Building strong foundations

What should a charitable foundation look like in the 21st century? This question was at the heart of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation’s development of a new strategic plan. One of the largest independent grant-makers in the UK, the Foundation makes grants of around £40 million towards a range of arts, environment and social change projects as well as a further £45 million investment to organisations with the aim of creating social impact. 

“We recognised it was a moment in time.” explains Chief Executive Caroline Mason. “With so many issues such as AI and climate change, it felt like a real tipping point for all of us. The idea that we could just carry on what we were doing as a Foundation was no longer feasible."

Ian Fairbairn, a leading financier, established the Foundation almost sixty years ago. It was a memorial to his wife Esmée who was tragically killed in an air raid in the Second World War. She played a prominent role in developing the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service and the Citizens Advice Bureau, so it is in this spirit that the Foundation has focused on funding the work of organisations aiming to build an inclusive, creative and sustainable society.

“We are fortunate to have significant flexibility in our charity articles. The time felt right to look forward to the next 10/15 years and think about what we want the world to look like in the future for our children - and what our contribution could be,” explains Caroline.

 “However, we found that we got bogged down as soon as we started – we had conflicting ideas about approach and how radically we needed to change. I had a real sense that we were getting stuck or that we needed to re-invigorate the discussion.”

It was at that point that Total Policy was asked to help. A series of stakeholder interviews and workshops, together with a review of national and international Foundations highlighted the unique role the Foundation currently plays and set out the major choices ahead. This helped give Foundation staff the confidence to move from being a responsive funder to one that more actively seeks out solutions, creating and backing new approaches and engaging with agents of change across all sectors.

Total Policy worked closely with Caroline and other members of the senior team to provide thinking space and to make sure that the whole team was engaged in the conversation about the future. Total Policy then facilitated a Board strategy day where trustees were able to consider the options ahead, listen to each other’s views and to reach consensus.

"One of Katherine’s real strengths is to challenge and liberate you to think about the ultimate impact of your ideas,” says Caroline. “It’s her ability to shine a spotlight on the things that really matter and hold it there until solutions appear that is really magic.


“She has a light touch and a fantastic ability to make difficult things appear simple. It’s a creative process, yet there is a robust methodology behind it - and it delivers results.”

Working with Total Policy, the Foundation is now looking at the structures that are needed to underpin the strategy, make the organisation fit for purpose to deliver on its ambitions and bring it to life in the Foundation's everyday work.

 “We are really excited about the strategy. We now have a clear vision and a plan for the future. We are reinventing what a charitable foundation could be. We are not just a grant maker – that is one of the things we do. We are a foundation for the 21st century and we will use and co-ordinate all our resources and assets in pursuit of our goals, own our knowledge more centrally and use the impact of our work to influence change for the future. 

“By narrowing down the focus of our work, and realigning our organisational strategy to support our vision, I am confident that we are in great shape to fulfil our goals for the future.”

Katherine Rake