3-year-olds, and our genetic project Breaking Down Barriers.

In the work for 0 to 3-year-olds, we are trying to help improve the outcomes for some of the most disadvantaged children in England and Wales. It is fair to say that the groups we look to support through the organisations we work with do not always attract favourable media coverage, so there is always the potential that something could get picked up and misconstrued, although we have no examples of this to date.

The risk involved in our genetic work has been clearly identified as part of the project, and lies in misinterpretation of what it is aiming to achieve. For that reason we have an expert advisory group to oversee all the activities and external announcements, with members including leading geneticists and academics. Any communication that goes out into the public domain is also agreed with all the organisations involved in the project. We have been careful to do this as we have seen occasions when others working in this area, though not foundations, have come unstuck, with the media using most unhelpful language to describe various projects.

Breaking down Barriers is working with a range of patient and condition-specific organisations. With certain community groups and families with genetic conditions very underserved, the starting point for all the activities is finding people in order to help them, and everything flows from that. Because we are talking about communities that have different practices and cultural norms, there is always the possibility for someone, including the communities themselves, to misinterpret what is aiming to be achieved. The challenge is to reach people whose families have a member with a genetic condition and to go on to work with that family and community to make informed choices.

We have recognised that funding overseas organisations directly is a potential risk, that we don’t have enough expertise to mitigate, so we do not accept applications directly from overseas, and only ever fund work through UK registered charities. In these instances, we have a different contract and are very careful to follow HMRC guidelines.

As you would expect, we have comprehensive risk management strategies in place, using a risk register that we keep on review all the time. It covers governance issues, including compliance and legislation, operational issues – everything to do with grant-making and running the organisation, and financial matters. On the financial side we rely on our fund managers, and review our arrangements regularly. We have just appointed a new investment company following a review. As full discretion is given to the managers, we ensure that the preparation of the briefs and the tendering and interviewing process are extremely thorough, setting out for example our attitude to risk, ethical considerations, and what we aim to achieve with our investments over the short and long term. Just as with grant-making and all other aspects of the running of the trust, we strive to take out the risks before they happen. As I am the only employee, one short-term risk is a change of director, but we believe that governance and procedures are strong enough for this not to be a long-term problem.

Jane Young
The Sylvia Adams Charitable Trust


Other articles in this series:

Foundations and Risk: Lloyd’s Register Foundation 
Foundations and Risk: The RS Macdonald Charitable Trust 
Foundations and Risk: The Wolfson Foundation 
Foundations and Risk: Spirit of 2012 
Foundations and Risk: CriSeren Foundation 
Foundations and Risk: Webb Memorial Trust

We support UK foundations and grant-making charities