‘I don’t know of any other funder who would have funded such an idea.’ So said one of the visionaries of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust’s (JRCT) visionaries project remarked. Most people in the session would have endorsed that.
The session, as Ruth McCarthy, trustee of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT) explained, was intended as a showcase for the Trust’s extremely bold visionaries project and for the work of those visionaries. The background to the project, as Stephen Pittam, Trust Secretary, explained is briefly this: in 2004, JRCT celebrated its centenary. To mark this, it decided to do something in the spirit of its founder, Joseph Rowntree and the trustees came up with the idea of ‘strengthening the hand’ of individuals who were doing good work – essentially as Stephen remarked ‘liberating people – giving them a salary and letting them get on with it.’
So after a number of vicissitudes (which would make an interesting story in themselves, unfortunately beyond the scope of a brief blog), in 2005, they selected 6 visionaries (as they refer to them), gave them a salary for five years, offered them continuing support, but subjected them to minimal interference.
Participants were introduced to the visionaries and their projects: Karen Chouhan whose Equanomics UK organisation works for racial justice in the UK through economic inclusion; Clive Stafford Smith who wants to close down the illegal enclaves of Guantanamo Bay and Bagram air base; Roy Head is using the mass media to roll out simple healthcare interventions through the mass media, which has reach and instant effect, to reduce infant mortality in developing countries; Carne Ross who has set up an independent diplomacy advice service for small and developing countries and non-state actors involved in diplomatic processes; Geoff Tansey, who has been working for a sustainable food future for over 30 years; and Mark Hinton and Heather Parker, who use simple means and take simple steps to build relationships between people and harmony within communities.
Each of the visionaries gave a short presentation of their work in small groups and answered questions, before the group reconvened for a summing up. The work of the visionaries was still making itself felt and as Peter Coltman, Trust Chair, pointed out, it was difficult to give a clear account of what those effects would be. What had been the effect of the project on the JRCT itself? It had taken a big risk, giving away a lot of money with, effectively, no strings attached but, as he pointed out, some of the visionaries’ projects wouldn’t have been funded under the Trust’s usual grantmaking criteria. They had turned most of the received wisdom about grantmaking practice on its head – funding individuals, not requiring a plan. Even the application process, as the visionaries feelingly attested, had been unusual in the extreme. As Stephen Pittam remarked, apart from the obvious desire to describe there were two underlying aims to the session. One was to encourage other funders to take risks, the other was to put the work of the visionaries on display to other funders. The visionaries project has now run its course and he invited others to help support the future development of the projects they had established. The other was to encourage other funders to take risks. We have great freedom as funders, he said, and we should take more risks with that freedom. And the greater the risk, the bigger the reward was apt to be, added Peter Coltman.
For their part, the visionaries had found the programme a liberating experience too. One spoke of the value of the freedom to make mistakes and as we’ve seen, another remarked: ‘I don’t know of any other funder who would have funded such an idea.’
As testimony to the inspiring nature of the experiment, Nicholas Borsinger of Pro Victimis Foundation said – and he stressed that he meant it as a great compliment – that it was one of the most disturbing sessions he had ever taken part in. He asked how many foundation trustees were in the room. Not many were, as it happened, and for his part he regretted that none of his board members were with him to be similarly disturbed.
If the question of impact remains elusive, let me end with Peter Coltman’s quoting Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world.’ I believe that no-one in the room did.