Stronger Foundations blog - Don’t rest on your foundations

This blog was written in response to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: The Pillars of Stronger Foundation Practicea report from ACF's Stronger Foundations initiative which identifies and helps foundations pursue excellent practice. This contribution comes from Joy Warmington, CEO, brap.

For those of us who work in civil society organisations, funding, and how to get it, is always at the forefront of our minds. It’s hard for it not to be as the majority of civil society organisations struggle for the income that can maintain core services and keep our ideals alive. In this respect, funders can appear to be untouchable. It can seem as if they often make challenging demands, which civil society organisations feel they have no choice but to try to meet.

That’s why reading ACF’s report on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has been so refreshing. The report not only sets out some clear challenges for independent foundations, but highlights issues that up until now people have been reluctant to talk about. Last year, for example, we held a series of discussion groups in which we asked Black and minority ethnic (BME) people about their experiences of working in civil society, running organisations, and, yes, talking to funders. While participants had a lot to say about the way civil society needs to change, they also described how class and a legacy of empire continue to shape civil society’s work (both in England and internationally). In part, this is a challenge to foundations to change their thinking: ‘if you can’t understand the past, you can’t understand the present,’ as one participant put it.

At another level, though, this is about having open and honest questions about who holds power and in whose interests they wield it. Without discussing this history and how it shapes current experiences, it becomes hard to build trust and equity across the diversity of civil society. Building trust across civil society will help progress DEI, not least because it will help marginalised people and communities access the power and influence they have traditionally been excluded from.

The new ACF report sums all this up succinctly: ‘doing good by giving financial support to others is not enough’. Charitable foundations have to start thinking differently too. For example, rather than asking, ‘why do we find it hard to engage BME groups when we fund projects aimed at those communities?’ foundations need to wrestle with the harder question: ‘does our history, power, and privilege contribute to a legacy of distrust? What are we prepared to give up to combat this?’ They also have to think about their processes and how these too prevent people from accessing support. Rather than assume the past is firmly behind us – and with it the effects of class and colonialism – we instead need to be more open to learning about the history of discrimination and its legacy (however uncomfortable this might make us). Rather than point to a handful of successful CEOs and trustees from marginalised groups who have made it to the top, we need to honestly ask ourselves whether we work in a genuinely meritocratic sector. What’s it like on boards, at job interviews, at after-work gatherings for those who don’t – for whatever reason – fit in?

This is one of the hardest of all questions to address. Thinking about inequality demands that we confront some uncomfortable truths about the privileges we have and how some of us benefit from an unfair system. It’s only natural that this makes some people feel guilty or defensive. But it’s a necessary step if we are to become more responsive to the communities we serve.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: The Pillars of Stronger Foundation Practice offers a roadmap to transform your organisation. But as the report cautions, take the time to think about what’s right for your foundation. In our experience, many organisations expect a quick return on a long-term issue. Tackling inequality – whether it relates to race, gender, disability, or class – means changing the culture of your organisation: it means offering quality opportunities to support people to think and act differently. This takes time. Quick wins are of course possible, but unless change is embedded in your foundation the gains they bring about can soon be lost, and this can be immensely frustrating for staff.

Sadly, there are few short cuts. But then, why should there be? In choosing to work on this agenda, you’re choosing to tackle some of the deepest, most profound structural issues our society faces. For many foundations, though (if not all), this is already in their DNA. Most foundations are in a good position to speak out against injustice and to fund important causes. The power of ACF’s new report is to ask charitable foundations to hold a mirror up to their practice and to recognise that how they are governed, who works for them, their policies and practices, how they count what matters – all of this has a direct relationship to their grant giving functions and which causes to support. All of this has an impact on the type of society we create.

Joy Warmington

We support UK foundations and grant-making charities