Trailblazers for social change

Rushanara Ali, who this year leaves the PHF Board of Trustees, reflects on the changes she has seen during her time at the Foundation, and on the impact foundations need to have in changing times.Some years ago I was invited to join the board of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. I didn’t know a great deal about the Foundation or its founder other than that the Foundation supported charities and other institutions which promote the arts and education, and that its founder was the ownerof publishing companies. To get to know more, I asked one of the trustees, a close friend of Paul Hamlyn, to tell me something about him and what motivated him to establish the Foundation. The response struck me deeply: “Paul was deeply influenced by his own experiences of childhood and young adulthood … He never forgot the feeling of being an outsider and excluded. It was this – allied to his love of music – that motivated him when he first set up Paul Hamlyn Foundation.” His friend added that his great concern was about access to opportunity, particularly for young people. There was a clear commitment to correct injustices and help the under-privileged at all times.

Foundation growth

When I joined, not long after Paul Hamlyn’s death, the Foundation’s annual grant giving stood at around £7 million. During my time as a trustee it has grown to around £20 million, so it has been a period of considerable change. When I started, PHF primarily focused on supporting the arts and education, which remain some of its greatest strengths. The Foundation was also starting to run Special Initiatives, such as Musical Futures and the Refugee and Asylum Seeker Fund. A major strategic review was undertaken, backed by analysis of the impact grants were having and their distribution across different areas of the country. It became clear that a larger proportion of grants were going into London and the South East – an imbalance that much effort has been made to correct in subsequent years.As a new trustee, I was involved in the development of an entirely new funding programme focusing on social justice, which came with a sizeable annual budget. Today the Social Justice programme helps marginalised individuals and communities to become integrated into society and focuses particularly on supporting them during periods of transition.One of the most ambitious, and, I believe, groundbreaking initiatives we have established is Right Here, a five-year project developed in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation. The aim of the programme is to change the way the mental health of young people aged 16–25 is addressed in the UK in this important period between teenage and adulthood – focusing on building young people’s resilience and helping to reduce the risks of them developing more serious mental health problems in the future. The initiative was developed following extensive consultation both with experts and young people to establish where the gaps were in service provision, and to better understand from young people how they wanted to be supported.I was also encouraged to help commission an in-depth research programme on the experience of young undocumented migrants in order to explore what further support PHF could give to this group, about which very little was known. Our research built on the work of the Refugee and Asylum Seeker Fund, uncovering some of the huge challenges faced by young people – especially those who were unaccompanied and undocumented. To me, these initiatives reflect the Foundation’s ability and willingness to be challenging and ambitious in branching out, and reflect an increasing confidence to do things outside of its comfort zone while retaining its commitment to the arts and education.

Challenging times

With that said, no foundation can afford to rest on its laurels right now. We face an unprecedented world recession, with the associated problems of repossessions, business bankruptcies, significant job losses and rises in long-term unemployment. In a climate where public spending is likely to shrink over the coming years, foundations face the unenviable job of making tough choices about what they focus their resources on.

If past trends during recessions are anything to go by, it is plausible that psychological needs are likely to grow. For example, the recession of the early 1980s saw a significant increase in male suicide rates. There is also strong evidence that debt correlates closely with stress – so, for example, measures to slow down debt collection may have a big impact on psychological well-being. There is also the risk of higher levels of recidivism, as well as of civil unrest and disturbances. Counter-intuitively, some older groups will have more resilience to crises by virtue of having lived through past recessions.

Foundations need to act as trailblazers for social change in the coming years. We need to be ahead of the curve, willing to take risks and back projects and organisations that are likely to have high impact and trust them to deliver. It requires conviction and sometimes a leap of faith on the part of staff and trustees even if the results can’t be measured or seen from the outset.

Foundations must challenge government, but equally be ready to partner where they are likely to have impact on a larger scale. Examples from our experiences at PHF illustrate this. Musical Futures, for instance, challenged the orthodoxy of music teaching and has supported schools and local authorities to develop now methodologies.

We have also been successful in supporting initiatives that have since scaled up. Tower Hamlets Summer University, for instance, is an organisation I know well from my work at the Young Foundation. A jointly funded initiative between the Young and Paul Hamlyn Foundations saw the national roll-out of the THSU system of free non-residential learning programmes for young people to other inner city areas. In this way, even with a relatively low spend, foundations are able to have significant impact.

One of the great strengths of foundations is that they can back unpopular causes and shed light on emerging problems by backing projects early, before governments can act, or where there is neglect – if there is the will and conviction among trustees and staff. In the Social Justice field we have seen organisations suffer because of government responses to bad press, whether about prison arts programmes or asylum seekers and refugees. Foundations like PHF have the space and freedom to take action and should continue to back unfashionable or unpopular causes if it’s the right thing to do.

Thinking back, on first impressions, the PHF board to me seemed no different from most other boards – conservative with a small ‘c’, not to mention intimidating! However, it soon became clear that this was a group of people with a genuine desire to be challenged and asked difficult questions, and a strong appetite to gain new insights on what else to do. As well as a concern to respond to acute needs – including those that are below the radar – there is a real interest in addressing those needs that are likely to intensify in the future.

During my tenure as a board member, I have seen Paul Hamlyn Foundation take some of the necessary leaps of faith, and I am excited by what may yet result from them. More widely I am heartened by what I believe foundations can deliver to society. Their contribution is needed now more than ever.

Rushanara Ali is associate director of the Young Foundation, an organisation that fosters social innovation.