We Want Mirrors.  We Need Windows.

At the beginning of 2020 I was asked to write a piece about the relationship between foundations and fundraisers – for the Chartered Institute of Fundraising’s recruitment guides which aim to support the fundraising profession, and more widely the whole sector, to become a more equal, diverse and inclusive profession.

Much has changed in the few months since then – but the core of this remains valid because much has also remained frustratingly unchanged:

There’s a renewed focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in the charity and not-for-profit sector at the moment – and the Institute of Fundraising has been one of the infrastructure bodies that has done most to take action on this so far through its Change Collective.

Other membership organisations and infrastructure bodies now need to follow that example and do more to support their members to make their practice and their organisations – and our sector as a whole – truly inclusive and equitable in who we are, how we work and the outcomes we achieve.

As someone who has worked and volunteered in the grantmaking trust and foundation sector for the past 20 years, I have been embarrassed and frustrated by the slowness of my sector to engage with the issue of DEI.  And the trust and foundation sector has a particularly big problem with lack of diversity.  As research commissioned by the Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) in 2018 showed, compared to other charities, foundation boards were disproportionately homogeneous, being 99% white, two thirds male and almost 60% over the age of 65:


There is no external pressure or competitive advantage for most (non-fundraising) trusts and foundations to become more diverse.  Few of us have external stakeholders to be a source of influence for change and the communities and organisations we seek to support are unlikely to risk biting the hand that might feed them.  And the organisations seeking our funds are unlikely to be able to “take their business elsewhere”.

The fact that the trust and foundation sector is so un-diverse refutes our professed commitment to social justice and equality.  Or at least it demonstrates that we’re committed to equality just so long as it’s limited to what we expect our grantees to demonstrate, and we’re committed to social justice just so long as it’s something we only expect others to enact.

Fozia Irfan (@Fozia_Irfan – Chief Executive of Luton and Bedfordshire Community Foundation) coined the term ‘coercive isomorphism‘ – where funders force grantseekers to behave in certain ways in order to get funding.  This is a conscious and unconscious process – on both sides of the funding relationship.

Change is beginning to happen in some trusts and foundations – eg Blagrave Trust, a youth focussed funder, has recently taken the decision to replace its entire trustee board with young people:


There are other changes emerging – eg where some trusts and foundations are seeking to share or shift power through participatory grantmaking (eg Rosa http://www.rosauk.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Alliance-Beneficiaries-in-charge-Jan-2019-1-1.pdf) or are moving away from grantmaking towards social investment (eg https://www.diversityforum.org.uk/).  But in my experience the majority of foundations remain wedded to traditional policies and practices – seeing grants as the main means to achieve their charitable objects.

ACF is currently running its Stronger Foundations project that aims to help grantmaking foundations identify and pursue excellent practice.  It covers 6 strands – including ‘Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’ and each strand will have a report that identifies “stronger foundation practice” under that theme.  The ‘Funding Practices’ strand is due to report in the summer of 2020, and one of the issues it has been examining is the need to move away from a purely transactional relationship between funders and fundseeking organisations.


Many on both sides of the funder/fundseeker relationship would agree that the relationship shouldn’t be transactional – it should be relationship based.  But the focus of the relationship should be common cause – not common appearance/accent/culture, etc.

In forming relationships, both funder and fundseeker potentially confuse signs/indicators of familiarity (looking, sounding, saying things like us/me) with a shared affinity with the cause or with competence.  And they potentially confuse similarity with trust (worthiness).

And as Vu Le’s [@NonProfitAF] post shows, relationship-based fundraising is fraught with problems:

“Unfortunately, our reliance on relationships is also problematic, as it often creates and enhances inequity and thus undermines many of the problems we as a sector are trying to address.”


How much are we as funders used to speaking with other white people as “peers” (eg she must be the Head of the Philanthropy Team) and unconsciously categorise people of colour as non-peers/lower status (eg she must be the Philanthropy Team’s Administrator)?

