Carol Mack: It's time to speak out

The new chief executive of the Association of Charitable Foundations tells Stephen Cook why it's aiming for a higher profile

Carol Mack
Carol Mack

For most of its 26 years the Association of Charitable Foundations has been a relatively quiet organisation, preferring to work behind the scenes while building up its expertise and improving services for its famously independent-minded members.

But Carol Mack, who took over as chief executive five months ago, thinks the ACF's increased investment in data, policy and external affairs over the past five years means the time is right for it to speak out more and show leadership - an approach that was backed by members in a survey last year.

"Originally foundations were nervous about having a body speaking on their behalf because they do treasure their independence so much," says Mack, who was the association's deputy chief executive for 12 years. "But over time we have built credibility so that members trust we're not going to speak for them in a way they wouldn't recognise.

"We're more than usually scrupulous about understanding what members think about something before we presume to represent that. That doesn't mean we have to check with them before we say anything, but it does mean what we say is always based on evidence.

"I wouldn't say you'll see us shouting from the rooftops about anything and everything - there are other infrastructure bodies to speak for the wider charitable sector, and we collaborate with them. But will we be more confident about speaking for foundations and what good foundation practice looks like? Yes, absolutely."

Mack, who has also worked in the private sector as an oil trader and the public sector for the Charity Commission, has taken the helm at a crucial time for both the association and its 348 members: the ACF is working up its strategic plan for the next five years, while trusts and foundations are facing increased demand and unprecedented scrutiny (see "What's the beef", below)

The main themes of the strategic plan, she says, will be building on the work of the past five years and taking stock of the context in which foundations now operate: the key ACF publication Giving Trends: Top 300 Foundation Grant-Makers showed they distributed £2.7bn in 2016, a sum equal to all government grants, which have either dwindled under austerity or been replaced by contracts.

This is what lies behind increased demand, hard choices and the consequent increase in scrutiny, says Mack: "The context of foundations is now very different, and they're more significant players in the charity sector. Paul Streets, the chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales, has said they used to be the icing on the cake, but in some areas of the sector they have now become the cake.

"That means a responsibility, but also an opportunity to leverage the assets they have: the grants that they give, but also the knowledge from making those grants, the convening power and voice they have, the support they can give to grantees and the knowledge that they draw from the networks they develop."

Does the new responsibility include doing more about poverty and disadvantage, as some have argued? Mack points out that the charitable objectives of ACF members range from sequencing the human genome to preserving scout huts and fostering choral music in the Church of England, but adds that many of them are passionate about social justice.

"It's not true to say that foundations are oblivious to what is happening in the wider world, particularly since the vote to leave the EU," she says. "Foundations of all stripes have been examining what they can do to address poverty and social cohesion, and we would encourage that.

"So take something like marine conservation, which you might think has nothing to do with poverty: on a global scale, some of the people that are going to be most affected by poor marine ecology are those who rely on the seas for food. So foundations approach poverty differently, motivated by different passions."

The ACF runs 14 networks for members engaged in subjects ranging from international development to older people, and Mack says some members collaborate in funding areas "at the cutting edge of poverty and disadvantage". She cites an initiative on housing and homelessness, and the New Beginnings Fund, to which several foundations have pledged nearly £1m to support newly arrived refugees and migrants. One ACF staffer is also funded for two days a week to research how anti-poverty work can be more collaborative.

But Mack cautions against excessive expectations: the fall in government spending does not mean spending by foundations has gone up, she points out. In fact, their assets have only recently regained the value they had before the global financial crisis of 2008, and their total spending amounts to only 0.5 per cent of public spending overall.

Trusts & Foundations: What's the beef?

As demand and scrutiny have increased, grant-seekers and sector analysts have focused on areas where they want trusts and foundations to improve.

Clearer eligibility criteria and simpler application forms that are at least partially standardised so that charities don't have to invest so much time and money in them. Mack says this is "a bit of a Holy Grail" and the diversity of the sector means a single application form would be "a huge encyclopaedia"; but she adds that some trusts are streamlining their processes and the ACF tries to shine a light on improvements and encourage others to adopt them.

Transparency

The Smarter Grants Initiative, a research body that conducted a survey of 500 charities, called recently for a centralised database of grant-makers and their requirements, building on systems they already use to avoid duplication of grants. Most grant-makers publish information about their awards in annual reports; 360Giving, which helps organisations publish their grants in a more accessible way, has so far got 30 foundations to supply information to be made available in a standardised format on its website. Mack says digital innovation will be "hugely important" to foundations in the coming decade.

Reporting requirements and feedback

Grant recipients often complain about the burden of detailed reporting on how the money is spent, which can be particularly onerous when a project is funded by several bodies with different requirements. It has been estimated that nearly 8 per cent of funds awarded is spent on reporting. The Smarter Grants Initiative said that charities should be allowed to suggest their own impact measurements, and grant-makers should give feedback on all failed applications in order to improve the standard of applications.

Speaking out

Foundations could exert a powerful influence on the government and companies if they were more vocal on important issues about which they have developed expertise, according to Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory of Social Change. "Some are nervous about being in the public eye or rocking the boat, sometimes because they are family foundations," she says. "But they have powerful voices and we need them to stand up and speak out for the sector. The Lloyds Bank Foundation sets an awesome example because it's out there campaigning."

Greater collaboration for social change

Some critics want to change the benefactor-beneficiary relationship between grant-makers and recipients, removing the concepts of gratitude and hierarchy so they become partners that share responsibility for long-term projects. Jake Hayman, a social enterprise expert and chief executive of the consultancy Ten Years Time, has written that the present system is broken and a new model of foundation giving needs to be devised, including more effective collaboration between funders.

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