Gaining momentum: The Foundation Practice Rating in the context of wider funder-focused interventions

Reflections from Danielle Walker Palmour

We were invited by IVAR (Institute for Voluntary Action Research) to a meeting of a range of collaborations, networks and commentators focused on supporting the improvement of funder practice. This included me for the Foundation Practice Rating, the Grant Givers Movement, Grant Advisor, London Funders, the Stronger Foundations initiative by the Association of Charitable Foundations, Open and Trusting Grant-making initiative by IVAR, Funders Alliance for Racial Equality, and Modern Grant-making 

The immediate question was, what constitutes a funder – is it just private trusts and foundations, individuals making philanthropic gifts, public sector giving, or others?

Although a range of funding organisations were in scope for different initiatives, private trusts and foundations felt to be the area we were all fixing in our sights.  

We spent some time together thinking about what we are trying to change. The insights and themes that emerged were diverse: 

  • Grant makers and grant-seekers – there is an important reciprocity here that is often unrecognised: neither can function well without the other operating effectively. Our efforts need to be framed in the context of facilitating that relationship.
     
  • Similarly, it is significant to recognise the inability of philanthropy on its own to solve the big issues we tackle without an effective relationship with the State in all its guises. Connecting vulnerable people to broken institutions is pointless and counter-productive, so active engagement in the reform processes – of the police, welfare and health provision and immigration policy – is key.
     
  • I was particularly struck by the development of a strong reform agenda within philanthropy – foundations as a locus and agent of reform of its own practice. This impetus for change, often coming from younger and minoritised staff and trustees – was central to some interventions. We need to recognise that this is sometimes exhausting and career-endangering work. Those of us that are serious about change need to consider how to make challenging foundation practice a safer undertaking. 

What models are we using to underpin our work? Some loose groupings of models emerged for me: 

  • An enlightenment model – “research rigorously, tell them and they will change” 
  • A campaigns model “– creating and sustaining pressure for change. 
  • Making a logical case – the “why change” – based on assumptions or expectations of rational decision-making; this has links to the enlightenment model.  
  • An economic incentive model – “it is in the organisation’s interest to behave differently in the currency of reputational risk” 
  • Power dynamics – there are structural and baked in inequities that need surfacing and addressing. This can be within structures, organisations or within organisations.  
  • An elite model – many of us focus on trustees/ boards/ CEOs – are they really the blockage or are they just the hardest to reach? 

This conversation was very much the beginning of a broader sharing and engagement between initiatives, however, we felt that some joint statement of intent and purpose would be helpful in supporting our further collaboration. We agreed that collaborative efforts needed to be more open and accessible; the Funders Collaborative Hub coordinated by ACF (Association of Charitable Foundations) may be an important bit of the solution.  

As a reflection in relation to our work on the Foundation Practice Rating, I realised that we shared so many of the goals of the initiatives that we discussed but there were some important differences. So many of our approaches to change in this part of the sector require permission as an input – they are coalitions of the willing, open to individuals/ organisations that are interested in change or learning about the issues. The FPR (Foundation Practice Rating) and arguably Grant Advisor, do not and they encourage a narrative where the grant-maker is not in control and where the perspective of those seeking funds is central.  

Almost all the interventions require funding to operate effectively; although the FPR is less dependent on that aspect. However, all work best when funders and those we fund engage with the outcomes.  

A key conclusion for me was that having a range of different models and approaches is a strength in our sector and makes the possibility of step change in practice, a reality.