Creating a social change organisation from a leading foundation

Over the past eighteen months, JRF has embarked on a process of organisational change designed to bring about positive impact in the real world. This blog tells our story so far, in the spirit of sharing and learning from others.

JRF is one of the most respected foundations in the UK, benefitting from a reputation for high-quality research, a heritage from our business founder and social reformer Joseph Rowntree, and a connection to practical change through its programmes and sister housing trust, JRHT. But the last decade has seen rapid change in our political, economic and social environment, and we recognised that if we wanted to bring about serious reform, we needed to radically rethink how we worked.

We started at the beginning, establishing what we are for: our purpose. At the time, we had just launched our new evidenced strategy, ‘We can solve UK poverty: a strategy for governments, businesses, communities and citizens’, the culmination of a four-year research and policy development programme underpinned by the most comprehensive evidence review on UK poverty ever undertaken, ‘UK Poverty: Causes, Costs and Solutions’. The work won us the prestigious ‘Think Tank of the Year’ award, but most of us saw it as the start of JRF’s next evolution rather than the end of a process.

When we stood back from the work, we recognised that unless we embarked on a long-term campaign to build public and political will for change on UK poverty, however good our solutions were, we were never going to succeed. So we began the process of a decade-long commitment to changing hearts and minds (as originally set out in former JRF chief executive Julia Unwin’s ‘Why Fight Poverty?’), building on work underway on public attitudes to poverty. We also knew that change was never going to come by pursuing policy change on people’s behalves – we had to stand alongside people with lived experience of poverty and become partners and allies together for change.

Our staff and board worked together on establishing that our mission would be to inspire action and change to solve UK poverty, which was secured in 2017. We took inspiration from foundations and think tanks in the US in creating our new outcomes-orientated social change operating model, from Pew Trusts, Annie E Casey, Manhattan Institute of Public Policy Research, Brookings Institute, amongst others. Under new chief executive Campbell Robb, our board agreed that JRF would work towards four outcomes over the next decade in pursuit of our vision of a prosperous UK without poverty:

  • More people want to solve poverty, understand it, and take action.
  • More people find a route out of poverty through work.
  • More people find a route out of poverty through a better social security system.
  • More people live in a decent affordable home.

We selected these outcomes because they address the underlying causes of poverty, and ones that over time, we believe that we can make a difference to. Crucially, we are making sure that working alongside people with experience of poverty is an embedded part of the way we work.

Our strategy to achieve these outcomes is based on three elements. Building public and political will for change; working with others to create credible solutions; and using our historic role in monitoring poverty to hold governments in the nations of the UK to account for their actions on poverty.

We have just completed a significant wave of recruitment of new starters into JRF, following comprehensive restructuring in 2018 to move staff from the previous operating model into the new social change model. Staff are now organised into specialist teams based on professional discipline for their learning and development, and on a day-to-day basis, work in multi-disciplinary teams based on our outcomes. We are changing how we work as well as what we do, to become a more agile organisation making the very best use of people’s skills, talents and interests. We are working with colleagues to create our vision and principles for transformation, with digital and design thinking at the centre of our approach. The adoption of organisational values with our colleagues in JRHT and central service functions has been a game-changer in establishing how we want to work with each other and partners.

What have we learned so far?

Having a clear purpose and strategy makes for a more effective and impactful organisation. But with focus comes being more selective about the things we choose to do, so that we commit to the projects that are most likely to help achieve our outcomes. Starting new stuff and engaging new partners is fun, energising, and empowering. Saying no to great ideas or exiting programmes on the basis of new strategies can be harder.

We are evolving how we work with other people and organisations, particularly having brought more of the work we used to commission in-house, such as policy development and analysis. This means that our relationship with partner organisations is often as collaborator and co-commissioner, rather than as funder, which changes the nature of the relationship and even the kinds of organisations we work with.

As we develop and deliver our long-term strategies for social change, we are working with a host of new and existing partners and collaborators. Sometimes this is for expertise and connections, sometimes (but not always) with funding. Here is a list of the projects we have been funding over the course of the last year, and all our major projects are listed in our Annual Report and Accounts.

We would love to connect with others and hear about your experiences. Please add comments or feel free to follow up with any of the JRF team.