Suppose you found that the biggest blocker to achieving your goals, is you? That appears to be the verdict of the grant-maker Lankelly Chase, whose trustees recently agreed that philanthropy itself was complicit in the problems it seeks to solve. Their radical response was to shut themselves down and redistribute all £130m of their assets over the next five years to social justice organisations and networks. You’ll often hear charities say that their ambition is to put themselves out of business by achieving their mission, but it’s more unusual to hear an organisation say that they want to achieve their mission by putting themselves out of business.
So why has this got people talking? And what does the debate tell us about what funders should be thinking about?
Announcing their decision, the foundation said:
We have recognised the gravity of the interlocking social, climate, and economic global crises we are experiencing today. At the same time, we view the traditional philanthropy model as so entangled with Colonial Capitalism that it inevitably continues the harms of the past into the present.
Taking a systems view is certainly something we’d advocate. At NPC, we’re helping funders look beyond their immediate focus to consider the whole system when setting their strategy. Instead of just setting a strategy for yourself, seek to understand the issue as a whole, including what other players are doing, and identify your role within it. This will help you to decide who else you need to work with to truly confront the issues you care about.
Hopefully this move by Lankelly Chase will get more foundations thinking about the wider system, their role within it, and the power they hold. Because the power dynamics are undeniable. At NPC we’re helping funders to rebalance these power dynamics through our work on DEI in grant-making, Open Philanthropy, equitable evaluation, and creating a culture of lived experience.
In setting out their plans, Lankelly Chase said:
We will relinquish control of our assets, including the endowment and all resources, so that money can flow freely to those doing life-affirming social justice work. We will make space to reimagine how wealth, capital and social justice can co-exist in the service of all life, now and for future generations.
Although simple in principle, this is unlikely to be easy. As others have said, the new custodians of this wealth may face many of the same dilemmas. It will be interesting to follow Lankelly’s progress as they implement their plan.
One dilemma for Lankelly Chase is how to manage the power dynamics of who they redistribute this money to. This is a dilemma for any foundation looking to follow Lankelly Chase’s example. Our recent research into how to embed DEI into your grant-making looks at several steps funders can take to rebalance power dynamics in their grant-making, including looking critically at who is involved in decisions at all levels. There are also links to NPC’s Open Philanthropy programme. Open Philanthropy is about funding in an inclusive and transparent way, by bringing in people with direct personal and professional experience of the issue to be addressed. They set the strategy, design the fund, and allocate grants. Openness applies to how you design your fund, how you make your decisions, and how you evaluate your impact.
But what about the long term? Many charities would argue that they still need funding, and that whilst spending more now to meet heightened demand is definitely a good thing, the £13m a year the foundation gives out will be much missed. We don’t know yet how Lankelly Chase’s funded partners were involved in this decision, although Lankelly has said it will honour all existing commitments.
Will more foundations follow? Only time will tell. As Lankelly Chase say in their statement, this approach will not be for everyone. Charities play a hugely important role in our society, and by extension so do the philanthropists who fund them. But they are onto something in their critique. Philanthropy does reflect the inequalities intrinsic to our society, with the funder-grantee relationship often the result of an unequal distribution of money and power.
Whether you solve this through power-sharing approaches like Open Philanthropy, equitable evaluation, and embedding DEI principles into your process, or whether you shut-up shop and give everything to others, is clearly open for debate. But the fact we’re having this debate is thanks to the boldness of Lankelly Chase to do something truly radical. And that must be applauded.