No more fences

By Sufina Ahmad MBE, Director, John Ellerman Foundation

As Director of John Ellerman Foundation, an endowed grantmaker distributing circa £5.8m in primarily core costs grants for nationally significant work in the arts, social action and environment, in pursuit of our aim to advance wellbeing for people, society and the natural world, I am a firm believer in the potential and power of civil society. The research findings and calls to action from the Law Family Commission on Civil Society have been fascinating, especially, for me, those relating to philanthropy, grantmaking and leadership. The Commission makes clear that when it comes to charitable funding, quality and quantity matter deeply.

I don’t need to list out here the many political, economic, societal and environmental crises we face. These crises do reinforce the fact that more than ever we need a robust and thriving civil society that takes what is, and imagines and delivers a way forward where people and planet adapt and thrive. Independent grantmakers like us are vital in supporting such transformative work – work that changes systems or brings forward new ones that are just, pluralistic, inclusive, and ambitious, and empowers those most negatively impacted by our existing systems.

At John Ellerman Foundation, we are values-led and adopt the core operating principles of continuous improvement and adding value across all areas of our work, including our grantmaking. This has meant that we have sought independent audit and assessment of our grantmaking application process, alongside asking for feedback directly. We also align to promising practice initiatives within the sector through bodies like the Association of Charitable Foundations, the Foundation Practice Rating and IVAR’s Open and Trusting Grantmaking Pledge, in order to improve our grantmaking offer.  This has led to tangible changes in how we practice grantmaking. For example, we now offer more ways to gain pre-application advice and support, and have improved the way in which we decline an application and the feedback we provide. We have reviewed and refined our funding guidelines and application materials, and at least annually we  review what our definition of core funding is to ensure it is clear.

We have also become much more transparent in reporting the decisions we make. That includes the actual grants that we have made, or providing regular updates, including our full policies and the progress we are making against these, on issues that are important to us like diversity, equity and inclusion, the ethical and environmental implications of our investments, and environmental sustainability.

As a small organisation with seven staff and eight Trustees, we know that we can’t do everything as well as we might like. So there is a need to make good, strategic choices and have clear priorities, and this means that sometimes we work more collaboratively with others to make change happen. For example we are planning to implement the DEI Data Standard which has been designed through a funder collaboration. It will monitor the diversity of applications we receive, and enable us to assess more robustly the breadth and depth of our reach, meaning we can use these findings to make us a more accessible and inclusive grantmaker.

In my three years at John Ellerman Foundation, I have seen that there can be no one best way for funders to do things, and that we will need to embrace a tapestry of well-designed and ambitious approaches that takes the best of what we do now and weaves it together with emerging and promising practices. This requires us to query long held norms and givens, including our power. It will be worth it though, if it leads to a future where charitable funders and the organisations they fund and work with will no longer consider themselves as being on opposite sides, with a fence between them. Instead, it will be clear that the philanthropic movement is right there with civil society trying to find solutions to our biggest societal, cultural, and environmental challenges.

This piece was written in response to the publication of the report ‘Unleashing the power of civil society’