Stronger Foundations blog - How do you understand a community of people?

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


How do you understand a community of people? How do you interpret or translate their words and actions, fears and hopes for those outside that community? And indeed who is doing the translating?

These questions have to be a fundamental to any one trying to create social change whether they are a charity or a charitable foundation. And is certainly required for the different pillars under the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strand of work by ACF.

Talk to any committed translator and they will explain the sensitivity with which they approach the original text. The sense of awe and responsibility. Does the translation do justice to the original rhythms or the metaphors that are, for example, both witty and deeply insightful. How to ensure that the author’s voice is maintained and that the translator’s voice does not encroach too much? It is both an artistic and technical endeavour.

The poet Mimi Khalvati writes: “Of course, translation involves not only rendering a text, but also negotiating between two cultures. Arguments about the respective merits of foreignisation and domestication are endemic and call into question our ethical and aesthetic values.”

Can we say that the same level of expertise and sensitivity is applied to handling issues facing communities of colour and their place in society today? Or any community of people who are suffering and marginalised. Are they being translated/interpreted as they would like; that does justice to complex lives?

This translation matters and is urgently required when we read in this ACF report that 99% of foundation trustees are white and we know that in general the charity sector and senior teams are also predominately white.

The repercussions of this poor translation permeate every strata to such an extent that we have almost become immune to people’s stories – instead we’ve become accustomed to elevator music. Crude acronyms such as BAME provide a reassuring security blanket for those organisations and institutions who don’t want to venture too near the messiness of people’s lives. All black people, and all Asian people can be lumped together.

The “Inconvenient People of Colour” who are much closer to the scuff and hurt of life are avoided at all costs because their stories are too complex. They don’t fit the formula of producing stories that serve to deaden inquiry and ambiguity.

This poses a different danger. Nature doesn’t like a vacuum, and recognising that the black or brown voice is missing from our collective story-telling, risks that an “trusted” white led organisation or “safe PoC” will be recruited and funded to do “justice” to those stories. But these stories are rootless, nourished by expediency rather than heritage and memory.

We know from our work and from comments from other organisations led by people of colour, that a majority-white-led organisation will lack the insights and expertise to understand social issues affecting communities of colour. What will happen, and this is a prevailing view, is the ‘Elgin Marbles’ process. This is where stories are stripped from communities, by “professionals” who have no connection to those communities, and used out of context and without due regard to the rage, fear or hope they may be borne of. The result is a story that is often oppressive and unimaginative.

Is there a causal link between the fact that 99% of foundation trustees are white and only 3% of Charity CEOs are BAME (using this for ease)? Does this mean that there is a mutual reinforcing of artificial good practice and the most marginalised end up bearing the brunt of practice that never really gets to the roots of social inequality or considers involving those who experience trauma on a daily basis.

We don’t want roundtables which are the equivalent of James Baldwin’s description of the American protest novel - “so far from being disturbing” that “whatever unsettling questions are raised are evanescent, titillating; remote”. This is a protest novel that is only acceptable if “one’s ideal of society is a race of neatly analysed hard-working ciphers.”

Of course there are examples of funders who are highlighting the importance and expertise of small voluntary, “specialist” organisations; the role of participatory grant-making; taking into account the bureaucracy of grant applications and who this affects the most negatively.

We are lucky enough to work with funders who see our relationship as a partnership and not just about handing over money. Where there is a mutual sharing of knowledge and experience and a willingness to share the risk of trying the uncharted. But the fact that ACF have produced this report shows that these are the exceptions, not the norm.

“Difference must not merely be tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic,” writes Audre Lorde.

Although this report, I feel, is a moral, philosophical and practical call for change for foundations, it is also a message to those organisations and communities who are the most marginalised, that your knowledge and expertise is invaluable and built on the legacies of those who have struggled the hardest. It cannot be understood or tamed or bordered into a 300 word box on an application form.

Audre Lorde writes:

“Those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older -- know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Raheel Mohammed



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