ARTICLES Dealing with our profound crisis of listening

Image: ACF

Dealing with our profound crisis of listening

As funders, foundations are operating in a social, political and psychological climate that might reasonably be characterised as a profound crisis of listening. Reflections on what the Inquiry findings might mean for the funding ecosystem.

Acknowledging this has implications across the four pillars of the PACT framework, and foundations of all shapes and sizes are rightly reflecting on their practices and processes in the light of it. On the one hand, they are considering their ‘responsibility’, asking to whom are they obliged and in what ways? But on the other, they are also considering their response-ability, asking in what ways they are practically enabled to meet emerging need and imagine new possibilities.

With regard to power, foundations are becoming increasingly reflective on their own role, asking whether they are complicit in inadvertently upholding structures that are exclusionary, and how they might rethink their relationships with the causes, organisations and people they support. This involves grappling with, and working through, questions about diversity, equity and inclusion, as well our collective appetite for risk and discomfort.

The increasing demands for accountability are taking many forms, some of which are specific to the sector, but many of which are nested within broader societal forces, including an expectation of greater transparency, widespread distrust of elites, and rapid digital change. An increasing number of foundations are responding by making their grant-making data open and accessible, investing in more robust evidence bases and fundamentally rethinking their application, selection and feedback processes.

When considering the role of connection, it is increasingly difficult not to focus on the many foundations who conceptualise and carry out their work through the lens of ‘place’. In doing so, funders are confronting a number of complex issues. At which level of resolution should they be working, the individual, the community, the nation-state, or the geographically indistinct networks and movements that may flourish online or across borders? They might also ask whether people are, in fact, best defined by where they live, or whether they are more fully understood through the lens of movement and impermanence? And for those funders whose area of benefit is defined by their constitution, to what extent does the border on the map reflect the reality on the ground?

Arguably trust is the natural result of paying careful attention to power, accountability and connection. Trust is built by being clear about your values and goals, and by consistently doing what you say you will do – bringing your behaviour into line with your words. I am seeing foundations increasingly engaging with the complexity of surfacing and being intentional about their inherent but often unvoiced organisational values and behaviours. For many foundations this has become less a question of finding the ideal partners to work with, the ones that perfectly mirror their own values and approach, but asking how they can use their independence of resource to work in productive tension with other actors.

In becoming more nuanced, self-reflective and ambitious in their practice, foundations are ensuring they are well placed to continue to deliver what their individual missions urgently demand. For some, this involves imagining and facilitating radical social change, or through supporting historically marginalised communities and voices. But it is also important to remember that transformation comes in many forms. By protecting a tradition that would otherwise have been eroded and erased, or by funding a scientific innovation that would otherwise have stalled, foundations can transform the future. And transformational change on both a personal and societal level is often the goal as foundations nurture minds through the support of education, or hearts through the preservation of beauty.

None of this is easy, and none of it happens overnight or without struggle. Instead, it is the latest iteration of a process that has been underway for hundreds of years. The sector won’t meet the challenges of the PACT framework and then invite the world to a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new and perfect tomorrow. Instead, it will continue to do work within and through the challenges PACT sets out, following the traces of our forebears, the drive of our peers and the just-visible inspiration of our successors. Foundations will be at the heart of this process, as independent actors committed to catalysing and preserving social good. I am increasingly confident that we are up to the task.