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Why make grants?

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the purpose of grant making, the role of endowed foundations and the relationship between what goes on in broader civil society and the organisations that support and fuel it. There have been critiques from the USA – from Anand Giridharadas   arguing that philanthropy is another tool for the powerful rich, from Edgar Villanueva  describing the damaging colonial underbelly of philanthropy, and from Robert Reich  questioning the impact of philanthropy on our democracy. Each of these critiques has been discussed in the UK, and while the criticisms don’t land as powerfully as they do in the USA, there has inevitably been some greater sense of self-reflection in the UK. But there would have been reflection anyway – people running foundations as staff or as trustees are reflective people, liable to consider what their place is in the world and what difference they can make. And as they survey our deeply divided society, the sense of desolation in so many parts of the UK, and the democratic crisis we face, it would be odd indeed if they were not thinking about how they can do what they do even better.

Over fifteen years  ago in the Grant Making Tango  I argued that anyone wanting to make a grant needed to decide if the purpose of the grant was to change  the world, build an organisation, or keep good stuff going. Not to know, I argued, risked disappointment at best, and massive waste at worst. Too many funders were paying for projects, and then being disappointed that the organisation wasn’t stronger and more effective. Or they were paying to strengthen organisations, and surprised that they hadn’t achieved the large-scale systems change that was then desired.

But preparing for another discussion this week about the role and purpose of foundations – those wonderfully privileged endowed organisations, withe independence hard wired, and the choice to set their own course – I thought rather differently about what foundations can do in these, very much more troubled and troubling times.

  • They can be stabilisers and stewards– supporting important organisations and groups in times of massive turbulence. They can protect knowledge, support the institutions and organisations with deep roots in communities and in our world. Just as  the medieval monasteries protected the illuminated manuscripts during the years of plague – so too we have organisations that need security and stability through troubled times.
  • They can be disrupters and agitators, making change happen, supporting the new and the challenging, avoiding the status quo, recognising the need for new and different ways of doing things. They can take risks, challenge the existing order, support the challengers against the incumbents.
  • They can be the reliable suppliers of money, support and help– keeping good things going, working with humility to support that which works and is good, valuing the deep connections that exist within civil society, and making sure that organisations across the country are able to thrive.

All three of these sets of purpose seem to me to be worthwhile, important and timely. Each of them has massive value at this difficult time in our country’s history. Each of them can be pursued by foundations – but I’m not really sure that anyone foundation can do all three. If I’m right there are choices to be made – and in difficult times, foundations know they need to make choices. That will help them – perhaps even more importantly it will help the bodies that rely on them to know what  it is that the grant maker wants to do.

 

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Voluntary trustees – are we paying a price for this principle?

Every few years a minor argument breaks out in civil society about whether or not we should allow trustees to be paid. Every few years, someone laments the fact that it’s hard to attract people to trustee roles and every few years someone else says that public trust is helped by voluntary trusteeship, that the voluntary principle is at the heart of who we are and that it would make no difference to the number and quality of trustees anyway. And at some stage we point smugly at the FTSE companies and the NHS trusts that do pay, and tell ourselves that they don’t have inclusive boards either.
And every few years after the row subsides again, I’m left feeling deeply uncomfortable. Partly because I know how hugely I have personally benefited from being a trustee. (I will always treasure the memory of a Very Important Person in the charity world portentously reminding me that no-one should ever benefit from their trust, while I reflect on the personal, professional and generally life enhancing benefits I have received from trusteeship).
But also because the voices of those saying that payment for trusteeship is wrong nearly always come from people who are already trustees. It’s a bit like those people who have already easily negotiated the rickety stairs and narrow doors of a meeting room describing the room as absolutely accessible. Those of us lucky enough to have salaried roles which allow time for trusteeship, or those who earn enough to enable them to give their time, need to be very cautious about advocating a model that may not always work for everyone.

I’m interested in hearing from someone on very insecure earnings, who loses pay every time she goes to a trustee meeting. And yes, advocating for time off (as NCVO does), is important, but it only seems to apply for those in secure, salaried work. I’m interested in hearing from the many people I have met who wanted to join a housing association board but knew that it might imperil their benefit payments because they were no longer deemed available for work. I’d like to hear from young people, scrabbling to piece together an income in really difficult times who would like to take on a role – and are so desperately needed by charity boards – but cannot risk the possibility that they thereby miss out on a shift or a freelance contract that takes them out of town.

I’m not comfortable with a debate that doesn’t ask the views of people who are currently not sitting round the trustee table.
Are we content for our trustee boards to be staffed by people who are either salaried, or on a final salary pension schemes or who otherwise have sufficient income to allow them to make what is in effect a substantial donation to their charity of choice? It’s also worth remembering that many of the same arguments were used to justify MPs not being paid, a stance which ensured that people were only represented by ‘men of means.’

Now I actually believe that on balance there are really strong – indeed compelling – arguments for keeping trusteeship voluntary. Theoretically, it allows trustees to demonstrate some necessary independence, knowing that their income is not on the line if they present a dissenting view. Non-payment of trustees is still a distinguishing feature of the sector, which recognises the voluntary impulse at the heart of voluntary action. It’s important that people who can afford to, can give back in this way. What is more, for the largest charities which don’t seem to have any challenge recruiting trustees, it’s simply not necessary. And of course the vast majority of charities are not paying anyone anyway. Some would also point out that payment of trustees is a poor use of charitable money, (although if you think good governance is central to the success of the charity it seems odd that this is the one thing we can’t justify paying.)
But we should recognise that all of this does come at a cost. It does restrict the pool of people who can afford to do it. And the price we pay as a sector may be having governing bodies which are less inclusive than they might be. That’s quite a price.

But if we are going to reaffirm, yet again, the voluntary principle, then there are things we ought to do much more seriously . We ought to be much more explicit and much less embarrassed about the benefits received from trusteeship. How about recognised professional accreditation? We ought to be much more open about payment for loss of earnings. (And I don’t mean barristers having their fees reimbursed. I do mean the barista having her wages replaced). We definitely ought to be arguing forcibly for time off, but in an increasingly freelance economy perhaps we ought to also be asking for tax relief on time given.
And perhaps we need to think more about the future pool of trustees. As the ‘job for life’ disappears, we cannot expect employers to continue to release people for trustee duties as part of their development programmes not because they can’t but because they won’t have the same investment. And as the last generation of recipients of final salary pension schemes hang up their trustee boots, and as demands on trustees get ever greater, are there new and better ways of making sure that a charity set up today will be able to recruit a diverse, knowledgeable, supportive group of people to steer the next generation of charities?
Just arguing that non-payment of trustees is a system that has served us well for the last century may not be the best possible answer for the next one.

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Homes, houses, units and incidents: the emotions in public policy

From a talk and conversation at Northern PlaceShapers, April 10th 2019

A large part of public policy is concerned with where people live: are there enough houses? Are we maintaining them well enough? Are they secure, affordable and decent? And whose living in them?

We know that housing matters enormously. It’s a huge source of the generational tension we face as a country. It should be an integral part of the infrastructure, enabling growth and mobility. It’s a political hot-button issue. And there’s no shortage of reports and policy recommendations about it. In fact, Housing Report Bingo is a parlour game in many circles, as report after report makes the crystal-clear case: we need more housing for everyone, the current arrangements are broken, there needs to be grater sustained investment. It’s obvious.

And yet we fail to cut through, either with government, or too often with the people who need housing, and those who live in our homes.

Is this another blind spot in public policy? Professionals and board members, ministers and regulators happily talk about supply, and units. We spend millions of pounds and in conferences, round tables and seminars we agonise about the differences between affordable and social and council and private housing. We know all about scheduled repairs, pipelines and managing demand, and we can even talk the language of allocation and support. We dabble happily in the KPIs and the league tables.

But nearly three years after a slogan called Bring Back Control changed the course of British history; we seem to be very poor at identifying why where we live matters so much. For all of us our home is the most precious thing we hold, and our emotions about home are only matched by the love we have for those who are most close to us. Home is the place of intimacy and warmth. It’s the place where our most precious inter actions take place. Its the place we raise our children. The place we go to when we need to feel safe. Its where we are ill and hope to die. It’s a place for times of vulnerability. It’s the place where our memories are born and where they grow. and Home provides our identity and our sense of who we are. Home provides nurture and security. It is in our homes that we most need control.

That’s why things going wrong in a home are so horrific. Its why domestic violence is rightly seen as the most hideous crime – the betrayal of the safety of home. Its why burglary can be so catastrophic and why its occasional dismissal as not really bad because it wasn’t violent, fails to recognise the violation it represents. Its why internal sewage flooding is such a tragedy and why floods and fire still touch our deepest emotions.

Home matters to us.

It’s not a coincidence that moving to a new house ranks up there on the scale of stress with bereavement and divorce.

It’s also why people get so angry when things go wrong. Its why the twitter messages to so many chief executives feel so aggressive. No wonder people are angry – that failing boiler, that damp patch, that botched repair is affecting them in their most important place. It’s not a late train, it’s not an incident or a scheduling issue – its damage to them in the place they need to feel most safe.

Its why people are so angry when their right of quiet enjoyment, so beautifully described in otherwise dull legislation, is threatened, as it so often is.
Public policy is beginning to talk about trauma: its time that housing policy thought about how it causes trauma.

Our home is what we own, regardless of housing tenure. Our home belongs to us in ways that resist metrics and legal title. Housing associations and local authorities may have housing on their balance sheets: but the homes they support are only held in trust for the community – for today’s generation and for ones not yet born.
And if this is true, shouldn’t public policy change too? What would housing policy look like if it recognised the central importance of a home to the people who live in it, and the lack of one to people who are homeless? What would housing management look like?

And perhaps far more importantly, what would our political discussion look like? That might really start a different conversation.

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Kindness and emotions – the public policy blind spot

In the last  two years I have been privileged to have a Fellowship with Carnegie UK Trust. This has allowed me to explore a long-held interest of one in kindness and emotional intelligence – and how  this fits into public policy.

This short blog, written for the publication date, was first  published on the Carnegie UK Trust website.

We all want to be kind and calls for kindness in public services are everywhere. Who wouldn’t want to be kind?

But we also want services to be fair. We want them to be accountable and run by professionals with a strong sense of boundaries. We want to scrutinise and understand decisions.

Public policy is about relationships and it is about emotions. It’s about how we love and how we care. It’s about where we live and where we feel we belong. It’s about how we change and grow. It’s always and at all times about emotions. And yet talking about emotions in public policy is embarrassing and uncomfortable.

That’s because kindness in public policy is a deeply disruptive concept. It recognises the emotions at the heart of what we do and gives them the status normally reserved for KPIs, risk registers and metrics of things that can be readily enumerated. Its difficult, and it challenges our deepest beliefs. But a recognition of the need for kindness is essential if we are to build trust, enable people to change their behaviour, and secure the outcomes that all the rest of the apparatus is designed to deliver.

Read the new report, Kindness, emotions and human relationships: The blind spot in public policy here.

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Confessions of a Framing Sceptic

When I first heard about framing I heard spin. I thought that it was all about identifying  the prejudice of the public and then pandering to it. I thought it was better suited to advertising and the dark arts of politics than the much more complex world of policy development and communication. I thought it was a way of putting a coat of shiny paint on the crumbling edifice of some of our services.

I was so very wrong.

I learned through early exposure to the framing thinking on issues as different as children’s nutrition, housing and poverty that framing is a technique that is genuinely disruptive, hugely challenging to those of us who think we know best, and is a way of rethinking and challenging the fundamentals of some of the rather weary positions that we are all so ready to recycle.

I learned five things that have changed the way I think about public policy, not just what I say.

  1. I’ve learned something I should have known all along :  how we feel about something is as important as what we know. That old campaigning question – do you know, think or feel?  – needs to be relearned. How we feel really matters and this is true of the people who view an issue from afar, those who are personally and intimately involved and those of us with a professional label.
  2. I’ve learned that everything is  always framed. The question is how it is framed. If you describe your services in terms of pity and distance, than that’s how it will be experienced. If you talk about housing in terms of desperation and  need, then you can’t be surprised if it becomes an emergency service. The question is framing it accurately in ways that are completely authentic.
  3. I’ve learned that if you talk in the way that makes you feel comfortable, you’re probably not listening. And not listening probably means that you’ll never be heard by anyone except people like you. And that reciting  data and research evidence in the way I have been trained, may be easy, but probably means that you’re not being heard.
  4. But I’ve also learned that it’s always about us, not about them. I’ve learned that when I think about  ageing I need to think about what I want as I age, that when I think about poverty I need to recognise that the existence of poverty affects us all, and that the things that matter to me – security, home, love, friendship – are almost certainly  the same things that matter to everyone else.
  5. And I’ve learned that when you talk so that people can hear you, extraordinary things happen. It’s not that’s magically public opinion shifts, but it is that the way in which we all think about an issue shifts, and that shifts what we do, as much as how we describe it.

Framing allows us to challenge our deepest pre conceptions, to understand the ‘received wisdom’ , to interrogate all of our own baggage and to start to do things differently. Mostly I’ve learned that framing isn’t about communications. It’s about everything we do. It’s not a silver bullet, but what it does is challenge professionals, systems and all of us who think we know the answer to think a lot more deeply, and then behave so much more intelligently.

first published for #socialcarefutures @neilmcrowther

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A Community Response to #metoo

 

Over the last decade our institutions and industries have been rocked by accusations of sexual abuse and harm. From the Church through the BBC  to Hollywood and to some of our most precious charities we have heard stories about behaviour that has no place in the 21st century. And we’ve heard about harm done, hurt experienced and the terrible work of both repairing the damage, and atoning for the grief caused.

Most of us have been challenged to think about our past behaviour – not just the abusers, but those of us who fear we may have been carelessly complicit. The averted eye, the nervousness about intervention, the embarrassment when we  knew things were not quite right. And all of us, whether accusers, survivors, perpetrators and institutions have known that there needs to be a better way. We need to find ways of being together  that enable fellowship and friendship but avoid causing such devastating sexual harm and degradation.

I believe this strongly. That’s why I’ve signed up to support #preventsexualharm. Supported by an impressive coalition of organisations including the NSCPCC, NCVO, NOTA, Crimestoppers and powered by Re-shape, this coalition challenges us to think about what we can do to prevent sexual harm in our communities, in our networks and our  organisations. .

This doesn’t feel easy or safe. But I do think it’s a really important way of taking back some control. And a chance for all of us to get the confidence to stop sexual harm – and that should mean that at the very least in ten years’ time we’re not looking back with embarrassment at things going on that we really should have been able to stop. After all, that certainly  doesn’t feel easy or safe .

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Freedom on the Tyne – an evening of history, drama and celebration

A beautiful cold evening in Newcastle and Gateshead on Sunday got me thinking about the inter play between the history of a place, its stories and its sense of self. Freedom on the Tyne – a vast and awe inspiring theatrical celebration of Martin Luther Kings brilliant speech as he received his honorary doctorate from the University of Newcastle fifty years ago – culminated in a celebration on the Tyne Bridge eerily reminding everyone of the infinitely more terrifying march at Selma. But it wasn’t the extraordinarily skills acrobatic dancers, the stilt walkers or the moving speeches that hit me most. It wasn’t even the experience of seeing a busy urban route free of traffic.  It was the huge joint commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre, the Jarrow Marchers, the siege at Amritsar, the Sharpeville Massacre as well as the decision to cross at Selma, which together fired a celebration of protest and resistance, of global connections, and of pride in a place that could put all this on. Our public square can be a desiccated place – here were people apparently from communities across Tyneside, reimagining history, remembering music, celebrating historic oratory, poetry and dance, and doing so in a way that made those apparently distinct unconnected struggles feel incredibly relevant today. Historic connections across time and space really matter – and they speak to all sorts of people.

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Civil Society and public grief – rituals, ceremony and silence

In the public unfolding of grief in the last terrible few months a number of things stand out. The first is   of course, the helpers. The courage and generosity of those who run to the site of disaster – whether Manchester taxi drivers ferrying people home, or café owners providing drinks or people contributing money.  The community centres and sports clubs throwing open their doors. The collections of money and goods. Along with the heroism of our emergency services, we can be really proud of the way in which all parts of civil society respond so actively and so quickly, giving the lie to the myth that people don’t care, and lead entirely atomised lives. Solidarity exists, and we show it at our lowest, most terrified moments.

But there is something else too which I think speaks to civil society and how we organise. In the face of disaster people congregate `and seek out opportunities to come together physically, not in a web based chat room, but in squares, and gardens, on streets and on bridges. We need places for silence and for contemplation. We need time for reflection. Music and poetry, along with a particular form of oratory have all played their part in providing both a shape for, and an expression of, terrible grief.

Some of those spaces have been churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship. In observing this, and taking part in many solemn gatherings, I am struck by how much we can learn from people of faith about the power of the assembly. The use of ritual. The importance of belonging, and of sharing, and of collective expressions of grief, loss, and yes, in our increasingly secular society churches, temples, synagogues and mosques don’t only provide material support- essential though that is. They also teach us how to come together.

I have been also been reading Alain de Botton’s Religion for  Atheists. Although not an atheist myself, there is so much in his clear-sighted view of the contribution made by religion, whether or not doctrine and faith are accepted. And I’ve also been very stimulated by   http://howwegather.org examining how younger generations come together.

At times of national grief, just as much as at times for personal tragedy, we may lack the words to console and express our shared sorrow. And yet there are parts of civil society, both faith based and not, that have so much to teach all of us about the human need for comfort, for sharing and for very present and physical ways of expressing our shared loss and shock.

Civil society   requires us to recognise the value of every human being, and find ways of expressing both our pain and our anger in ways that bring us together. Civil society can be a dry concept, and its behaviour can be equally arid.  But behind that phraseology lies an immense emotional human impulse.  Civil society knows about celebration. It knows about memorials. It knows about collective action. It knows about art and music. We are about everything that makes us human. Let’s recognise that and harness its power

 

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Could the algorithm kill our capacity for kindness?

We all want services to be kind. Nobody seriously disputes it. All social change starts with the  very personal relationship between two people, and yet, as I’ve commented before, we struggle to be kind, citing professional codes, financial challenges and regulatory restrictions to explain our rather cool, and sometimes frankly impersonal,  approach to the decisions that public policy makes. Relational seems to be OK in theory, but much more problematic when it encourages  us to break the rules. Rules help and protect the professional, reducing the discriminatory impact of discretion. They allow us to sensibly ration spending, make clear and transparent decisions – and create a framework that seems to be fair.

And we want our services to  be fair. We don’t want our outcomes dependent on whether the nurse likes us or not. We don’t want some children encouraged more than others because the teacher enjoys their company.

We also want our services to be transparent. We want to know that the choice of drug regime for  a particular condition  is not governed by hunch, but by sound medical rationale, linked to outcomes. We want university places to be awarded in ways that can be understood. We want to be cared for by people who we can trust not to have favourites.  We fear the discretionary and the partial.

We’re getting better and better at demonstrating fairness, and encouraging transparency. The algorithm provides a  powerful support. We’re all familiar  with the amazon algorithm – you bought this so you’d like that – and we don’t need to be terribly insightful to recognise that our daily scrolling and browsing and tweeting provides an enormous body of data that allows companies large and small to target their wares very precisely at our credit cards.  The predictive power of data analytics, and their capacity to shape services can be seen in every clinical pathway, every assessment form, every checklist – and they daily grow in power. Protocols and pathways ensure that intervention most likely to result in the right outcomes are always chosen, and that time – and money – is not wasted on experimentation and following hunches. It’s clean, its straightforward, it passes the test of legislation, and social media challenge, but is it kind?

Kindness requires intuition. It requires a personal relationship. It require both  warmth and risk. It probably involves personal liking, and empathy, and it may not always be fair. A doctor treating patients with warmth and humanity may not follow the prescribed pathway. A teacher may see a spark that would never register on any scorecard. Someone else might see the sadness behind the eyes. A care worker might understand the  grief and loss that is the source of  so much anger and frustration. They might all recognise the boredom and tedium, the fury, the fear – the raw emotions that drive us to need public services, and  sometimes to  loathe them too.

No algorithm in the world can replace human understanding. It can produce fairness. It can resist challenge. It can tolerate the bright light of public transparency. And it can protect  the professional from accusations of partiality. It can make sure that both money and services are carefully rationed (and in any system, at any time, that will always be needed.)

But if it can’t also allow for the warmth of human interaction,  we may need to recognise that sometimes kindness and human relationships trump mechanical approaches to fairness, and to transparency. It might not be the algorithm alone that challenges kindness. Our approach to fairness and to transparency might also be questioned.

 

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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

The future of civil society

It has become increasingly commonplace to say that the world around us is changing and changing fast. The impact of the digital revolution, the rise of new populist forms of politics, globalisation, gender fluidity, demographic change – and everywhere there is a crisis of trust.
Devolution in the nations of the UK, changing powers and behaviours for the cities, new forms of governance, the impact of funding reductions are all transforming the role of the state. And the market too is changing too with the emergence of the platform economy. New ‘industrial’ giants like Air BnB, Task Rabbit and Uber, are making old notions of market power obsolete while the titan collectors of information and data, Amazon, Facebook and Google, now control assets that are more valuable than oil and diamonds were in earlier centuries. These market makers and disruptors have been joined by the B Corps, the activist investors, and the companies now loudly claiming the importance of their social value.
Wherever you look there is change, and civil society needs to respond and respond without veering between wild panic or a retreat to the eternal verities of the past.

But we should remember this.

Every social and economic change has seen a response from civil society that both changed our sector, and influenced the future. The Industrial Revolution turned upside down the lives of people who had previously eked out a life in the countryside. They flocked to the towns and burgeoning cities, encountering hardship, a new kind of squalor and a hazardous liberation from the rules and norms that had previously governed their lives. But the moral panic that ensued brought us some of our greatest voluntary institutions: the working men’s clubs, trades unions, the university settlements, rescue missions for children and hundreds of charities. They were the products of an active, engaged, and entirely voluntary response to the challenges of the times.

Later, in the interlude between the great wars, NCVO was born, as an association of civil society, along with institutions supporting injured returning service men.

Then, in the aftermath of that massive global catastrophe, the second world war, new forms of associational life and service provision were devised to support the displaced peoples of Europe, and the dispossessed of the UK.

Civil society observed change, organised to respond to that change and in doing so, altered the trajectory of our culture and social order. Successive waves of organisational forms, the women’s aid refuges of the 70s, the organisations for people with AIDS in the 1980s, rights groups for gay men and lesbians, ethnic minority bodies in London, Liverpool, Leicester and so many other cities, demonstrate the capacity of our sector to shift in response to huge change and also shape it. So too did the housing co-operatives, the Claimants Union, the organisations of parents of children with learning difficulties, campaigning for change.

Now the boundaries around our sector are shifting, even blurring. We witness the internet and the digital revolution altering not just how we do things but what we do. We can see that some of our global institutions are in peril. The most recent Edelman Index suggests a weakening of public trust and confidence in NGOs. This is the right time to revisit our ways of operating and examine whether our values match up to the imperatives we face. This is not a time to withdraw into nostalgia about the past, nor to simply do what we’ve always done, and get what we have always got. It is the time to examine our powers of connection and our capacity for association. To examine our accountabilities, and our relationship with others, and forge a new future, just as surely as our predecessors did before. We need to ask some fundamental questions about who we are, what we stand for and where we are going.

That’s why a group of grant-making foundations have created an Independent Inquiry into the future of civil society. We’re approaching this important task in a spirit of considerable humility, recognising that some of the answers to our questions will be found in the most surprising places, and that what we find may challenge our preconceptions. But I also approach it with considerable confidence that today’s civil society will develop and change to make a positive difference on our fast-changing world.

Julia Unwin
February 27.