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US foundations raise the bar for good philanthropy

By Rob Abercrombie 23 February 2016

As in the UK, the US foundation sector contains enormous variations in performance. But at their best US foundations combine an ambition and thoughtfulness that sometimes makes me look enviously across the pond.

Ford Foundation, for example, recently announced that addressing inequality is their new guiding philosophy—a potentially radical move for a funder well on the way from traditional philanthropy to social justice organisation. And any discussion of ambition and philanthropy cannot ignore Gates Foundation’s drive to eliminate disease, which on the strength of progress with Polio is actually working.

But the example that prompts this blog is Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s (EMCF) latest initiative, Blue Meridian Partners. EMCF have always been a favourite of NPC’s, known for their history of working with other funders and their willingness to take big bets on ground-breaking initiatives like Family Nurse Partnership and Harlem Children’s Zone. With Blue Meridian, EMCF has taken funder collaboration to a new level by creating a $1bn funding partnership for children and young people—notable not just for its scale, but also for its shared decision-making which requires individual funders to relinquish a degree of sovereignty.

And it appears that the cumulative effect of the collaborative habit is now having profound implications for the way that EMCF organises itself, with what looks like a restructure prompted specifically by the needs of the new partnership.

How much of this is relevant to the UK? EMCF describes Blue Meridian as a response to urgent needs that are getting worse—surely a situation we recognise here. US Foundations at their best provide clues as to how to respond to those urgent needs.

True, the bigger American funders have the advantage of very deep pockets. But that doesn’t mean that the principles of how a funder behaves when it is serious about social change don’t apply. So, in that spirit, here are four principles I would draw from the US sector that the best of our own foundations are already embracing:

  • Focus. It is often said that independent funders have limited means when contrasted with the scale of the social problems they are trying to tackle. There is truth in this, but by focusing on specific issues, geographies or approaches, it’s still possible to make a real difference. Take Barrow Cadbury’s sustained work on criminal justice, Northern Rock’s (RIP) key regional role, or Baring’s Foundation’s work on the use of the law by charities. Why does focus work? Because it builds knowledge, connections, and goodwill that are real assets for strategic grant-making. Which brings me to my next principle…
  • Leverage. Blue Meridian is a great example of financial leverage, but funders should not ignore their other assets—what they know, and who they know. In my personal view, strategic funding is ultimately about influence, which is gained not only through giving money but also through using knowledge, pursuing policy objectives, and enlisting others in the cause.
  • Collaboration. At their worst, funders can be obsessed by the distinctiveness of their priorities and expect the world to twist itself to fit with them. That doesn’t make it easy for them to collaborate and may explain the paucity of genuine pooled funding arrangements. Yes, collaboration is hard and not always worthwhile. But it is also difficult to escape the conclusion that that going it alone is unlikely to make you a serious contender for actually changing anything.
  • Ambition. Funders have power and must be vigilant it doesn’t get abused, but false humility does not help mission. If a funder has spent a decade funding in an area, then it is disingenuous to deny having expertise in it. Funders’ independence and the warm glow of money means they are in an excellent position to bring people together who share a common cause, and to pursue policy change in a non-threatening, non-partisan way. An excess of humbleness can cut funders off from these sources of influence. Doing these things requires ambition, and the bravery to sometimes take the lead.