Caroline Mason: A new strategy for the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation – if not now, then when?

07 Oct 2020 Voices

Caroline Mason, chief executive at Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, discusses the new direction her organisation is taking within the context of Covid-19, climate change and structural inequality

We are launching our new strategy with optimism and determination despite a world where the UK is having to face up to the implications of climate change, a global pandemic, growing inequality and the potential for economic collapse. Black Lives Matter has, rightly, also shaken our complacency around systemic racism.

Our strong belief is that now is the time to focus on what can be done, and in understanding our role in working hard for a better future. As a funder, we know that we are extremely privileged. Philanthropy is, rightly, under a spotlight, accused from some quarters of maintaining the status quo, even of baking in and making worse the inequalities we outwardly seek to tackle. We need to ask ourselves, are we really doing enough with the privilege and resources that we have?

The core of our new strategy is our response to this question. To be a force for positive change, to make the biggest difference, we need to be open to challenge, to adapt and evolve our practice.  

Focus on three areas

I am full of admiration and respect for what Esmée Fairbairn has achieved since it was founded in 1961 and our new strategy holds true to our fundamental values. But, looking at the current challenges we face as a society, the broad, responsive approach that has been our guiding principle no longer fits the bill. We are currently spread very thinly, trying to create modest ripples of change across a huge range of issues and topics.

We believe that now is the time for us to really focus, to understand where we can be most effective and be clear about the part we can play in bringing about positive change. We’ve identified three areas where we feel we can contribute most – improving Our Natural World, tackling injustice to deliver A Fairer Future, and nurturing Creative, Confident Communities so that they play an active role in shaping the places they live in. 

Using all of our resources 

Alongside working to a clearer purpose, we are going to use all the resources beyond grantmaking to achieve our mission.  

This means providing longer-term, flexible and strategic support to those organisations or initiatives that are tackling root causes rather than symptoms.  It will also mean supporting collaborations, commissioning new work and using our voice with others to help unlock the change we want to see for nature, communities and the next generation. 

We will use our independence to broker and facilitate unusual alliances across the charitable, public, and private sectors; aided by our newly-formed, independent advisory panel for Our Natural World. We will become a more challenging asset owner and investor and accelerate the transition of our endowment towards responsible investments.  

Working with others 

No funder is an island - these are huge areas with immense challenges, and we cannot hope to make more than a small dent in them unless we work closely alongside others. We will be informed and will learn from many but, in particular, those communities and groups who are both disproportionately affected by these issues and, more often than not, have no role or say in how to improve them. Like others, we have not done enough in this regard, so we are doing something about it, starting with our recently formed young people’s advisory group. 

We want to work with people and organisations who have the passion, courage, expertise, lived experience and knowledge. But we are also looking for ideas, for plans that stand a fighting chance of achieving progress, that provide insights into areas that are overlooked or unconventional but that could truly change the rules of the game.  

When we find these brilliant organisations and new ways of thinking we want to back them for the long-term. We will provide support and investment to turn those ideas and plans into practice, work with others to scale them up, and use our voice and privileged position to convene those with power and networks to understand, adopt and sustain them.

Hope and possibilities 

We are taking this different, proactive approach first with our natural world, and then rolling it out across the other two areas, learning and adapting as we go. We don’t have all the answers and we will certainly make mistakes along the way. 

This is a very new direction for our foundation. Of course, there are risks in this new approach but one of our privileges is the independence and security to be able to take these risks and to learn from them.  At its core, our new strategy is one of hope and possibilities, working with progressive organisations and all sectors on the solutions and opportunities that are essential for creating a better future.

Because if not now, then when?

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