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As a funder, we are working harder to respond in an increasingly complex world

As a younger and less experienced director, I may have found writing board papers to be a chore, one I thought took me away from the important business of delivery. But nowadays, as we approach the end of another financial year, I really welcome the time to reflect and to share what I am seeing and hearing with trustees. Those discussions are certainly enriched by the learning and reflections of the last year, but perhaps, as importantly, are about how that learning shapes our future response and approaches.

In a period of such uncertainty and upheaval, trying to make predictions feels like a fool’s errand, so I have found it useful to focus on our efforts and intentions rather than to second guess others’. Two things have dominated my thinking: the role of foundations and of philanthropy in this highly volatile world; and the need to challenge and improve our own practice.

Questions are being asked of us and our peers – not least in what legitimacy we have to act, how we make sure we are connecting with the very best, most relevant organisations to fund, and whether we are fleet enough and rigorous enough in this environment. Quite rightly we are being challenged in how we using all the assets at our disposal to safeguard those organisations against market volatility. I and my peers recently had a robust conversation with colleagues at the Charity Commission about what role we all play in supporting a resilient civil society. I have also just finished Robert Reich’s book Just Giving, which looks at what he sees as the undemocratic nature of wealth and philanthropy, and argues for considerable changes to make giving more transparent and accountable in service of democratic values.

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, says that “we must practise a better vision of philanthropy, one that improves itself and the societies of which we are members”. I agree with him. For some time now at Paul Hamlyn Foundation we have been exploring just how to make that aspiration authentic and tangible.

Trustees and staff asked that we do more than notice the need on our own doorstep in London’s Kings Cross. A new initiative, Our Neighbourhood Fund will tether some of our capital locally, committing 1 per cent of our grant funding to forming deep relationships with the charities working within a mile of our office that really know their local circumstances. It is early days for this approach, but we hope that we can offer our people and our building too, as assets in addressing the hardship which is evident in the streets around the foundation.

Things are changing inside too. We have appointed four young people to serve as advisers and members of two of our decision taking panels. We also have staff with lived experience of the fields in which we operate. These perspectives help our assessment and decision-making processes feel even more relevant and informed. Diversity in our organisation is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is a business imperative.  Our grantee and applicant survey last year told us how important the quality of those relationships was to everyone who comes into contact with us, and we are taking steps to improve them. That also means building in time to develop our people and to make sure they have the confidence, time and information to have really excellent, open and honest conversations.

And, with our trustees’ full backing, we are extending our commitment to long-term funding and to providing core support, with a suite of funding approaches from support for research and development through to endowments. Our Backbone Fund, underpinning the policy, advocacy and membership services for our sectors, is now well established. And we are experimenting with 10-year grants that free up talented charity leaders to show the way by delivering best practice in the fields we care about. We are also collaborating more with partners because we can see that the problems society faces are complex and need concerted effort.

None of this, in itself, is rocket science. But when taken together, it does represent a response to the challenge, one we first articulated in 2015 when I joined Paul Hamlyn Foundation and we launched a new strategy. Some four years on, the vision for a more effective philanthropy is starting to be realised, one that is, I hope, truly supportive of and useful to the pioneers, leaders and organisations pressing for a more equal and just society.

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