Stories in philanthropy

Recalibrating a foundation’s purpose: Danielle Walker Palmour

“As philanthropic foundations I think we have a responsibility to be brave and go for the big beasts,” says Danielle Walker Palmour, Director of UK-based Friends Provident Foundation and upcoming keynote speaker at the Philanthropy Australia 2018 National Conference. “People will say to me, ‘Changing the economy looks impossible’, but even though we’re a tiny foundation I believe it’s possible by imagining a different future and bringing new ideas. Ideas can catch on like wildfire these days.”

Nicole Richards, August 2018

 

Danielle Walker Palmour is Director of UK-based Friends Provident Foundation, an independent charity that makes grants and uses its capital towards building a fair, resilient and sustainable economic system. The organisation has corporate roots, formed from the unclaimed shares of the demutualisation of Friends Provident Life Office in 2001.

With a background in policy and research, Walker Palmour has been with the Foundation since 2004 and previously headed up policy at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and what is now the Big Lottery.

“I started giving money away in 1995, so yes, it’s been a while!” she says with a chuckle.

The changes that she’s witnessed in the philanthropic landscape over that time are matched only by the transformation of the Friends Provident Foundation itself.

“From our perspective, the change really came about with an idea of recalibration and how we think about who we are,” she explains.

“We stepped away from looking at ourselves purely as a grant maker and over the last 3-4 years we’ve really recast ourselves as a capitalised charity. We got there by thinking about all our assets: our endowment, our small grants team etcetera and we realised our largest asset was our capital.

“We use that capital to support other organisations that are doing the work in communities or in policy and research and we came to the realisation that we had to be part of that ecology – we can’t achieve our mission without them. So, our job is to manage our capital and our support of these organisations in a way that facilitates them doing their job as best they can.”

Another use of capital the Foundation identified during its renewal process was the ability to build shares in companies it had identified as “needing to change.”

“We call it the leaders and laggards approach,” Walker Palmour says of the investment practice.

“We’re particularly concerned about utilities and energy and we have a small fund we use to buy shares in companies that are good, and others that are not so good because, for instance, they don’t have a transition plan to account for climate change. We’ll buy those shares and go to the AGM and ask the questions of the board. It technically takes only one share and one person to do that and it’s something that we as foundations can all do – you don’t have to own hundreds of shares.”

 

 

In its funding approach with non-profit organisations, the Friends Provident Foundation practises the core economic principles it espouses. Key among those are paying a living wage, full cost recovery, transparency, and flexibility.

“We want our grantholders to be able to just get on with it,” Walker Palmour says emphatically. “We don’t want them to waste their time feeding us. We want them to do the thing we’re paying them to do.”

The Foundation’s recent support has included funding stories for a new economy, using the premise that “language and metaphors about the economy create frames that need to be understood.”

Building a deeper understanding of the economic system is key to changing it says Walker Palmour.

“One of the things I’ve been struck by, having worked alongside economists for a long time, is that our economy is so affected by how people think about it,” she says.

“Each of us creates the economy every day and the economy is first and foremost a system of trust and cooperation.

“We always think of it as a system of competition, but really it’s about trust and cooperation. We all agree that the bits of paper and plastic we exchange are money; we trust each other enough that if I give you this piece of paper you’re going to give me food or an object in return.

“When Margaret Thatcher was in power, she spoke to people about public finances by likening them to household finances – living within our means and balancing the books, and it turns out that, despite public finances being nothing like household finances, that frame was really important for people. It helped their understanding, particularly when most people think the economy ‘has nothing to do with me’.

“The second interesting finding was that most people see the economy as a bucket, with some people putting ‘into’ the bucket as in net wealth creators, and others who were seen to be taking out of the bucket like immigrants or scroungers – they didn’t see it a system that flows but as a binary thing,” Walker Palmour explains.

“The researchers started looking at ways of framing things that people found more empowering. When you use words like ‘reprogramming the economy’ or ‘laying new tracks for the economy’ people understood that there were in fact things they could do, that the economy isn’t “rigged” which is a disempowering frame, that you can change it.

“If you can imagine a way for the economy to be different or a way to address it, I think that’s half the battle.”

The renewed purpose and focus of the Friends Provident Foundation has attracted significant international attention, with heavy philanthropic hitters such as the Hewlett Foundation in the US now co-funding some of the work.

While the Friends Provident Foundation has worked closely with government on key projects in the past, the volatile political conditions wrapped up with Brexit have made collaboration a challenge.

“What’s been interesting to us is that government has sort of said, ‘We believe in the market to sort these things out,’ but we’ve found that the market doesn’t sort these things out.

“What’s needed from our government is a vision about what kind of economy we want to have after Brexit but there’s no capacity for that thinking and no vision. We accept that we’re dealing with the real world and we’re very open and completely non-partisan, but we’re kind of just getting on with it.”

In anticipation of her first visit to Australia, Walker Palmour says she will be in “full learning mode” and is keen to hear about the trends and practices local funders are exploring to heighten their own impact. She’d also like to broaden the conversation about philanthropy’s place in economic system.

“I think we do need to realise that we too are part of the systems we’re trying to change,” she says.

“Quite often we think philanthropy is sitting somewhere else but we’re in the system, we’re asset owners. Our money is doing things in the world whether we realise it or not. Many of us are employers, how do we perform at that? The way we work with grant holders and the way we understand those power differentials all add to the complexities.

“I know it’s uncomfortable and I know it’s navel gazing, but we don’t have to spend a long time doing it to get better outcomes.”

 

See Danielle Walker Palmour's keynote: Thursday 6 September

 

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