This blog was taken from an article written for the ACF‘s Trust and Foundation News (TFN), Spring 2022 edition.
Jo Wells, director of the Blagrave Trust, chaired the Stronger Foundations working group on strategy and governance. Here, she reﬂects on her organisation’s strategic approach to their recent transformation.
In 2021, the Blagrave Trust launched its four-year strategy. It was the culmination of a deep and complete transformation – from a modest and broad focused regional funder, to one that focuses on 14 to 25 year olds and is known for its passionate and authentic commitment to their lived experience and potential as changemakers. I’ve been asked to reﬂect on some of the deﬁning features of our strategic approach that have supported this transformation.
Many foundations think deeply about their relevance to context in a rapidly changing world and how an analysis of power plays out in strategy and governance decisions – elements we cited in the Stronger Foundations report. But perhaps if anything marks out Blagrave as distinct, it’s the scale and speed of the change. I’d like to share the ingredients that have supported that clarity of purpose.
Proximity to mission
Throughout our evolution, we have consciously sought to be proximate to the partners we fund. We have always understood that creating space in our day to day for conversations that go beyond transactional grant-making deepens understanding and connection to mission, something I described as ‘reducing the social distance’ in a blog some years ago.
In the last three to four years, we became more intentional about cultivating and diversifying our networks of young people, outside mediated youth sector interactions. And, explicitly centering young people in our day to day, through ongoing board reform, including young people in our team, and working with whole groups of paid young advisors.
While there is still so much more for us to do, this proximity has been the driving force of decisions and culture and is translatable to any foundation with any remit. For example:
- Young people bring clarity on racial justice and rights; responsible investing; attention to care and wellbeing; and most importantly, what it means to grow up feeling marginalised and what they need to change that (for example, voice, power, access to resources, to be listened to). You don’t need to be have direct relationships with your so-called ‘end users’ to know these things. You can read about them anywhere, and yet, deep work of this nature rooted in social justice is still marginal. I believe that proximity has created urgency, empathy and a responsibility to act, which in turn drives accountability.
- Rejecting a thematic focus. This can feel counter-intuitive when it comes to strategy – investing in a sector to focus impact is a compelling and legitimate choice. But, young people facing and challenging social injustice remind us that it’s the distance between those with power and those they profess to serve that perpetuates the systems that aren’t working for them. This has stretched our understanding of intersectionality and centred our strategy away from unaccountable systems to facilitating and strengthening voice, empowerment and listening as the route to change.
- By directly knowing young changemakers, we have genuine conﬁdence in young people’s potential. We do not believe for a second that all young people can or want to be changemakers. But for those who do, we do not confuse token participation with genuine access to power. There is no question that we would not have had the conﬁdence to start funding young campaigners directly, had we not already had direct relationships, and without a diverse and young board that instinctively understands this work. It has enabled us to take risks that we wouldn’t otherwise have done.
- Proximity has given us credibility in the eyes of young people and that is a precious asset. It has also meant that the people applying to us as young advisors, trustees, or team members has naturally diversiﬁed. At a time when foundations continue to rightfully be under scrutiny for their lack of diversity, this is worth reﬂecting on. In our recent recruitment for a new staff post, we stated we would shortlist a minimum 40% ethnic diversity, but were easily able to meet a much higher percentage. This must be a joyous, collaborative and interesting journey, not a painful tick-box exercise to be delivered.
- Finally, closing the gap between the CEO who leads on strategy and those we serve, is crucial – there is no place for distance when it comes to centrality of mission. We all strive to be good and do the right thing, but not knowing people directly allows us to avoid confronting human truths.
Mindset and culture
They say culture eats strategy for breakfast, and it’s taken me some time to fully grasp how important the connection between strategy and culture is in the ﬁeld of social change (too long, actually). Elements of our culture that have been key to our change include:
- A commitment to living our values. If you want to change the world, you surely have to start by changing yourself. Any acts of trust, active listening or bringing in new voices to our work, subvert the philanthropic status quo and helps to unlock deeper understanding. The way we behave towards our partners and each other, the tone of our board meetings, who’s allowed in the space, is intrinsic to systems change. As a team we have learnt a huge amount, with more to come, about how we are creating safe, inclusive and equitable spaces for young people internally and across our programmes, and how we can model a philanthropy that rejects traditional assumptions about people’s abilities and knowledge. This learning takes time and is not always easy as it requires an introspection and honesty that doesn’t align naturally with a ‘professional’ setting. But self-reﬂection is essential if we are to stand in solidarity with those who are using their lived experience to create change. It deepens our understanding of where we need to cede control, and a greater emphasis on how we act in service of others, not ourselves.
- Not being limited by what we know. So much of what we envisage and imagine is limited by the parameters of existing sector norms and what we think is doable, rather than what might be possible. Call it innovation if you will but I rather think of it simply as optimism. Taking a punt on trying the new has been a big part of our learning journey, as well as a conscious attempt to subvert power dynamics that exist:
- changing governance to bring in lived experience and young people with no previous governance experience
- setting up a fund that focuses entirely around the concept of listening (thelisteningfund.org)
- resourcing young campaigners directly in a process designed and led by them
- convening funders around an idea and using our power to leverage wider funds (youngtrusteesmovement. org) saving our partners time and bureaucracy.
There is so much more work to do across the funding system – so many bold and fresh ideas, end up translated into a transactional set of grants. These grants comprise a large proportion of Blagrave’s work, so we are by no means immune, but we try to be alive to greater possibility.
- Listen, learn, adapt … listen, learn, evolve … repeat!
Continuous evolution is something that any grassroots voluntary sector organisation learns to be adept at, surviving and responding to their communities, political and socio-economic context. It requires energy, and the humility to course correct and acknowledge failure.
And while listening without acting is de-motivating and can be extractive, listening then iterating is also exciting and motivating in its offer of progress. An entrepreneurial mindset is not to be confused with a lack of strategy – we understand that taking a long view is something that independent funders are uniquely privileged to do. But a long-term strategy that has no place for learning in real-time, in the fast-moving world of today, can quickly lack relevance – if not in its vision, which may be bold and important, then in its execution.
So, back to strategy. Aside from the obvious direction setting, a ﬁrst function of strategy should be to transparently communicate who we are and what and for whom we stand for. We hope our new strategy is accessible, clear and inspiring for any current or future partner, individual or organisation, but ﬁrst and foremost to young people (who helped us shape it of course!).
The last function of strategy, should be to hold us to account. We know that if we stray, young people will lose interest in being proximate with us, and that provides us with a real clarity of purpose.