Stronger Foundations Blog: Foundations and the art of the soluble

27 January 2020

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.

In this #StrongerFoundations provocation piece, Anthony Tomei, ACF trustee, considers whether foundations are starting to turn their efforts towards problems where government action is itself the cause of the problem, and whether the task of foundations is to oppose and try to change that action.

"I was a contributor to a celebration event held in Brussels in November 2019 to mark the 30th anniversary of the European Foundation Centre. We were asked to reflect on how the world of foundations and philanthropy has changed over the thirty years since the EFC was established, and what the implications might be for the future. What follows is a summary of my speech."

Introduction - the art of the soluble.

My response to this interesting challenge takes inspiration from the work of the great British scientist Peter Medawar. Medawar won the Nobel prize in 1960 for his work on human immunology. He did the science that paved the way for tissue and organ transplantation. 

He also wrote with great insight and elegance about the nature of science. In one of his best-known essays he describes science as “the art of the soluble”. He says that good science is fundamentally about asking good questions, and that good questions must have two key components. 

  • First they must be worthwhile; ie interesting and/or important. 

  • Second, the resources must be available to give a reasonable chance that they can be solved. 

In short, he says, there’s no point in using sophisticated methods to solve humdrum problems, and there’s no point in setting about fascinating problems where you don’t have much chance of making progress. 

I have long thought that this is a good metaphor for the work of foundations. Like scientists we have freedom in choosing the problems we try to solve, we have a range of resources to draw on and we want to address problems that are soluble.   

Medawar said that: "Good scientists study the most important problems they think they can solve. It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems not to grapple with them." By analogy, I like the thought that: "Good foundations tackle the most important problems they think they can solve. It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems not to grapple with them." 

Success comes when we use our resources creatively to tackle important and worthwhile problems. Both the problems we are tackling and the resources available to us have changed significantly over the past 30 years. I want now to turn to my homework question; to reflect on those changes, and the implications for the future.


I’ll start with resources. It’s fair to say that 30 years ago most foundations only thought in terms of grant making. We now have a much bigger and fuller toolbox, and it’s growing all the time. 

By way of illustration consider three developments:

  • First, social investment: loans, equity positions, social impact bonds, joint ventures and so on. As well as providing new ways of funding these approaches have changed the way we think about our relationships with the organisations we support. They have found favour with governments and have become influential in policy thinking.

  • Second, thinking about endowment management has changed. Ethical investing has led to weakening of the Chinese walls between investment policies and funding programmes. We have become familiar with arguments that foundations should be using all their financial assets, not just their income, to pursue their missions. The effects of this are clear in the way the way that foundations are thinking about climate change, for example.

  • Third, while grant making programmes are still the bread and butter of most foundations’ programmes, they have become much more active and more sophisticated. They operate under different names — Funding Plus, Active Grant making etc, but they are all essentially about the same thing. Foundations are using the full range of their resources, including their networks, their contacts, their influence and their reputations, to support their grant holders — and they do so by using an ever widening range of activities: convening, lobbying, collaborating with others (including government and business), and so on. 

Theories of change

These new tools are important in themselves but they have also opened up new ways of thinking. I find it encouraging that foundations are increasingly interested in “theories of change”, the idea which describes how if we are trying to achieve a change we need to think through the process by which it might happen, and what our role is in that process.

Change will rarely happen simply as a result of a foundation’s actions, so we need to understand who else is involved and what their roles are; who needs to be persuaded; what levers are available; how we can best work alongside other actors; and where we can use our resources most effectively. 

This has led to a more sophisticated understanding of the added value that a foundation can bring; not just through funding, but by bringing expertise, access to networks and convening power.  

The future — do foundations risk becoming irrelevant?

My sense is that foundations are increasingly thinking along these lines, but the challenge we face is that the pace of change is too slow. Many of these exciting new ideas and techniques have been developed outside the traditional domains of philanthropy. It’s a concern that many significant new players have simply ignored the world of foundations and traditional grant giving methods, and have developed their own programmes based on their own experience. Foundations are famously prone to being insulated from outside influence, but we have to learn from these developments or we risk irrelevance. 

Choosing the right problems

I turn now to the choice of problems. My starting point is that everything that foundations do takes place in the context of the actions of governments. This is of course because the resources of governments are hugely greater than those of foundations. But it’s also because Government policies are often themselves the driver of the problems and issues that we try to address.

For most of the past 30 years we in Europe have had social democratic governments whose wider objectives and values were largely in tune with those of foundations. In 2019 the picture looks different. In the UK at least there are important areas where the actions of governments may be fundamentally at odds with the values that underpin the work of foundations.

Consider, for example:

  • The treatment of minorities, and migrants in particular. Is a policy that deliberately creates a “hostile environment” towards migrants and asylum seekers something we can leave unchallenged?

  • Attitudes towards poverty and inequality. In the UK government support for social and community services has been deliberately and dramatically cut over past 10 years. What was originally billed as a necessary but temporary response to the financial crisis of 2008 has become normal. Again, isn’t it part of our role to challenge this, and not just to create programmes that try to ameliorate the consequences?

  • And consider the increasingly cavalier attitude of politicians and governments towards truth, or to put it another way their increasing propensity to tell lies. Over the past few years we in the UK have accumulated ample evidence of this dreadful trend. Looking at what’s happening in the USA and in some countries of Europe I don’t think we are alone.

How should foundations respond?

The fundamental question for Foundations is always how best to use their independence and their potential for action. Most foundations think they should not use their funds simply to replicate or supplement government funding. That leaves ample space for action. For all its size government funding is limited, decisions reflect political priorities and we are free to disagree with those priorities, and those decisions.  

Sometimes Foundations support things that governments should not fund, because government intervention would be counterproductive. That’s interesting territory, but rare.

For the most part we fund things that governments say they:

  • cannot fund — because resources are stretched and they do not afford it sufficient priority; or

  • will not fund, because they are opposed to the action.

I wonder if over the past few years the balance is shifting from the first towards the second, that is to say towards problems where government action is itself the cause of the problem, and where our task is to oppose and try to change that action.

If so that necessarily takes us into more political domains, where questions of transparency, accountability and legitimacy become ever more important. Are we prepared to accept this challenge and face the difficult questions that inevitably arise? It’s my belief that we should embrace these questions and not shy away from them.

Of course, we could retreat to our traditional territory and go back to making grants to uncontroversial causes. But if we are indeed to follow Medawar’s vision and tackle important problems we think we can solve then I don’t think we have any alternative but to accept the challenge.

Anthony Tomei, January 2020

Trustee, Bell Foundation; member ACF board.


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.