8 July 2024

Problematic wealth – exploring foundation wealth origins

In June 2024, ACF launched guidance for foundations exploring their wealth origins for connections with the transatlantic trafficking of enslaved Africans: the origins of wealth toolkit.

In the UK, exploring institutional wealth connections to historical enslavement has moved in the last few years from being seen as niche or radical to becoming mainstream practice.

As well as charitable foundations, other institutions in the UK are seeking to explore, acknowledge and address connections to systems of oppression like enslavement and colonialism, and where their money originally came from. This includes banks, universities, the Church of England and even the Royal family.

So it feels timely to share this toolkit with the Philea community. How does this topic resonate in non-UK European countries? Is similar work happening in countries that were active in historical enslavement and forced labour practices in colonised territories?

Responding to demand from our foundation members

ACF is the leading membership association for foundations and independent grantmakers in the UK. Our members include 450 trusts and foundations that together give grants of over £6 billion each year.

This new resource was produced in response to member demand. Member foundations wanted to share learning with peer organisations on a similar journey, to build capacity within the sector in this field of practice and to demonstrate the importance of this topic to charitable foundations.

We developed the toolkit with support from a reference group of ACF member foundation leaders and subject matter experts.

Acknowledging history to understand the present

Acknowledging the historical context of wealth accumulation is essential to understand today’s racial justice movements. In the UK and elsewhere, such movements seek justice, redress and repair for the structural racism ingrained in our society. This takes the form of inequalities in wealth, access to land, education, housing, employment and the criminal justice system. These are systemic issues that many of our member foundations are working to end.

Research by Lancaster University examined organisations with financial connections to historical enslavement that are still operating today. This found that charities dominate the list. Due to the sheer volume of wealth accumulated in Britain at the height of the transatlantic trafficking of enslaved people, considerable philanthropic money from this time is likely to be connected to profits from trafficking of enslaved people. Many foundations with healthy endowments have continued in perpetuity.

Importantly, foundations are better equipped to act than many other institutions with historical wealth ties to enslavement. A charitable foundation’s purpose is to use its assets to further its mission: some of ACF’s member foundations have pivoted investment and/or grantmaking strategies to address some of the legacy harms from the origins of their wealth.

Practical guidance

The origins of wealth toolkit sets out the historical and present-day context in which many foundations and other institutions are choosing to research and publish connections between wealth origins and money from enslavement and make changes as a result.

It gives practical guidance for foundation boards to hold conversations, understand the relevance for their organisation and make decisions about the right path for them. You’ll also find detailed advice on how to commission the research work, suggestions for how to communicate your intentions internally and externally, and an overview of actions you might want to consider as a result.

And whilst exploring origins of wealth may be mainstream in the UK, it remains a polarising issue within wider debate. The toolkit provides advice on navigating this polarity including potential media interest in the work. In short: focus your efforts on the audiences most important to your mission.

Throughout the toolkit we offer examples of work and reflections from ACF members who are already working in this space, including advice on how to support your staff and trustees (and yourself) during your own journey.  

Navigating topics of critical importance

With such a variety of foundations in our membership, we recognise that undertaking new historical research projects isn’t relevant or feasible for all.

But we know that the issue of wealth links between institutions and historical practices of enslavement is a fundamentally critical topic for some of our members, whether they are already actively engaged in research work or starting to explore the relevance for their mission.

Our role at ACF is to support our members to steer through critical issues. One way we do this is by leveraging the experiences and insights from our broad membership and combining these with learning from comparable sectors. Our intention is that our new toolkit will help our members feel better equipped and more confident to open conversations and make informed decisions aligned to their mission and needs.

We are delighted to share our toolkit with the Philea community. We hope that it finds a ready audience with our peers across Europe, to prompt open and rich discourse on the issues and to create greater understanding of the relevance of historical enslavement to the issues important to many foundations across Europe today.

Our toolkit was commissioned with funding from Barrow Cadbury Trust

[1]A note on language: you’ll notice I talk here about ‘the transatlantic trafficking of African peoples’ and ‘historical enslavement’ rather than ‘slavery’ and the ‘slave trade’. As I learned from working with experts in the field, choosing sensitive language honours the dignity of those affected and fosters empathy and understanding. Terms such as ‘slave’ reduces identity to mere property, perpetuating dehumanisation. You’ll find more about this in our toolkit.


Catherine Seymour
Director of Policy, Practice and Research, ACF