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Exploring Trust: reflections on the ACF conference, 3/11/16, London

What do you get when you gather together 350 grant makers to have a discussion about trust in the world of Trusts and Foundations? Jokes about chickens!

This year’s annual conference of trusts and foundations, convened by the Association of Charitable Foundations, provided ample opportunity for jokes as well as serious discussion about trust – and whether there is a lack of it – in the complicated ‘ecosystem’ that makes up the charity sector.

Big questions included: is there is the right level of trust between grant makers and their beneficiaries? Charities and their donors? The general public and big voluntary sector brands?

I was particularly struck by the introduction of a human, personal perspective to the morning plenary by Honor Rhodes of the Tavistock Centre and the Early Intervention Foundation, who reminded us powerfully that all relationships are human relationships with the same issues around trust, betrayal, hope and disappointment.

It set the tone for a lot of the debate during the day during which raised concern that trust can be affected by treating grant making as a science, meaning that the essential element of human relationship management is neglected. Dawn Austwick of the Big Lottery Fund talked about the danger of the ‘four box problem’: when grant makers attempt to impose a pseudo scientific system on applicants to serve our own devices, rather than for beneficiaries’ benefit.

Jo Wells from the Blagrave Trust and Caroline Mason from Esmée Fairburn Foundation presented the results of their survey of charities of their experience of trusts and foundations, which revealed that 44% of charities do not trust foundations enough to tell them when things are going wrong. Only a minority of foundations take the time to ask for feedback from grantees, or talk to beneficiaries themselves. Hearing about this I felt concern that we are turning charity practitioners into a sector of big writers, form fillers and box tickers, rather than empowering them to help more people.

No wonder that Alice Evans of Lankelly Chase stated that, whilst they trust their beneficiary charities, their experience is that beneficiaries don’t really trust them. She says that only long term relationships, often with repeat funding for core functions, have developed into the relationships of trust really needed to co-design services that work for both parties.

I thought about another aspect of trust in a break out session about funding early action in social problems (rather than acute services). Here the relationship of trust concerns foundation’s need to be prepared to fund interventions now that will not result in immediate or tangible outcomes for some time to come.

A barrier stopping many grant makers from funding long term intervention is that the outcomes are hard (read impossible) to measure, and – of course – to report to the Board. But here again we need trust. A trust based on good knowledge of civil society which includes knowledge of where our funding fits in and can make a difference.

I was left with a renewed conviction that the outcomes we are seeking to bring about are not ‘our’ outcomes. They are shared outcomes across civil society and in partnership with beneficiaries.

This resonates with the Blagrave’s Trust mission to be a collaborative funder, working to promote opportunities for young people to fulfil their potential through preparation for employment, improved emotional resilience and healthy relationships. We are a small funder with a big problem to tackle and cannot achieve these outcomes alone. The ACF Conference was a great opportunity to promote active partnerships across the sector.

And the joke about chickens (as told by Noel Mathias of WEvolution)? A farmer feeds a chicken every day, watching him get fat. The chicken thought the farmer a fine fellow. Then one day the farmer came into feed the chicken and the chicken ran up to him – only to be put in the pot. So who should we trust?

By Tessa Hibbert