News in Focus: Trusts learn a lesson from neocons

Grant-makers are beginning to promote a new, US-influenced model of activism, writes Mathew Little.

Last month, the Carnegie UK Trust wound up its voluntary sector grants programme. But the foundation has not spent its endowment or succumbed to the vagaries of the stock market. Rather, it is breaking with the traditional passivity of the trust sector and promoting a new model of activism.

In January, Carnegie chief executive Charlie McConnell was among a group of directors from 'progressive' UK foundations to spend a week in the US meeting their American counterparts. The discussion was dominated by the success of right-wing US foundations in influencing public opinion and changing government policies, while their liberal opponents flailed ineffectually.

"We felt the progressive foundations tended to adopt a scattergun approach, whereas the more right-of-centre foundations were very targeted in their funding," says McConnell. "You can trace a lot of the neocon thinking back to the influence of right-wing foundations."

Carnegie has decided to copy the approach of the US right. Gone are the small grants of £10,000 to a plethora of voluntary organisations, to be replaced by £500,000 "action-research" projects in areas such as democracy and civil society, designed to influence public policy and achieve long-term change.

The trust will be seeking out partners to take on the projects. They could be individual voluntary organisations, consortia representing the voluntary sector and statutory agencies, or other trusts and foundations.

McConnell says that by just sitting back and waiting for grant applications to arrive, Carnegie was colluding in a system that was actually damaging charities.

"By scattergunning our funding, we were just putting plasters on the voluntary sector and actually encouraging bad practice - short-termism - which meant we never had the resources to stand back and look more strategically," he says.

Carnegie's blue-sky thinking reflects a wider mood of introspection among UK trusts, a willingness to examine how effective current models of grant giving really are. This September's Association of Charitable Foundations annual conference is titled simply 'Cash Dispenser or Development Agency?'.

The lingering impact of the stock market crash of 1999-2002 has also made trusts more concerned to make the best use of the limited resources they have.

Clare Thomas, chief grants officer at the Bridge House Trust, recently called for foundations to "move away from the ATM form of grant-making, where charities just stick a letter in the post and then wait for the money to come".

She says many of the larger foundations are beginning to use their intellectual as well as financial capital to achieve change. "Grant-makers are in the position of being the repository of a lot of knowledge," Thomas says.

"They see the sector, they see duplications, they see replications and they see gaps. It's not just about waiting for the right application to come through, but of getting out there and engaging with the sector on particular initiatives if there's a gap in the market."

Five per cent of the Bridge House Trust's grants are now for strategic initiatives - areas of social need that the Trust wants to "incentivise" the sector to work in. One pilot project - "fear and fashion" - aims to enlist the voluntary sector in efforts to combat the use and carrying of knives. Another "partnership collaboration" saw Barnardo's commissioned to assess the extent of child abuse through prostitution in London.

In February, health charity the King's Fund also unveiled a new strategic grants programme encompassing support for complementary medicine, end-of-life care and mental and sexual health. This replaced its long-standing open grants stream, which saw 90 to 95 per cent of applications turned down.

"We are a small grant giver and we need to ensure we have an impact," says director of development Steve Dewar. "We have a better chance of improving health and healthcare for Londoners if we focus our efforts, engage in a much more active partnership and try to learn what works and what doesn't."

This more engaged model of grant-making also extends to asking grant recipients working on a similar theme to share their learning - an approach Thomas dubs "grant-making plus". The King's Fund also asks funded organisations to share their results with each other before they share them with the healthcare sector in general.

"We want to encourage the sharing and learning that's not always put to best use in the sector because people can get locked in their own little worlds," says Thomas. "It's been really welcomed. That surprised me, because I expected some people to say the funders are becoming too intrusive, but that hasn't been the case."

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