Foundation apologises after lived experience project ‘falls short’

12 Dec 2023 News

Sheila McKechnie Foundation 'It's All About Power' report cover

The Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK) has said it is “truly sorry” as its lived-experience project had “fallen short”, according to an internal review. 

The Power Project was criticised by members of its core learning group (CLG) this year, which was made up of nine people with lived experience to assist on the project about power sharing. 

The foundation has issued an apology and learning review in response to the concerns raised, after two members of its CLG went to the board with concerns their contribution had been “tokenistic”. A former CLG member and trustee called the project “inauthentic” in May after resigning.

“We hope our reflections have value for others seeking to work in deeper solidarity for social change, SMK wrote on its website. 

‘People feel badly let down’

SMK launched the Power Project in 2020 to examine relations of power in the charity sector, particularly around engaging with people with lived experience. 

The charity’s website said that people working on the Power Project raised concerns to the board in February 2023. SMK agreed to publish a learning review in response. 

The report reads: “Our intention has been to find more equitable ways for organisations to work alongside people and communities with first-hand experience of social issues in their campaigning and social change strategies. We learned that despite good intentions, current attempts to work in solidarity ‘often fall woefully short’. 

“It is with deep regret that we now acknowledge that, despite our own commitment and good intentions, we ourselves have fallen short. Some of the people involved in the Power Project feel badly let down. 

“These people were members of a core learning group (CLG) set up to guide the project. The Power Project invited a level of investment from CLG members that was powerful for all of us. CLG members contributed openly and generously, and close relationships were formed.”

Members of the group had a “sense of ownership and an expectation of future involvement” which SMK failed to meet, it said. 

“We recognise that this experience will have reinforced feelings of exploitation and exclusion that would have been deeply hurtful.”

‘Shortcomings’ in the board’s initial response

After the launch of the It’s All About Power report in March 2022, two members of the CLG told the charity that they felt their contribution had been “tokenistic” and limited to their “lived experience”. 

The report reads: “When those CLG members told us their involvement in the launch of It’s All About Power was tokenistic we were, of course, disappointed. We had worked so hard together to understand exactly this issue over the previous two years. Yet, in that moment, we found it hard to know how to respond.”

Though SMK staff held discussions with those who brought concerns “trust in SMK staff and in the project broke down”, the report reads. 

In terms of the board’s response to the concerns, SMK wrote that it “may have moved too quickly to adopt a formal process and a corporate stance” and should have “been clearer about what we needed to manage this process better”. 

The review also says that recruiting a member of the CLG as a trustee proposed a conflict of interest at the charity. 

“It seemed a positive step to bring someone with direct experience of the issues we were exploring onto the board. Later, when they expressed concerns about the project, this led to a significant conflict of interest. There was some confusion around whether this person was raising concerns in their capacity as a board member or a participant in the project. The board member agreed to be recused from board deliberations about the concerns raised, but this recusal was not documented in writing. This led to further confusion. We are sincerely sorry for the difficulties this caused for the person concerned.”

The report states that while the role of the CLG evolved as the project did, SMK did not define the role of the group clearly enough. 

“We chose to prioritise flexibility to remove barriers to participation, but clear written agreements would have offered protection and accountability for us all,” the report reads. 

There were “shortcomings” in the way the charity responded to the concerns which made it harder for a resolution to be found, the review writes. 

“On both counts, SMK would like to extend its sincere apologies to the people concerned.”

The report goes on to say that the staff and board have found the process “painful” but acknowledge that organisational structures and processes offer some protection while those “raising their voices against us” do so outside of that system. 

“We know this can be a hard and lonely stance to take. We are sorry for the cost of this experience to them.”

‘We were not really hearing what was being asked of us’

The review writes that SMK “owned up to mistakes” it made throughout the project after it was challenged for using an image “unwisely” and not attributing quotes to members in its guide carefully. 

It said that while it believes that most participants were happy with the project and final product, there are things they would do differently in hindsight. 

“We responded to questions about ‘involvement’ by pointing out the practical constraints we ourselves were working within. We countered questions about ‘ownership’ with comments about our accountability to our wider stakeholders. 

“None of this acknowledged the real depth of feeling – belonging, perhaps – these people had experienced as part of the project. Meanwhile, from the privileged position of our secure role in the sector, SMK was taking the work we had collaborated on together forward, to secure new funding and opportunities. 

“We can entirely see how this would have been disappointing, frustrating and reinforcing of previous experiences of exclusion and exploitation that are all too common in the sector. It is true that we were working within practical constraints, but we also encouraged and facilitated a level of investment and expectation that was hard for us to meet. And which we take responsibility for.” 

SMK writes that it had questioned whether or not it was “equipped” to lead the project as a small organisation with limited resources.

The review closes by referring to SMK's new solidarity and equity, diversity, and inclusion strategy. The charity states it welcomes any feedback to its review. 

For more news, interviews, opinion and analysis about charities and the voluntary sector, sign up to receive the free Civil Society daily news bulletin here.

More on