Stronger Foundations blog: To make charitable foundations stronger, we need to Speak Up!

ACF’s Stronger Foundations initiative aims to open challenging discussions about foundation practice and identify what it means to be a ‘stronger’ foundation. As part of the project, we have been publishing a series of blogs, articles and provocations from members and others offering their personal views on the initiative’s themes.

This contribution is from Fraser Simpson, Associate General Counsel (Ethics, Governance & Compliance) at the Wellcome Trust. Share your thoughts using the hashtag #StrongerFoundations.

Working at a charitable foundation like Wellcome means trying to make the world a better place. But it’s not just what we do that matters – how we do it is just as crucial. We’ve created Speak Up to empower our staff to tell us where the problems are – and help us become a stronger foundation and a culture of trust and safety.

Our Speak Up policy outlines our commitment to supporting a workplace culture where staff can raise any concerns about potential wrongdoing in the organisation, in confidence and without fear of retaliation. Wrongdoing can take many forms – from abuse of confidential information and fraud, to bullying and harassment. We want to make sure that any member of staff can raise their concerns freely, with the trust that we will address them in a fair and consistent way.

Our Speak Up policy sets out the support that staff can expect from us when they raise a concern. We have established a Speak Up reporting line, through which colleagues can choose to raise issues under their own name or anonymously. We’re also committed to zero tolerance for retaliation against staff who speak up.

For those who are unsure about whether to raise a concern, we have a partnership with the charity Protect. Staff can speak to trained, impartial advisors in confidence, who will talk through their concerns and help them understand their options and any potential implications.

Empowering people to feel safe

Policies are essential but in themselves insufficient to drive culture – people won’t speak up just because we ask them to. What’s crucial is to catalyse feelings of psychological safety and inclusion. We know it’s hard for people to speak up about wrongdoing, so we need to give them all the support we can.

Ideally, we’d like colleagues to feel confident enough to raise issues early, before they escalate. If people feel forced to sit on concerns until they build up and become intolerable, it’s very hard to reach a positive solution. Instead, we want staff to feel empowered to say, ‘I’m uncomfortable with how this was done. Can we talk about it?’ In recent years we’ve seen a number of high-profile scandals unfold in the charity sector. I believe many of these harmful incidents could have been avoided (or at least turned out better!) if those organisations had a culture where employees felt confident to speak up.

Find out more

Speak Up is a really positive step towards building a healthier workplace culture at Wellcome. But we don’t have all the answers. That’s why we’re bringing together other charitable organisations to explore the best ways to build a culture where staff feel safe enough to raise concerns.

The Charity Sector Speak Up Network is a group of charitable organisations working together to share practical experiences and ideas on how to develop a culture of trust. We cover a broad array of charitable objectives, including funders, the arts, international development, human rights, wildlife and research to name but a few. We welcome participation form any charity that is interested in catalysing a speak up culture. By learning from and supporting each other, we hope to drive real progress across our sector. It would be great to have other charitable foundations join us!

Crucially, I think real change will come through leadership within the sector – external regulation won’t be enough. We don’t just want to comply with regulations, we want to push ourselves to create the healthiest culture we can. If compliance is making sure we clear the high jump bar, what we’re trying to do is raise the bar as high as possible. To make this a reality, we all need to keep listening and learning.

The ACF also has some useful general guidance that relates to speaking up, for example in the new safeguarding framework and the report on transparency and engagement.

Do you want to know more and to join us? Please see or contact

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