CEO blog | In tough times, ‘how’ foundations give is as important as ‘how much’

28 May 2024

Carol Mack, ACF chief executive, discusses why foundations of all sizes can work on their grant-making practices – striving for progress, not perfection.


Most foundations are acutely aware that these are tough times for charities. Hardly a week goes by without new reports of the challenges facing the sector, such as the recent finding that 85% of grassroots charities’ income has been negatively affected by the cost-of-living crisis.  

Of course, foundations themselves aren’t immune to economic headwinds. Faced with rising demand for grants, each foundation will be thinking hard about how much they can give in any year. Their decisions will vary depending on the nature and urgency of their individual missions, the performance of investments or income streams, and their own operating costs. 

In this context, how foundations give can be just as important as how much. Funding practices are something that every foundation can work on, regardless of the scale of their budget or balance sheet. 

‘Practice makes progress’ 
At ACF, we know that developing their grant-making practice is one of the key concerns of our members as they strive to maximise the positive impact they can make with their finite resources. That’s why supporting foundations to aspire to and achieve excellent practice is one of ACF’s own strategic priorities. 

In doing so, we’re building on a treasure trove of existing good practice that our members shared with us through our Stronger Foundations programme – and which we distilled into our Funding Practices report. 

Foundations all have different starting points and unique contexts that influence their grant-making. For this reason, Stronger Foundations doesn’t advocate a one-size-fits-all model of ‘perfection’. Rather, it’s about each foundation understanding where they are now, and identifying steps they can take to make progress. 

ACF is providing practical tools and resources to help them on this journey. Our Stronger Foundations case studies and member networks provide inspiration and learning from peers. We offer a wide range of learning events and have an extensive back-catalogue of publications on funding practice

Of course, we’re not alone in supporting foundations with this vital work. Part of ACF’s role is also to help our members navigate the wider ecosystem of learning, resources and networks they can access: there are currently more than 30 collaboration opportunities listed on our Funders Collaborative Hub that involve work on grant-making practice.  

Many of these collaborations are driving innovation in grant-making that has potential to address head-on the challenges facing the wider charity sector. They range from a group exploring the opportunities and risks of AI for grant-makers, to an Enterprise Grants Taskforce looking at how funders can better support charities to develop sustainable income through trading. 

Investing in our support for foundation practice  
As we wrote in our Stronger Foundations report: “Funding practices […] are perhaps the foundation’s most essential tool in pursuing its mission. They are also the practices that most acutely affect those around it; particularly its applicants, its funding recipients, its partners, and the system in which it operates.”  

This year, ACF is investing in our practice function, so that we can bring our members more practical tools, resources and guidance.  We’re doing this because we know that for many foundations, developing their grant-making practices will be fundamental to their ability to rise effectively to the challenges of our times. 

I’m delighted that Jim Cooke has recently taken up a new role at ACF as head of practice.  You might already know Jim from his work on the Funders Collaborative Hub over the last three years – and he will continue to oversee the Hub alongside leading the development of our wider practice resources.  

If you have any questions or feedback about our work on foundation practice, please get in touch with Jim at [email protected].