ACF’s approach to understanding the foundation universe through data, evidence and intelligence

June 2023

Dr Ambreen Shah, an associate at ACF, provides an update on the results of a recent consultation she conducted on behalf of ACF to harness views on the data ACF collects on foundations, and gives a brief update on next steps.

As I noted in my March update on Foundation Giving Trends, I have been talking to a range of stakeholders over 2022 and 2023 about the data ACF could usefully provide the sector to help them understand better the world of foundations, and the contribution they make to the wider funding landscape. This consultation has had two phases:

Phase 1:  26 1-to-1 conversations with foundations, sector experts and academics about what they currently think of the data ACF gathers and what they might find useful in the future

Phase 2:  an open survey seeking sector views on ACF’s current research output – Foundation Giving Trends, what they like about this work and where they see room for improvement.

What did people tell me about what they would find useful to know about foundations?

A number of common areas of interest emerged – people said they would be interested in knowing:

•  Where is funding going: on what issues, communities, geography but also in terms of number and size of grants

•  What funder+ approaches are being adopted and level of spend here:  to create visibility and understanding of this work and opportunity for learning

•  Processes being adopted: eg different approaches to applications, monitoring, digital etc

•  Collaborations: who is funding with who on what areas

•  What is the scale of movements/trends shaping giving: this includes movements (eg Black Lives Matter) or trends (eg participatory grant-making; unrestricted funding)

•  Diversity data: size and make up of the workforce and trustees

•  Approaches to investments: eg what investment policy is being pursued, where assets are held, how approaching ESG principles, what proportion of investment being spent each year etc

•  Foresight analysis: horizon scanning to support thinking about future trends in foundation giving; but also providing space for foundations to share early thinking on their next strategic period, providing the possibility of greater alignment by funders operating in a particular sub-sector, for example

•  Thought leadership: on some of the bigger issues eg what is the source of foundation money and what does this mean for modern day practice; what does a productive relationship with the public sector look like?

There was also some reflection on thinking through what was the purpose of this research, was it a state of the sector piece or did it have ambitions to support change in the sector.

What did the survey results show?

We had 41 responses to the survey, which was open for seven weeks, March to April 2023.  While the numbers are too low to do any statistical analysis, the feedback we received in the free text responses will inform ACF’s decisions on next steps.  Some of the feedback confirmed what is set out above, so in the spirit of avoiding repetition I have focussed on drawing out other insights gained. The below is therefore only a summary snapshot of interesting findings. The full report can be found here.

•  The vast majority of respondents were grant-makers (34)

•  People found Foundation Giving Trends helpful to understand the sector better, key trends and to see how they compared to other foundations – their ‘peers’

•  Data on levels of giving/grant-making and the table ranking foundations by grant-making was considered most important

•  There was strong support to broaden the definition currently used about who is included/excluded from the analysis; supported by the fact that people also expressed an interest to understand better the wider foundation sector – including funders like community foundations and lottery distributors.  For the majority changing the definition did not cause them any challenges

•  The majority of people wanted annual data drops, some noting that a shorter data lag would be helpful

•  There was strong support (84%) to make the data open source with the majority (59%) saying they would access the raw data and 64% saying they had the in-house skills to look at it

•  There was strong support for online ‘publication’ and a desire for the data to be communicated more dynamically – 83% of respondents supporting heavy use of infographics – others drawing out the value of podcasts, web platforms, short explainer videos, events

•  360giving was consistently mentioned as the other place respondents got information/data about the foundation sector. Some of the others mentioned were IVAR, Charity Commission, Environmental Funders Network, Foundation Rating Practice, NCVO, NPC, sector press, social media/podcasts, etc

•  Other areas of future focus that would be helpful were noted as: eg numbers of foundations with open grant programmes versus those who invite applications only; more on smaller foundations; number of foundations that re-grant; numbers focussing on alternative sustainable futures versus symptoms of the current system; who has signed up to the Funder Commitment on Climate Change pledge/publish their data on 360giving, etc

•  If commentary/interpreting the data is a focus (some did feel ACF should focus on the data and without commentary) centring the voices of foundations themselves about what the data means for them was also supported by the majority.


In conclusion… for now…

There is a lot to unpack in the above, including:

1.  Who else is working in this space – as it is clear that some of the above ‘asks’ are being covered by other data experts in the sector

2.  What lends itself to research approaches and what is about us building on our existing ACF efforts through, for example, ACF’s existing events and learning programme – which provide safe spaces for foundations to come together and talk through issues they care about; and the Funders Collaborative Hub which is already providing a valuable space for foundations to connect with one another.

The next step on this journey is to take what we have heard, continue to engage with key stakeholders – collaborate even - and to explore how we can build on our 14 year long approach to research in this area.

I have been supporting ACF up to this point, now Catherine Seymour, ACF director of policy, practice and research will take up the mantel. So, if you have ideas please feel free to connect with her at [email protected].

In the meantime, in case you missed it, Foundation Giving Trends 2022 was published recently and if you want to join an audience to discuss what the trends mean for foundations as they now navigate the cost of living crisis then members can book a place here.

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