Strategy and Governance

Strategy and Governance is one of the six Stronger Foundations working groups. Its principal purpose is to examine, discuss and debate challenging questions about foundation practice related to its theme. On this page you can find snapshots of each meeting to date, including content, reading materials and outputs. The group's work will contribute significantly to the raw material gathered through the initiative as a whole, from which ACF will create a variety of products, including a 'rapporteur's report' summarising the breadth of discussions and evidence gathered.
The group is comprised of senior foundation representatives drawn from across ACF's membership, who will meet 7 times over an 18 month period. The meetings, which will vary in format depending on the topic and desired content, will include presentation of evidence (by experts from within and beyond the foundation sector), small group discussions, whole group exercises and visits. The group's full terms of reference can be found here.
The members of the group are: Jerry Wright, Wates Family Charities (group chair); Sheila Jane Malley, trustee of Co-op Foundation and Rosa (and ACF trustee); Steph Taylor, Charities Aid Foundation; Ellie Stout, Rothschild Foundation; Tina Gwynne-Evans, Bupa UK Foundation; Sara van der Pas, Wellcome Trust; Jo Wells, Blagrave Trust; Emily Harrison, Asda Foundation; John McCrohan, Masonic Charitable Foundation; Cherry Bushell, Wakefield and Tetley Trust; Quentin Elston, Mr.Willats' Charity; Lucy Bushill-Matthews, National Zakat Foundation; Pierre M Espinasse, The Kennedy Trust for Rheumatology Research; Debbie Lye, Spirit of 2012 Trust; Katie Le Quesne, chair of Lloyds Bank Foundation for the Channel Islands

Meeting Snapshots

Meeting #1 (December 2018) - Introduction meeting
The group held its first meeting, exploring the many ways that strategy and governance can be interpreted in a foundation context. Charity governance has been an issue in the spotlight in recent years. Many foundations are increasing their efforts to strengthen the resilience of the boards of charities they fund, and considering how their own governance structures can deliver best practice and demonstrate their missions. 
The foundation sector is comprised of members with a huge variety of governance structures. These include boards mostly or entirely comprised of members of the founder's family, staff from the private corporation that resources the foundation, and others with significant representation from the communities they serve. 
When thinking about governance, the group highlighted the importance of regulatory compliance, having a blend of key skills and diversity, the relationship to the staff team, the role of power, investment decisions, and the setting of strategy. The group considered how strategy can be both informed by the governance of the foundation, and determine how the board is recruited, comprised and operated. Its strategy can be a way to communicate the foundation's mission and set out its goals, as well as provide a mechanism for the foundation to be held to account. It can enable a foundation to be proactive, as well as be better prepared for responsive action.
Following this meeting, ACF will work with the group's chair, Jerry Wright (Director of the Wates Family Charities), to develop a work programme for the group, and engage with potential external contributors, including grantees, academic and practitioner experts and critical friends. 
Meeting #2 (February 2019) - Stick or twist?
The group’s second session looked at the merits and limitations of long-term strategies. For how long should a foundation pursue a long-term strategy? How can it identify that it might be the right time to stop or change course? How can it remain agile and open to unexpected opportunities?
Brad K Smith, President of the US-based Foundation Center, joined via video link to share his observations of how foundation strategies have played out in the USA. Brad recently wrote a provocative piece about how conservative foundations have had a significant impact in the USA by providing long-term unrestricted funding for organisations that share their beliefs; their efforts culminated in the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Judge, whose influence could shape US foundations for decades to come. Brad also posited that collaboration is hindered by foundations sticking to their strategies, which can often be rigid and inward-looking.

Sparked by Brad’s input, the group had a lively discussion about the impact of the individual leaders, the importance of legacy, and the nuances of framing issues taking ideology into consideration. These factors, and others, can influence whether foundations focus more on the long-term or the short-term, or whether they can navigate a strategy that encompasses both consistency and flexibility.
The group identified a number of advantages for foundations and those they fund to taking a long-term strategy, such as it allows for expertise, mistakes, and collaboration. But there were also limitations, including the need (both regulatory and reputational) to demonstrate impact, the churn of staff and trustees, and the risks of it going wrong.
Ultimately, the group noted that one of the foundation model’s greatest assets is its ability to both stick and twist – to take the long view, supersede political and economic turbulence, invest in riskier long-shots and to be live to emergent opportunities, flexible in delivery, responsive to critique and ready to change.

