From flammable agents to minesweepers—accountability of foundation roles

This article by was originally published on the Latest from Alliance blog on 7 June 2013. The original article can be found here. For more information about Alliance magazine, please visit

by Halima Mahomed

We often talk about the roles of foundations: what we can and cannot do, what our boards and donors and other constituencies will react to us doing; what our internal systems and structures and budgets allow us to do… all very real parameters within which we work.  We also often talk about the added advantage of foundations and how flexible and agile and innovative we are – in some cases much more so than we think; in others, much less than we would like to believe. But, do we talk enough about what those advantages (relative as they are) translate into in practical terms or, even more so, hold ourselves to account on whether we optimize the roles that these advantages allow us to play in society?

At the closing plenary of the EFC AGA last week, Jordi Vaquer of OSI Europe talked about the crises in Europe and the role that foundations need to be cognizant of playing within this context – essentially calling us to be much more intentional about how we use the advantages we have as foundations. We often mention the role of foundations as being catalysts and being innovators; but Jordi’s talk pushed us to think about what does it mean to be a catalyst or an innovator of last resort? In contexts of crises, of fluidity; of glaring imbalances of power and massive inequalities;   our money, our power, our flexibility and our voice give us some distinct advantages. Jordi raised several different roles which foundations derive from these advantages and, which we could be more intentional about, that call for considerable reflection:

  1. To what extent are we as foundations acting as flammable agents, fanning critical issues that have sparked, but which need support to spread?
  2. To what extent are we as foundations acting as minesweepers, detecting the things that, if they go wrong, could severely alter the debate or the situation on the ground?
  3. To what extent are we as foundations, actively striving to NOT be impartial? Values are not neutral issues, and we need to recognize this as a fundamental element of how and why we do our work.
  4. To what extent are foundations acting as defenders; so that even when the ‘innovation’ buzzword does not apply, we are constantly mindful of supporting work that defends hard won gains or prevents them from rolling back?
  5. To what extent are foundations acting as responsive strategists, understanding that it is not about long-term vs. short-term or ‘band-aid’ vs. sustainability, but about being responsive to context as a value in itself?

In a philanthropy world that is increasingly becoming dominated by questions around holding ourselves accountable to issues of impact, let us not forget that said impact is directly influenced by the roles that we, as foundations, choose to play in society. It is time we started holding ourselves accountable to that too!

Halima Mahomed is philanthropy program advisor for Trust Africa.

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