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Holding ourselves to account

In this blog Paul Kissack looks at the three different ways in which JRF views our mission, how doing that holds us to account, and how it shapes our work.

Written by:
Paul Kissack
Date published:
Reading time:
7 minutes

At the beginning of 2023 I set out how the Joseph Rowntree Foundation was responding to the moment we are in: a time of profound challenge, with growing levels of hardship and destitution, deepening economic insecurity and ecological crisis.

I set out the principles that are guiding our activity as a Foundation, the different types of work we are carrying out, and our ambitious new mission: to speed up and support the transition to a more equitable and just future, free from poverty, in which people and planet can flourish.

During 2023, as we have started working towards this new mission, we have also begun to think more deeply about questions of accountability and how we can assess the contribution we are making.

For an organisation like JRF the question of accountability is not straightforward. We need to hold ourselves accountable to many different groups. Our Trustees, of course, play a critical role as stewards of our financial endowment and guardians of the charity’s purpose. We are also accountable to the people we are ultimately here to serve – most often people living in, or at risk of, poverty and hardship. We are accountable too to the many different partners we work with, who rightly expect us to live up to the principles we have set out in the way we approach our work. And we are responsible to future generations.

The many different types of work we undertake – from policy and insight, to advocacy and campaigns, to funding pioneers and visionaries, to supporting grassroots movement building – also means that any simplistic single organisational theory of change is not for us. Nor will a set of Key Performance Indicators ever capture the nature and spirit of the work we are undertaking. Indeed these more linear or simplified approaches risk narrowing our work or scaling back our risk appetite when bolder and more creative work is needed.

Nevertheless, while questions of accountability and impact are complex for us, ultimately we owe it to the many different groups who stand to benefit from our work to hold ourselves accountable for the contribution we are making.

To help us with that, therefore, over recent months we have started to focus on a framework that identifies three different ways in which our work can contribute to our organisational mission.

Directional change

The first pathway sees JRF putting forward specific propositions for how we can move closer to a more just society free from poverty, advocating for specific directional changes. In this work we position JRF as an expert, or giving voice to other experts (including those who are expert by experience).

We can assess our contribution in this area by looking for impact – usually by asking whether our ideas and propositions are influencing people in positions of power: often policymakers in central or local government, or business and other leaders. At the heart of this work are our policy and insight teams and our campaign and public affairs teams.

In many respects this is the most familiar pathway to people working in research and policy circles and in campaigning and advocacy groups.

This pathway is critical to working with power structures as they exist now, and in taking action quickly to address hardship and insecurity. You can see this pathway in the work we are doing to advocate for changes to tackle deep poverty and destitution and build economic security. It is present in our campaign to ensure the basic rate of Universal Credit is set at a level which would guarantee that people can afford the essentials, as well as our propositional policy work on housing and care.

Systemic change

But we also believe that the scale of change needed to meet the challenges we face today cannot come purely through more traditional policy and advocacy work. If we are to be true to our mission we need to hold ourselves accountable for a deeper level of change. We do not claim to have a clear blueprint for that. Instead, we believe the task before us is to help imagine it, shape it, test it, and support others involved in that work.

Our second pathway, therefore, we have called systemic change. Here we are looking to explore, define and support deeper, more foundational shifts needed for a more equitable and just future, based around values, principles and culture rather than defined or particular policy changes.

In this work we are often leading with questions, rather than proposing specific answers, which means JRF acting not as expert but as explorer - a curious, values-driven field-builder and risk-taker. The contribution to our mission in this work is found less in the concept of impact, but in learning. Working with others who are building alternative futures or counteracting sources of power, are we deepening understanding about what is needed to shape the conditions for more radical change?

This pathway is central to much of the work in our new Emerging Futures programme. In particular we are working with a group of Pathfinder organisations who are doing the difficult and important work of reimagining and redesigning the world they want to live in to achieve deep, transformative change, and we are also bringing together partners to explore questions around wealth and philanthropy.

Infrastructure for change

Finally, as a well-resourced independent Foundation, we believe JRF has an important role to play as a developer of infrastructure for change, investing in and nurturing the conditions and capabilities for others to shape change, with our support. This involves JRF acting as a generous builder and convener, where the contribution we make can best be seen through how others use the infrastructure, tools and resources we build to create change. The question we ask is: are we delivering ‘value for many’?

JRF has a proud history of building elements of insight infrastructure which have become essential parts of social policymaking in the UK – from the Minimum Income Standard (MIS) which underpins the Real Living Wage, to our essential guides to the scale and nature of poverty and destitution in the UK. We will continue to build on these anchor studies with new elements of insight infrastructure. In addition, we are building new infrastructure to support other elements we believe are essential to social change – including imagination, storytelling and movement building.

How we work matters too

Alongside this framework for considering the contribution we are making, we must also hold ourselves to account for way we go about our work.

We have set out six principles for doing so – including our commitments to equity and to pluralism. One of the six principles sets out our approach to risk, and recognises that “there is no ‘what works’ path for more transformational change”. We are learning and reflecting as we go, and the framework above is helping us to do so.

Finally, in parallel we are thinking more deeply as an organisation about what it means to be a steward of wealth at this moment. We are committed to looking afresh at our own endowment strategy during 2024, ensuring the approach we take to the wealth we hold aligns with our wider commitment to people and planet.

Looking ahead

2023 is the first year of our new strategy and the first year of a two-year learning cycle as we shape and refine our work. We are already putting more money behind this work, and will continue to do so in 2024. From 2025 we will want to go further – putting an additional £50 million - £100 million behind our mission-focused work over the coming 5-10 years as we face up to the moment we are in. The framework above is helping us to think about how we can maximise our contribution to our new mission through that additional funding.

We are perhaps unusual as an organisation in trying to work across all three of these pathways – directional change, systemic change, infrastructure for change. Most social change organisations tend to specialise in one, or perhaps two. But we want JRF to be an organisation that helps build bridges between people working across different disciplines and horizons, shaping new coalitions for change. And, faced with the scale of the challenge before us, inspired by our new mission, and conscious of the resources available to us, we recognise the importance of all these different approaches to social change and the part we can play in them.