Historical baggage is holding foundations back, conference hears

08 Nov 2018 News

The chief executive of the RSA has said that organisational legacies and boundaries are holding grantmaking foundations back from making real societal change. 

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, was speaking as part of a plenary panel at yesterday’s Association of Charitable Foundations Conference in London yesterday.

He said foundation’s desires to protect their image and history was keeping the sector from making a difference in society, and cited the Disasters Emergency Committee as a “unique” model in the charity sector for collaborating to effect change. 

“The reality is that organisational boundaries; organisational legacies; organisational baggage and furniture are holding us all back. That’s just the reality. You have to work incredibly hard to genuinely be willing to challenge the way in which your organisation works; its traditions, governance, all of that, and focus completely on whatever it is that is most likely to bring about change. 

“Look at the DEC. That’s a collection of charities which, in extremis, put aside their individual interests and come together to create genuine momentum and help the public try and make a difference. But that's unique.” 

In response to a question from the audience about how foundations could “address the geographic and institutionalised disadvantage and poverty” that many outside of the South East of England feel, Taylor replied that many foundations clearly didn’t feel that things were “that bad”, as they continue to operate in the same ways that they always have. 

“You don’t really think it’s that bad. Because, if you did, you’d be being much more radical and experimental about the ways that you’re working,” he said.

“You as a sector don’t think it’s bad enough yet to [collaborate], to be frank. Because the amount of radical innovation needed, in terms of your willingness to collaborate together, and to have different relationships with funders, there’s just not enough appetite for it.

“Maybe things just have to get a little bit worse before you’re willing to be as radical and inventive as you all seem to want to be.”

Poor people in poorer regions ‘doubly disadvantaged’ 

Taylor, the former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit under the Prime Ministership of Tony Blair, also said that poor people living in disadvantaged areas of the UK were effectively “doubly disadvantaged”. He said that some regions were much poorer than others, but within those regions, the gap between rich and poor was also larger than elsewhere.

“The UK is more spatially unequal than almost any other developed country in the world," he said. "The gaps between the South East as a region, and some of our least successful regions, such as the North East or Wales - that gap is bigger in the UK than in other country. Then you have the second gap which is our socio-economic gap, which is bigger than in most countries.”

Along with the “bread and butter” work that foundations do of trying to ameliorate suffering through funding, and “pressing the government to act” on social inequalities, Taylor said that foundations should be focused on allowing these regions to rediscover their own identities. 

Taylor said foundations need a “step-change in our ambition” in those doubly disadvantaged places, which involved giving these communities a sense of help and agency. 

“First of all every place needs a story of hope. So if we’re talking about barriers, then it’s about removing the barriers to imagination and aspiration that exist in places where people feel that it’s almost impossible to have a sense of agency.

“Secondly, that notion of the place’s story must emerge from the specificities of that place. It must feel that it’s specific to that place, and that it benefits from deep engagement with people in that space.

“Thirdly, that’s when we need something that we talk about which is deep, creative, generous and long-term collaboration amongst those organisations working in that place in service of that shared vision of how that place can achieve equality.”

Taylor praised this current government for its newfound focus on place, as evidenced in the publication of its recent Civil Society Strategy.

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