Rob Williamson: Straight-A student

14 Mar 2024 In-depth

The first organisation to achieve straight As in the Foundation Practice Rating has been using it as a self-assessment tool since 2021, its chief executive Rob Williamson tells Ian Allsop.


While it has always been stressed that the FPR is about ratings and not ranking, in year three, one foundation clearly demonstrates it is ahead of the others. The Community Foundation for Tyne & Wear and Northumberland (CFTWN) became the first to achieve straight As, including the inaugural top mark in diversity.

Chief executive Rob Williamson says that foundations of all sizes are in a privileged position and therefore efforts to assess their practices in sensible ways are broadly welcome. “It is probably almost impossible to do a serious rating or ranking in terms of charitable purpose and benefit – although many have tried. But sitting back and asking what the hallmarks of a good foundation are, and showing which ones demonstrate these, indicates which are well run and governed.”

CFTWN wasn’t assessed in the first two years, but Williamson says it bought into the idea straight away. “Although we weren’t included, we saw it as an opportunity, not a threat. Why not use the criteria as a self-assessment tool? So, at the end of 2021, we did. How would we rate ourselves? How were we evidencing it?

“It was a useful exercise, and flagged up areas that needed improvement. We found a number of things that we already did but weren’t telling people about, which is an important part of the FPR process. It isn’t about asking foundations to submit to lengthy examination, but is based on what is publicly available. We found any gaps easy to fix with no great cultural reorientation.”

He thinks there are two reasons why community foundations have done particularly well. “We are in the business of raising funds, not sitting on historic settlements, so we have to have these things in our DNA like any fundraising charity. We already had to think about them in terms of being accountable to stakeholders and, being place-based, needing to be close to the communities we serve.”

He also points out that through membership of a national network, UK Community Foundations, CFTWN is already subject to a quality accreditation, and has been for about 15 years. “While not identical, it is analogous to the FPR,” he says. Therefore, while he didn’t anticipate that community foundations would automatically do relatively well, with hindsight it was no surprise.

On diversity, the organisation is not resting on its laurels and is considering the accessibility of its services and communications. “How do we engage with those with accessibility requirements in a way that is productive and sensible? None of us is expert on the accessibility of information, so we knew we needed external help. We commissioned a local disability rights organisation, Difference North East, to undertake an accessibility review of our entire application process, all the way through from start to finish. This goes further than the FPR requirements. We have ticked that box but were not content with where we were, knowing there is more we can learn from those already doing more. And as part of that, lived experience is vital.”

He recognises that while the FPR doesn’t set out to be a proxy for effectiveness as such, it does seem to have helped CFTWN to be a better funder. For instance, it is aware that being open about its diversity metrics does attract a wider set of applicants. Williamson advises that while it doesn’t have statistics that definitely make the link, “anecdotally people involved in the recruitment process, either for staff or the board, say that the diversity stuff we publish has provided reassurance and shows applicants that it means something to us because we are already talking about it”.

He adds that it has also triggered conversations at board level on how the foundation connects with the community it serves. “Some people shy away from making diversity statistics public over privacy concerns or fear that ‘you can’t ask people that’. It has never been an issue for us. We see it as useful to gather data, while respecting that people don’t have to provide information if they would rather not, and talk about it as a way to hold ourselves to account. The opposing view seems slightly odd to me.”  

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