Courage in Foundation Leadership

The Association of Charitable Foundations has recently asked its members to give their perspectives on ACF’s chosen themes for its 2022 annual conference.  One of the themes they have chosen is “Courage: foundation leadership in the next decade”.

ACF’s call for perspectives on their conference theme:

“Across all of society’s institutions, including foundations, new models are emerging and power is shifting at a pace that is likely to accelerate in the decade ahead. In the wake of a global pandemic, climate change and rising inequality, what does effective, ambitious and courageous foundation leadership look like? What does this mean for the foundation sector as a collaborative community? What does this mean for the next generation of leaders?

As we plan ACF’s annual conference we are exploring various themes including ‘Courage: foundation leadership in the next decade’.

We are keen that our membership has the opportunity to add their voice and perspectives to the discussion as the conference begins to take shape. 

With the above in mind please consider the following three questions:”

My response:

Question:  What does courageous leadership look like to you?

I don’t believe that institutions/organisations are courageous.  People, individually and collectively, are courageous – whether that’s in the face of something, or in the absence of something, or in deciding to do something, or in deciding not to do something.  Sometimes, it means standing up to ourselves – confronting our own bias or prejudice.  Sometimes it means standing out – not being like our peers, not fitting in – being exceptional for the “wrong” reasons.

It does not take physical or moral courage for white people to work in the philanthropic sector.  Our personal safety is not under threat when we come to work.  Our lives are not at risk whether or not we award a grant.  But we are connected to many people and communities whose safety is under threat, whose lives are at risk.  Whether that’s women experiencing domestic violence, refugees seeking sanctuary, children experiencing grinding intergenerational poverty, young men thinking about ending their own lives, black parents having to have “that” conversation with their sons.

And some of us who work in the philanthropic sector, too few of us, are connected to colleagues whose experience of the workplace, as People of Colour, is likely to be different to ours – as expressed by Future Foundations UK, the Grant Givers Movement and others.  Micro-aggressions, extractive behaviour, outright prejudice.  It seems to me that it takes courage to face that every working day.

And what does it say about us as leaders that some of our colleagues may require courage to work in the places we lead?

For white people in the philanthropic sector, it doesn’t take courage for us to go to work.  But it may require courage for us to show up at work, when it comes to making changes in our organisations, in what we fund, and in our own positions.

Courage is a foundational attribute (a feeling, an attitude, a choice) – but it only becomes real in action.   Essentially, it’s the willingness to act against, or set aside, our own self-interest – not necessarily just on one occasion, but perhaps repeatedly, persistently, for the long term.

Although organisations cannot be courageous, they can be made to function so that courage is less necessary to work there – eg because speaking truth to power within those organisations is shown to be welcomed and does not provoke sanctions. 

In the charity sector, courageous leadership happens at individual level (eg one person speaking truth to power or to challenge their peers) and group level (eg the members of a board of trustees deciding to merge the charity with another). 

Leadership doesn’t – and shouldn’t – just come from individuals with “leader” in their job description (eg participatory decision-making is a challenge to the traditional leadership role).  Focussing on leadership as something done by individuals (eg the next generation of leaders) risks perpetuating the dangerous “heroic leadership” model, which is partly a gendered issue.

But I believe that leadership within the foundation sector defaults to the individual leader model (eg Director/Chief Exec and Chair) which is based on traditional job descriptions and person specifications, which reinforce the ‘individual leader as heroic leader’ mindset and default.  And the people occupying those positions are largely white and male, which further reinforces one limited perspective on leadership.

For most paid foundation leaders, courage is related to both personal risks and potential costs (eg personal income) and professional risks and potential costs (eg professional reputation).  For unpaid leaders, courage is also related to personal and professional risks and costs – but for most foundation trustees there is an added dimension.  A trustee may be personally courageous, but a group of trustees may feel they cannot be courageous in relation to decisions they make about the charity they are holding in trust (although a living settlor trustee/active donor trustee may feel able to be more courageous, partly because they may mistakenly believe that it’s still their money). 

Because of the skewed nature of who leads our sector (eg in terms of ethnicity and class), a challenge to those of us who occupy leadership positions is:

  • How do we get out of the way:  so people who don’t look like us get to occupy the leadership positions we hold.
  • How to we make way:  while we hold these positions, how do we share power and support the development and advancement of people who don’t look like us (eg offering mentoring in our own time).

As people working in a values-led sector we should be doing these things anyway, and considering these points in the context of leaders being “courageous” (eg choosing to leave a Chief Exec role to create space, and losing the associated income) risks centring ourselves and reinforcing us as “heroic saviours”.  However, discussing these points in a conference about courageous leadership would be valuable as a way of exploring how leaders can overcome inertia, conformity and fear without centring ourselves, and how the norms in our sector can be changed (eg by developing and publishing a set of foundation leadership attributes, making 5-year fixed term contracts the norm for Chief Exec posts, etc) so that change is not dependent on a few individuals finding the courage to act.

Question:  What topics would you want to see tackled at a conference on Courage: foundation leadership in the next decade?

I am interested in:

  1. how the trustees of foundations can be courageous enough to take action to redress and repair the inequities that so many foundation endowments are derived from (whether that be direct benefits from historic enslavement or recent slum clearance, etc, or indirect benefits from investments in exploitative industries and corrupt governments over the lifetime of the endowment).
  2. how the staff and trustees of the funding sector’s trade/membership bodies (eg ACF, ACO, London Funders, Philea, etc) can be encouraged/supported to be more courageous:  to challenge their members and the funding sector more broadly (eg in terms of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion), to challenge their own organisations (eg to implement membership criteria with minimum expectations for the behaviour of member organisations).
  3. how the current leaders of foundations can make way and get out of the way (as mentioned in the answer above).
  4. how leadership within our sector can be reconceived as being a group activity whereby foundations act collectively by default to challenge the causes of social inequality (government policies, business practices, etc) and, ideally, promote social justice – ie leadership as an inter-foundation activity rather than just an intra-foundation activity.

Question: Courageous leadership can come from anywhere, please share your ideas / contacts:

An example of courageous leadership is the recent work by the team at the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust in investigating the origins of JRCT’s wealth, and publicly acknowledging its links with the proceeds of enslavement, and then engaging with affected communities to identify how JRCT should develop and implement reparations.  It has set an example for the rest of the foundation sector. 


How can those of us working in the foundation sector (whether we are officially leaders or not) be EN-COURAGED to own up (eg to mistakes or lack of knowledge or understanding), to stand up (to trustees, managers, peers or others with power), to show up (to use our own power to make change, whether that’s in our job description or not) – knowing that to do so may come at a personal or professional cost.

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