This is backed up by research from the US:  “In line with this data, Building Movement Project’s “Nonprofit Executives and the Racial Leadership Gap: A Race to Lead Brief” found that executive directors of color were more likely to report challenges developing relationships with funding sources.”  https://cep.org/reflecting-on-leadership-diversity-in-todays-nonprofit-sector/

As funders, we shouldn’t be looking for or expecting “mirrors” [see footnote] in the organisations we choose to support.  Organisations that reflect ourselves – employing people who look and sound like us, drawn from our social background and class – comforting us and giving us potentially false assurance (however unconsciously) that we can entrust our funds to that organisation and that we’ll have a nice, straightforward time throughout the funding relationship.

Instead of mirrors we should be looking for “windows” that show us things we wouldn’t otherwise see or understand:  people with lived experience and expertise.  Organisations which are “of” rather than “for” the communities they seek to serve.

With the urgency of mission (or survival) I understand why fundseeking organisations might be tempted to employ fundraisers who, they believe, will be more effective because they will be the mirrors that foundation staff and trustees want to see.  People who are “acceptable” or “palatable” to foundation staff or trustees.  But the #MeToo aspects of this “recruiting for aesthetics” are obvious.

In addition, fundseeking organisations may believe that people from a certain background, or with a certain set of technical competences (eg people with a degree who know how to write a “good” bid) will be more effective fundraisers when it comes to raising money from certain kinds of funders.  Yet the arguments for diversity in fundraising leading to more opportunities to engage with “non-traditional” donors (or at least donors who don’t currently give to mainstream charities but might give in other ways eg for religious or cultural reasons), and potentially generating new fundraising ideas, are now well known.

And some funders are not immune from the “recruiting for similarity” risk.  Those foundations which raise money through public appeals, and community foundations which choose to prioritise growing their endowment or funds under management, also need to be mindful of how that imperative might affect who they employ and who they appoint to their boards (eg to be “acceptable” to local philanthropists, businesses, etc).

Whether or not we get to see a mirror or a window, as funders we risk focussing on the wrong thing anyway – which is the frame.  “Is the bid well-written?”  “Has the organisation been suitably grateful in their monitoring report?”  It’s not our money (even if a living donor remains involved it stopped being their money as soon as they paid it over to the foundation).  As funders, we have to be on our guard about gratitude – expecting it, feeling warm and snuggly when we receive it, etc.  We should stop expecting (however unconsciously) to be stroked by applicants or grantees.  And please stop calling us (trusts and foundations) “donors”.  It feeds the “gracious beneficence” mindset and culture that continues to pervade our sense of ourselves and our systems and procedures.  We’re not selflessly giving you one of our kidneys.  We’re distributing money we happen to hold in trust for public benefit.  And please use @Grant_AdvisorUK to rate us anonymously and call out the bad funding practice you see and experience.

As well as listening to direct feedback – including from #CharitySoWhite, #NonGraduatesWelcome and other movements holding us to account – we funders need to develop greater self-awareness – about ourselves as individuals (our preferences, biases, etc), and about our organisations, how we are perceived, our processes, the norms and culture of our sector, etc.  In particular, we need to develop our humility skills.  In most cases, even for “Funder Plus” funders, we’re just the money – and we can’t achieve our charitable objects without the organisations we distribute charitable funds to.

Funders and fundseekers are part of a co-dependent system.  The Institute of Fundraising and the Association of Charitable Foundations need to work much more collaboratively to change how that system works – beginning with ensuring that the practice of funders expecting fundraisers to be white, middle class (and generally female and young) – and fundseeking organisations colluding with that – is ended.

But that’s just the start.

All our sector’s infrastructure bodies have a responsibility to change what they are doing – individually and collectively – to shift the culture and norms of our sector so that diversity, equity and inclusion become core operating principles in everything we do by default.

By my count, there are between 15 and 20 key organisations that represent or support a significant part, if not the majority, of the charity and not-for-profit sector.  That is a small group of organisations and a small group of leaders.  There is no good reason why such a small group of people cannot coordinate their efforts to significantly change how our sector delivers on diversity, equity and inclusion in a small number of years rather than a small number of generations.


In 1988 Emily Style of The National SEED Project used the idea of “mirrors” and “windows” to describe the need for people to see others (through windows) not just themselves (in mirrors) in order to form a complete picture of the world and their place in it:  https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/curriculum-as-window-and-mirror ]

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