14 May 2019

Back to the future: Questions for foundations

1989 – What a time to be alive! The Berlin Wall came down. The Cold War was pronounced over. It felt as if we had entered a bright new future, in which Europe was no longer divided. Followed in 1990 by the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa, it seemed then to me, as a young adult, as if anything really was possible.

Less publicly the seeds were being sown for what would be astonishing advances in technology – the first commercially available mobile phones were produced and Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the internet. More ominously, 1989 was then the warmest year on record, and in China the Tiananmen Square protests did not follow the script of the Velvet Revolution.

1989 was of course also the year in which EFC was born. And its British sister-body, ACF – which I am privileged to lead, also came into being. This means that both EFC and ACF are 30 this year; an age traditionally seen as marking the change from youth to the beginning of mature adulthood. And in preparation for ACF’s own birthday celebrations, I have been reviewing some of our organisation’s records of those tumultuous times.

What, then, were British foundations thinking about in 1989?

Our archive shows that some of the questions that ACF members were asking included:

  1. How does charitable funding connect to the environment? At that time the primary concerns were articulated as the greenhouse effect and global warming.
  2. What is the role of foundations in Northern Ireland? The Good Friday agreement that brought an end to that violent period known as the Troubles was still nine long years away.
  3. How can foundations relate to funding strategies being proposed for the public sector? A terse file note indicated that statutory funders were “increasingly expecting agencies to supplement their funding from the charitable or corporate sector”.
  4. And, how can “non-computerised” foundations get advice on “programmes and hardware”?

All four questions continue to resonate today, albeit in different iterations.

  1. Should foundations continue to invest in companies that contribute to dangerous climate change? Or do they have a duty to invest their assets in a way that is compatible with a transition to a world that “only” increases its temperature by 1°C?
  2. How can foundations support the diverse communities of Northern Ireland to overcome the divisions that remain long after the Troubles have formally ended?
  3. When and how might foundations respond to requests to fund work that was previously resourced by a shrinking public sector?
  4. How can foundations responsibly accelerate the opportunities that the digital revolution offers for achieving social good, while minimising the risk of harm? Given that foundations are often the source of funding for innovation, how can they develop the skills and expertise they will need to have if they are not to be a brake on progress?

But in 2019 I also observe foundations asking themselves new questions that are more searching and arguably more self-critical. Increasingly they are putting their own practices and the very role of foundations themselves, under the spotlight.

Recently I have heard British foundations asking:

  1. How can we make better use of all of our assets, our financial resources, people, data, networks and name, to achieve our mission?
  2. How can we use our independence of action and assets to break down historical boundaries of access? How are we complicit in how barriers are maintained?
  3. Are we able to speak truth TO power? Or are we only ever able to speak the truths OF power?
  4. How can we minimise the burden on applicants for our grants, and on our grantees, while meeting the requirements and expectations of our regulators? What is the cost of our funding practice for those who apply?
  5. How can we know whether we are funding the “right thing”? Can we ever attribute outcomes to our funding? Are we only ever contributing? How do we assess our own impact?
  6. In a time when the state is shrinking, how can we meet the increasing demands for our financial resources?
  7. Are we realistic about long-term change? Should we even claim that? Are we better at short term interventions that we can actually measure?

And, though this is perhaps unique to British foundations: How do we build a new relationship with our continental peers, given the complexities of exiting the EU? This question is especially relevant to those foundations who fund in areas like migration, science, the environment and health, all of which transcend national borders.

Which brings me back to EFC. ACF’s board minutes from 1989 report on an early visit to the brand new EFC. This prompted the ACF board to discuss the “Euro-dimension – Brussels”, and the establishment of an ACF network with an opportunity to meet and discuss “EC” initiatives. It was noted that “EFC provides a much-needed channel for liaison with foundations and emerging foundations’ movements across Europe”. Thirty years on, as the relationship between the UK and the rest of Europe is still uncertain, what is clear is that the role of the EFC is as vital as ever.




Carol Mack

Chief Executive, Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF)