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.