Meeting #3 (April 2019) – What comes first, strategy or governance?

This meeting considered the question ‘Does strategy lead your governance or does your governance lead your strategy?

Penny Wilson, CEO of Getting on Board, shared her perspective with the group. Penny presented trends and issues on governance, for example the limitations of recruitment platforms and the possible misguided approach to trustee skills, before directly addressing the question framing the session. What comes first, strategy or governance? Penny responded that strategy comes first, and that governance is an effective tool to support and implement that strategy.

Penny posed a series of questions to the group, including:

  • Are you comfortable that you have the right expertise on your Board?
  • Is it ok for foundations to be different cases?
  • Is there a role for foundations to strengthen governance in the wider sector? What are the best ways for foundations to support grantees with governance challenges?
  • Is it ok for foundations to advocate open trustee recruitment if they are not practising it themselves?

Penny’s presentation resonated with many, and several other issues came to light in the ensuing discussion.

Board culture, internal power dynamics, and the balance between strategy and compliance at board meetings were all issues that influenced how foundations approached their strategy and governance.

Having teased out some of the issues, group members were given time to explore their own answers to the question ‘what comes first, strategy or governance?’ through visual representations. The group then came together to share their visualisations, which range from boxes and arrows to centipedes and leaves. 

Looking more specifically at different foundation contexts, the group divided considered the influence of the founder or donor over the direction of the foundation from the perspectives of family, corporate and publicly-funded foundations. Emergent themes included the need to evolve over time, the distance between the foundation and the founder or donor’s other philanthropy, and the importance of values and purpose in guiding the foundation. There were also questions of accountability, choice and decision-making, with different implications for privately or publicly-funded foundations.


Meeting #4 (May 2019) - Accountability beyond compliance

The fourth meeting of the Strategy and Governance working group considered the topic of ‘accountability beyond compliance’.  Accountability has been a key point of discussion in several of our working groups and is emerging as a cross-cutting theme. We were delighted to be joined by Amy Ross, Head of Learning and Strategy at Comic Relief and Mark Henderson, Director or Communications at the Wellcome Trust, who gave interesting and different perspectives on accountability.

To start the meeting, the group considered the broad question “what does accountability mean to you”? There were many and varied responses to this question but overall responses clustered around the concepts of honour, legitimacy, transparency and being answerable.

Through the course of the meeting, the group considered a range of questions:

  • What are the additional accountabilities for different types of foundation?
  • What should you be doing beyond legal compliance? Is there a moral imperative?
  • Does your sense of accountability to these different stakeholder impacts upon your foundation behaviour? If so, how?
  • What, if anything, does it mean to those stakeholders? 
  • What are the benefits of being accountable to certain stakeholders?
  • Is it a good thing that some funders have a lack of accountability?
  • How can independence affect behaviour and can it be used as a force for good? Can this be abused in any way?

In considering these questions the group made some reflections:

  • There is a moral imperative to be accountable
  • Foundations should be their own ‘harshest critic’ as a starting point for accountability (though it requires a change your mindset or culture to achieve it.)  
  • Foundations should consider the impact on our relationship with grantees
  • Transparency is important e.g. in justifying decisions
  • Foundations should undertake advocacy and tell society what the issues are.
  • We are accountable to anyone who is interested in or has an interest in what we do.
  • Demonstrating impact is an important aspect of demonstrating accountability.
  • Accountability can drive collaboration and makes us accountable to other funders.
  • We are accountable to history and need to think about timescales for change and long-term projects.

Further reading

Below you will find a suggested reading list, which the working group identified and considered as part of its deliberations. If you would like to send suggestions to us, please do by emailing

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