For the Time Being

Time is a key concept in the charitable and not for profit sector.  For example, charities are encouraged to strive towards sustainability (effectively a longterm or open ended existence) on the basis that the needs they aim to tackle are themselves longterm – often complex/’wicked’ – problems.

Poverty and inequality – whether locally or globally – are examples of wicked problems that require decades of coordinated action and investment to make progress:  15 years for the Millennium Development Goals followed by another 15 years for the Sustainable Development Goals.

But there is a danger in presuming that the longterm existence of individual organisations is a virtue.  And in pursuit of sustainability there is a risk of confusing brand with purpose.  Of separating ends from means.  Recent events relating to safeguarding and how abusive behaviour was managed within some charities demonstrate this risk.  But the risk itself is not new.  The “unscrupulous” fundraising practices highlighted a few years ago is an example of a point at which all charities and not for profit organisations should have audited everything they do against their mission and values and made changes where necessary.

Trusts and foundations have a particular relationship with time.  They generally fall within certain types (as described in the Association of Charitable Foundation’s report ‘For Good and Not for Keeps’):

  • legally permanent (their constitution requires them to continue forever and their capital must be protected to enable this to happen)
  • intentional continuation or open-ended (not required to continue forever but choosing to operate indefinitely – managing their resources to meet the needs of beneficiaries both now and in the future)
  • spend out (choosing to distribute the whole endowment and closing in a planned way).

For many of us our endowment buys us the luxury of time.  But also the opportunity/obligation to think carefully about how we use it.  Awareness of time allows us to imagine different futures – and as foundations our responsibility is to:

  • help others to do the same, and
  • give them the means to create those different futures for themselves.

A key issue for foundations (and most other charities) is who has the time to participate in their work and governance – as evidenced in the NCVO report ‘Getting Involved’ (eg the Civic Core) and the Charity Commission report ‘Taken on Trust’.  In relation to the lack of diversity on boards, payment of trustees is not the answer.  That immediately changes the relationship from custodian to beneficiary which alters the nature of the role from disinterested trust to self interested profit.  The voluntary sector is called that because of its volunteer trustees.  Paying trustees would not only end the voluntary nature of the sector but increase the risk of another PR disaster – this time relating to conflict of interest.

And having mixed non-executive / executive boards is also a bad idea.  It addresses a symptom rather than a cause – ie the lack of high calibre trustees, the lack of investment by individual charities in trustee training and development and the lack of investment by our sector as a whole in a pipeline of future trustees from across the entire community.  The Co-Op Bank should be a lesson (of where boards lose sight of in whose interest a supposedly values-led organisation should be run) that we remember forever.

Time has a value and can therefore be used as a currency – for better (eg volunteering) or worse (eg paying trustees).  As individuals and institutions we both have a finite amount of time (and money) available to invest, exchange, donate, spend, etc.

Crucially, we also need to understand what time and money issues are affecting the people most of us are seeking to help – eg:

  • The impact of automation and AI – eg people having lots of free time but little money.
  • In-work poverty and fragile employment (eg zero hours contracts).
  • The possibility of Universal Basic Income.
  • How best we can support and empower people to make their own decisions about the resources we apply on their behalf (eg the effectiveness of direct transfers in tackling poverty at an individual/family level in poor countries/communities).

But foundations are often anchored to the past – for good or ill.  For example, we value the continuity/stability it can provide but some of us seem to have a tendency to value precedent over principle – eg:

  • we invest our endowments like this because that’s the way we’ve always done it (or it’s the way foundations like us do it) – or
  • we recruit people like us because that’s what boards should look like.

Family foundations have particular considerations in relation to the past and the future – in succession planning and the involvement of multiple generations.

And trusts and foundations also consume the time of others – eg applicants and grantees.  We need to measure that and understand what we can do to reduce the amount of time we consume and help the organisations we work through/with to spend more time (sustainably) on the work we wish to support:

  • longerterm grants
  • core funding
  • how quickly we make decisions
  • rationalising our reporting requirements individually and collectively.

We also need to consider how we can buy organisations more time to do the things we want to support them to do (eg reduce poverty) – such as:

  • by us funding capacity building / infrastructure support;
  • by funding and backing policy work that protects and promotes the voluntary and community sector;
  • by supporting research (and its dissemination) into need and in improving effectiveness.

Wicked problems imply generations of beneficiaries from the same place or even the same family.  We must consciously and regularly assess the opportunity and obligation to:

  • assist current beneficiaries vs future beneficiaries
  • address causes (systems = long-term) vs symptoms (immediate needs = short-term)

We need to be clear about our different time horizons for the different aspects of our work such as our endowments and our grants – eg:

  • Return (not just financial)
  • Results – eg the time needed to go from Inputs -> Processes -> Outputs -> Outcomes -> Impact and the time needed to measure these things properly.

Time is also about speed.  How can we find ways to accelerate progress or change (eg spending counter cyclically, working in partnership – possibly across sectors – as facilitated by groups such as London Funders and the West Midlands Funders Network)?

Banks and companies are currently being criticised for focussing on short term returns – to the detriment of the longterm value and sustainability of the company.  What can foundations learn from this?  Are we guilty of doing the reverse?

We presume that time = progress – but that’s not necessarily the case – ie progress (however you define it) is not necessarily linear (eg US withdrawal from Paris accord, the UK withdrawal from the EU).

We assume that time will either:

  • make things bigger (eg interest) or
  • erode things (eg inflation).

As we lack a crystal ball, we gamble on which way our money-out and money-in decisions will go.

Foundations buy services (eg from investment managers) because they lack the in-house time or expertise in key areas.  But that lack of expertise is often still present when we are defining what we want from investment managers and when we’re managing their performance.  This lack of time and expertise risks provider capture (portfolios run in the interests of the investment managers), or portfolios at odds with our charitable mission or values (unethical investments), or zombie portfolios (trustees failing to actively manage their foundation’s capital to best support their charitable objectives).  ACF’s report ‘Intentional Investing’ describes how trusts and foundations can take a more engaged and effective approach with their investments.

Trustees for the time being” is a key concept in the charity sector.  Society benefits because individuals are prepared to be trustees.  Society could benefit more – and more equitably – if today’s trustees not only governed their organisations effectively whilst they are trustees by clearly understanding:

  • what they are holding in trust (the charity, its assets and, most importantly, its mission).
  • who they are holding it in trust for (its current and future beneficiaries and the society that accords it certain rights and entitlements – eg tax benefits).

but if they also:

  • consciously protect and strengthen the institution of trusteeship through how they act and by working to extend the opportunity of trusteeship to those who are under-represented in it.
  • think beyond their own tenure as trustees – as temporary custodian of the charity’s mission – to focus on the delivery of their charity’s mission first and foremost rather than, by default, on the charity’s continuation – even if that leads to merger, spending out, etc.

Sometimes it’s not helpful to think of time as an arrow – sometimes it’s better to think of time as a river in which you can either be swept along or you can try to resist the current or steer a course.  Standing on our islands, foundations’ trustees need to decide how best to assist those being swept passed – whether to use the foundation’s money and other resources to provide lifeboats, pay for swimming lessons, or build dams, etc. Exactly how far are we going to wade in?

In 30 years time –  when we look back what will each of us involved in trusts and foundations be able to say about what we did at this moment in time – eg of widening social inequality in the UK, entrenched poverty in places overseas, and political, environmental and technological uncertainty.  What will we be able to say about how we strengthened social bonds, assisted those in immediate need, improved the quality of our institutions and made rights real for everyone?

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