The paralysis of power: How outdated structures are stifling foundations

Is the benefactor-beneficiary relationship stuck in the past? And why aren’t foundations shifting their approach to power sharing? Fozia Irfan, Chief Executive of Bedfordshire & Luton Community Foundation, explores the obstacles and challenges standing in the way of change.

Is the foundation sector in the UK capable of real seismic, systemic change? As a newcomer to the sector, that’s a question I have often asked myself. What is the catalyst which can move an entire body of organisations to a new way of thinking and doing? Or is this an unfeasible expectation?

The problem starts with the origins of many foundations being mired in the Victorian philanthropic model of gracious benefactor and grateful beneficiary. This model is underpinned by the idea that the gift in itself is of such value that the motives, decisions and methods of the benefactor should be above question – beneficiaries should “just be grateful” to receive a grant.

On the other hand, we as foundations are free to harangue, pester and impose on those we claim to be assisting with impunity, for who is going to question us? This unbridled power means that as a sector, we have an underlying coercive system which has unfairly influenced the shape of the voluntary sector, their priorities and the way in which they work.

Megan Francis from the University of Washington wrote an insightful academic article on how foundations have used their power and privilege to capture and shape entire movements, such as those for civil rights in the US. By making key decisions as to who and what was funded, foundations played a critical role in taking the civil rights movement away from fighting systemic oppression, to encouraging more placid educational programmes.

With so much power to push, the foundation sector remains largely unregulated, unaccountable and unfettered in choosing the issues it focuses on and how it works. Such independence should have engendered innovation, creativity and risk taking. But instead we have a sector notorious for rigid hierarchical structures and, some would say, responsible for perpetuating and reinforcing power structures.

In other sectors, the catalyst for change can often be external pressures – the government, lobbying organisations or even a public outcry. Yet without these stimuli the sector remains almost in a state of paralysis. When I tentatively suggest this in public, the examples of the Joseph Rowntree Trust, Lankelly Chase or Barrow Cadbury are shouted about as progressive examples of the sector. But as I often find myself saying as a British Muslim, the few do not represent the many. The disproportionate highlighting of good examples does not detract from the fact that the perception of the majority of foundations within the voluntary sector is that they are disconnected, lack diversity and unwilling to share power.

The recent Association of Charitable Foundations report demonstrated the shocking statistic that 99% of foundation trustees are white. This should be a wake-up call indicating that there is something systemic within the sector which is reinforcing exclusionary practices.

Our sector should be driven by a moral imperative to address inequalities

As a former solicitor working on employment discrimination practices, I saw the worst examples of practices, cultures and policies which imposed and perpetuated power structures. I can say categorically that often these were imposed unknowingly by good people – they simply were not self-aware or context-aware. The imposition of laws and regulation, around areas such as equal pay, forced them and their sectors to change and prioritise. It should not take regulation to ensure that there is similar change within our sector. As foundations there should be an inherent moral imperative pushing us to address power inequalities.

I have personally advocated for all foundations to have a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) framework which would give them a much more nuanced method of considering all aspects of power-sharing, both internally and externally. This provides a means of objectively considering all aspects of who we are and how we work – inherent is an analysis of where power lies and how we shift it. However, undertaking this work has to be a whole-hearted mission requiring vision, commitment and a passion for change. Fundamentally it requires having difficult conversations with trustees and teams to demonstrate why this is so important and how it can make foundations more effective.

We need to recognise that expertise lies with communities, not our sector

Community foundations in the US have further developed this approach with an emphasis on working towards ‘community philanthropy’. This is a deliberate strategy to deflect power away from themselves and focus on strengthening community capacity and voice. There is a recognition that better outcomes and ownership are achieved when communities are empowered and given the resources and support to create their own solutions. And therein lies the fundamental paradigm shift needed in UK foundations: an acceptance that the expertise lies not within our sector and our donors but with the communities themselves.

This acceptance requires humility, self-awareness and a collaborative approach – fundamental cultural changes which challenge the deeply embedded practices and ethos of many foundations. So I return to my initial question of whether the foundation sector is capable of this systemic change because as Richard Baldwin so eloquently stated: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced”.

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