Stronger Foundations blog - Thinking big, acting small

15 October 2019

ACF’s Stronger Foundations initiative aims to open challenging discussions about foundation practice and identify what it means to be a ‘stronger’ foundation. As part of the project, we will be publishing a series of provocations from members offering their personal views on the initiative’s themes.

This contribution is from Rhiannon Bearne, chair of Millfield House Foundation and a member of the Funding Practices working group. Share your thoughts using the hashtag #StrongerFoundations.

So why did I, as trustee and chair, think it was valuable to get involved? Firstly, the opportunity to reflect on what we do and how we do it as a sector was exciting and timely. Having changed our own funding practice quite radically in 2012/13, I jumped at the chance to think about our work in a sectoral context. Also, for a small trust working in a fairly niche field (geographically-specific voluntary and community sector (VCS) policy and campaigns funding), I was keen to learn from other foundations. Finally, the idea of a safe space to test some of the underlying assumptions that dictate grant-making behaviour felt very healthy.

That space to reflect has proved particularly important so far. I think many of us in the giving sector would acknowledge that a degree of inertia can be bred from the comfort of an endowment. By this I mean a tendency to keep doing things as they’ve always been done them because we are, to a degree, protected from the external forces which affect much of the VCS. With the wider sector experiencing significant change, if we’re expecting our grantees to be forward thinking then it’s great that trusts and foundations are demonstrating they are doing the same thing.

My early thoughts on emerging findings and recommendations?

The key message coming through the group’s discussions is just what a wide arena ‘funding practice’ actually is. Trusts need to think about the macro and micro – not just tweaks to practice but the fundamental fit between mission and behaviour, as my colleague on the group, Anthony Tomei, trustee of the Bell Foundation, has discussed in this blog. If funding practice is the key expression of mission, trusts need to ask, are we choosing the right tools to do the job? Is our sweep of knowledge (of the sector, opportunities, ways to fund) broad enough? If not, how do we get to know the unknowns? And crucially, how do we keep learning without throwing our grantees into a perpetual state of revolution? 

In addition, the group has acknowledged right from the start of our programme that we shouldn’t reinvent the wheel. There are excellent pieces of work and strong sets of recommendations already available from organisations like IVAR so much of what we do will be showcasing existing good work.

Other emerging areas of thinking including coming up with a pragmatic, useful and straight-forward expression of relational or user-centre giving. Finally – and crucially for me – a continued focus on distinctive opportunities for nations and regions, as 40% of work working group members come from bases outside London.

ACF should be commended for initiating some big thinking in the sector: about power, about failure, about relationships. Stronger Foundations could be described is a strategic review of the sector as a whole. At a time when we expect our grantees to be forward thinking as well as reflective, and ambitious as well as value-driven, it’s vital that trusts and foundations do, and are seen to do, the same thing. And the fact that foundations, big and small, staff and trustees – including chairs – are participating together gives the initiative itself the strongest foundations from which to start.

Rhiannon Bearne
Millfield House Foundation

Views in this series are the personal views of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the working group, ACF, or its wider membership. Find out more  about Stronger Foundations.