Rating the performance of UK grant-making foundations on their accountability, transparency and diversity

Anything that looks to improve the practices of foundations is A Good Thing in my book, so I was really interested to read about this new piece of work which will rate the performance of UK grant-making foundations on their accountability, transparency and diversity, being led by Friends Provident Foundation. I also appreciate that they are looking for input, so I guess this blog post is mine. I will do the survey, but wanted to share openly too because … transparency!

These are the things I’d like to see, based on my personal experience of being a grant seeker and a grant maker.

I’ve written about this before but time and again I see how foundations use the same people, already in their networks, and keep topping up their social capital. Learning partners, experts, trainers etc — how are these opportunities shared and with whom. This is a ring of entrenched power that’s rarely questioned.

Who has access to people working in foundations and who doesn’t is incredibly problematic. Again, I have written about this before but until I worked as a funder (2.5 yrs ago) I had no idea that people had coffees in the way that they do with funders. That may sound really naive, but I honestly thought that people working in foundations would have integrity around who has access to them and who doesn’t.

This would show where funders are placing an emphasis in terms of capabilities and skills, show the kinds of competencies that are being invested in, and also how relevant the training is inline with how the world is changing.

This would include what agencies are used for recruitment and how they are chosen, as well as any other recruitment considerations you make. Some I’d like to see include looking at an applicant’s social capital journey — the Oxbridge door opening, the who-your-parents-are, the private education, and so forth.

Of course it’s crucial that things like race, ethnicity, class, age, sexuality, gender etc are all considered. I would also love to see funders share more about the diversity of thought and practice experience they recruit for. As someone who can tick the LGBTQI box, I do often wonder how much traditional organisations who might want their diversity quota, really want what my queerness brings. More on this in another blog — but in short it’s likely to mean questioning the status quo — which often makes no sense to me.

And then other things that feel important to this work are -

The background text talks about people who are traditionally not present in positions of power” and I’d like to see some more nuance brought to this. There are other reasons people aren’t present in positions of power that are not identity related — and instead are determined by what we value, what we feel reassured by, our appetite for risk — and more.

The background text also talks about “some foundations under-investing in certain types of organisations and movements” and that they “do not always reflect the population as a whole.” I know this is unlikely to be a popular view but can we also make sure that includes the outliers, the innovators, the risk-takers? These folk might be the same people that get labelled as ‘the most marginalised’ or the most ‘unrepresented’ but they definitely aren’t always. I see funders (as they should be) paying much more attention to those that are marginalised through an identity lens, but not considering anywhere near enough some of the people who are really breaking new ground and just aren’t on the radar of more traditional or out-of-date foundations.

The background text talks about it being “time for a new conversation on who they fund and what they fund.” Can we also include how they fund to please? And if we are making funders accountable for their practices — are we sure we know what good looks like? I don’t just want reform and modernism, I want radical, regenerative, system-shifting ambitions. This links to a blog I wrote last week.

I loved seeing broader society acknowledged in this line “charity effectiveness and responsibility are based on transparency and accountability to those they support, and to society more widely” and wonder if this blog, a critique of user-centred design and how it fails to be accountable, might be useful for thinking through some different layers, levels or scales of accountability.

Lastly, I would look at this thread — a question I posed to Sonja when she was doing a session with my team, and the many responses may help with considering what accountability means in complexity.

There’s obviously lots of stuff I haven’t mentioned because it’s already in there.

Working with Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Policy Fellow IIPP, Co-founder of Point People, Founder Stewarding Loss, International Futures Forum.