Lessons in Leadership: Bupa UK Foundation

In this series, we are speaking to members about their experience of foundation leadership.

The first article in this series comes from Tina Gwynne-Evans, Head of Bupa UK Foundation.

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

Although I am not from a grant-making background, throughout my career I have been involved in managing partnerships with charities. I started at the foundation in May 2014 and saw this as a great opportunity to set up and shape a charitable foundation from scratch. The breadth of the role also had great appeal. There are very few jobs where you have oversight and direct practical involvement in all aspects of a charity, from the strategy, governance, communications and grant-making to the financial side.

On the flip side, a lot of corporate foundations are very small – we have only two staff – and being a specialist within a much larger organisation, not involved in delivering to the business strategy, can be quite challenging. It can be lonely as well, which is where ACF really helped me at the beginning. I knew where the gaps in my knowledge were and I got amazing specialist support early on, especially around charity law and charity finance. What surprised me was the willingness of foundations to share their experience and expertise quite openly. I felt very supported in asking what were pretty basic questions.

In retrospect I am pleased we took time exploring our strategy and making sure we got the governance right. In the beginning I talked extensively to the board of five internal and three external trustees about what corporate foundations can and can’t do, using case studies from other parts of the sector. We invited specialists to talk to the board, including ACF Chair Amanda Jordan, and also took lots of soundings from stakeholders, both internal and external. But until you get to the point where you are actually funding, it is all theoretical. It is important to allow time for the foundation to find its own shape once you actually start grant-making.

We registered with the Charity Commission in April 2015 and immediately after that launched our first funding programme. Registering will always take longer than you expect, but it is essential to get those governing documents right. Since then we have been doing what Lord Sainsbury describes as “splashing around in the shallows” to figure out what’s out there, what works for us, what doesn’t, what the real risk appetite is of the board, the type of projects they prefer, what they don’t choose, and the rationale behind those decisions.

We’ve delivered three funding programmes so far and awarded £1.4 million in grants supporting 52 projects. At the end of each one we have reviewed and looked at where we can improve our approach to grant-making, strategic or operational. We like to talk to all our grant recipients so we can learn from their feedback.

What I have enjoyed most is seeing some of our grant recipients and the amazing work they are delivering on the ground. What I have found difficult is saying no in a really clear way. It can be as simple as learning to match your tone of voice with the message that is being delivered, but it is easier said than done!

I have learned along the way to really focus on relationships with the Chair and trustees. When they only meet two or three times a year, it is hard to keep up momentum. In between meetings I aim to have 15-minute meetings with individual trustees, talking to each one every six to eight weeks. This allows me to tailor conversations to areas they are particularly interested in or where they have expertise. It also means you can avoid that ‘group think’ when we come into the board meeting – we can focus on those areas where we know there are questions or different opinions, and that produces a much richer discussion.

Another challenge, particularly in health and social care, is figuring out how to work with affiliated or federated organisations. Do you work with the national bodies, like Mind or AgeUK, or with the local organisations on the ground? For our first programme we worked only with the national bodies, and local organisations were frustrated at not being able to put their projects forward. For the second programme we allowed anyone to apply, but that meant we got a much higher volume of applications. If I had had more experience of grant-making, I would have predicted that. And I certainly hadn’t anticipated the volume of applications. We have a very light touch stage-one process and now we know more what to expect we can plan for the peaks and troughs.

I would urge anyone to take up a similar role. I find it very fulfilling, and started doing a Masters at Cass Business School last year. I want to fast-track my learning, and gain a greater understanding of some of the challenges that the charities we support are facing.

Tina Gwynne-Evans
Bupa Foundation UK


Other articles in this series:

Lessons in Leadership: Building Change Trust

Lessons in Leadership: Joseph Levy Foundation

Lessons in Leadership: Nationwide Foundation

Lessons in Leadership: Cattanach Trust

Lessons in Leadership: Building Communities Trust

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