Chisom Igwilo, our summer intern, recently attended a presentation from Forster director, Peter Gilheany, to a group of charitable foundations outlining the challenge they face from the interminable rounds of culture wars that have replaced political discourse in the UK and how to navigate safely through them, and here gives her thoughts on the main points that were raised.
Being caught in a wedge issue
Being caught in a wedge sounds painful on a personal level and really is for institutions like foundations. The current government has ongoing form of focusing on an issue, like trans inclusion, migrant rights or ULEZ, and using it to whip up outrage in the hope of appealing to a very specific demographic of voter, and many civil society organisations have found themselves in the firing line.
There is a legitimate challenge for foundations
At the same time there is this risk from bad faith campaigns around wedge issues, there is also quite rightly an increasing call for foundations and grant makers to respond criticism that their model of philanthropy does little to solve the problem or to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Instead, it may well be helping to sustain existing structures of social inequalities. So, it would be beneficial for organisations to look within their structures, communicate around the complexities and failings of their approach in this area and find ways to challenge the philanthropic model. This is especially true when it comes to examining and talking about the sources of their wealth, both in terms of coming because of forms of exploitation like slavery and colonialism as well as their current investment approach.
More and more attention is being paid to climate change and the actions companies and organisations are taking, not only to minimise their contribution to it but to start delivering positive change in this area. However, although many organisations are living up to expectations regarding climate action, there is a reluctance to discussing these actions due to a fear of criticism for both sides of the climate debate. When an issue isn’t out in the open, there is a risk it attracts unwanted and often unwarranted criticism.
The Outrage Industrial Complex
There is money in causing outrage. There always has been but the inexorable rise of social media has turned what was previously something of a cottage industry into a thriving sector. Basically, monetising getting people angry about things they did not know they were supposed to be annoyed about. The subject is immaterial, all that matters is the level of vitriol created around it, and many of the areas that foundations work in lend themselves to being milked through this model.
Plan for the unexpected
Foundations need to be proactive in thinking the worst. That means going through who and what you fund and considering the attendant reputation risks you might face. Underpinning that is a core thread – how does what we do relate to and help make progress against our mission, vision and values? This is your anchor and should form a powerful response to any challenge to an organisation’s work.
Be open about your failings and challenges
One thing that is incredibly important for organisations that seems often to be overlooked is visible self-reflection. Reputation challenges are exacerbated when organisations either aspire to present perfection and having all the answers or try to obscure the elements of their work that illustrate issues or failings.
A particularly pertinent area that organisations need to engage in some visible self-reflection around is diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s a weak spot for so many organisations, made worse by being opaque on the issue. Foundations are automatically in a position of privilege, so actively acknowledging that and the actions they are taking to be more inclusive, equitable and diverse is critical, otherwise they leave themselves open the main weapon of culture wars – hypocrisy.
Proactivity is better than reactivity
Organisations need to make sure they maintain a strong reputational register to be proactive. Additionally, they must learn how to mitigate and des-escalate when responding to criticism or media.
Prioritise the audiences who matter
When you are getting it in the neck in the media or on social media, the natural reaction is to respond to that criticism and those lobbying it at you. However, those criticising are not the audiences that foundations should be focusing on. It is the people, communities and organisations who are central to what the organisation does, starting with staff, grantees and key stakeholders. The currency of the Outrage Industrial Complex is attention, so responding to those shouting the loudest is often counter-productive as it can stoke the fires even more. By prioritising those audiences, organisations have a direct relationship with is critical, as they are the ones who you will need to continue to engage with and when the outrage circus has moved onto their next conflagration.
If you would like to discuss any aspect of this in more detail, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org