Dissolving separations

23rd April 2024, words by Julian Corner

In July last year, we announced our intention to “relinquish control of our assets, including the endowment and all resources, so that money can flow freely to those doing life-affirming social justice work”.

We went on to say: “We will make space to reimagine how wealth, capital and social justice can co-exist in the service of all life, now and for future generations”.

This is an extraordinary choice for a board to make voluntarily and has attracted a lot of attention, including praise and criticism. Above all, we have heard requests to share the learning that has brought us to this point, the principles that guide the new strategy and the learning we gain as we move through it. This blog starts to summarise the first of these, and will sit alongside a legacy archive of our work from the last decade. Future blogs will respond to the second and third requests.

Before last July, we were perhaps best known as the foundation that promoted systems approaches to social problems in the UK. Since 2012, when our mission homed in on “severe and multiple disadvantage”, we’ve been clear that social problems are complex and that any shift in a problem requires a corresponding shift in the system surrounding it. Outcomes, we said, emerge from the interrelation of parts in a system, not just from the parts themselves.

This position was a critique of the dominant charitable model, in which individual organisations are encouraged to credit themselves with outcomes that can only be created by factors well beyond that the charity’s control.

At the time, we talked about ‘siloed thinking’. As we’ve gone on to learn more and more from practitioners in the field, we’ve come to view this charitable model as more an exertion of separation and control.

Separation is everywhere you look in the charity model. The sector is constituted separately from related actors in the private and public sectors. It is broken down into separate organisations, with separate missions, boards, staff teams, funding streams, accounts and impact reports. These organisations are divided into separate sub-sectors, with separate membership bodies advocating for separate interests. The boards of these organisations are separate from the staff, and the staff are often separate from the communities in which they work.

Institutional philanthropy itself is a separate subsector, perhaps the most separate from other forms of charity, and certainly separate from other forms of charitable giving and wealth. The way that foundations earn their money – on the stock market – is entirely separate in modality and ethos from the charitable purposes on which it is spent.

This separation is echoed in the political and economic context in which charities operate. The wealth and the holders of wealth are separate from the people doing the work that creates the wealth. Consumption is separate from production. The Global North is separate from the Global South.

Are all these separations necessary, and do they matter?

When you look at the world through a systems lens, it can be bewildering to see interconnected variables, that impact on each other in every moment, being treated as obviously separate. What we termed severe and multiple disadvantage is the intersection of mental ill health, drug misuse, homelessness and violence. Even though these problems are often indivisible in a person’s life, they are treated as separate by charities, government departments, funders and research disciplines.

We note the evidence that complex human problems require deeply relational and collaborative approaches, and that treating them as separate is harmful and more expensive. And then we label these problems as ‘wicked’, as though the separations we have created are a fact of life that we have to deal with..

The only explanation we have found, and that is shared by the many practitioners with whom we have worked, is that these separations come from a need for control. The complex reality can’t be controlled, and so we break the reality down into parts that can be controlled. The word ‘break’ is used intentionally here. There is violence in this act. Even though the separation can occur through administrative, bureaucratic or academic processes, its effect is to break human lives.

In the sphere of social justice, this need to separate and control betrays a yearning for comfort. If the complexity can be controlled through separation, then the work of social justice becomes manageable, understandable and accessible to those who have little insight into the complexity. This comfort is bought at the cost of breaking others’ lives.

Of course, the need to separate isn’t limited to the charity sector. Charities are a function of their context. Capitalism has taught us that performance is driven by the separation of humans through competition, commodification, resource scarcity and individualism. Economics has taught us that we can be separated from our own nature by reducing us to units of utility, labour and rational action. Philosophy has taught us to view ourselves as separate from the nature and environment of which we are part. Modernity has taught us to separate human progress from our histories and ancestries. 

The need to separate and control is deep seated, and lies at the heart of the interlocking crises through which we are now moving. This is now so stark that our mission to tackle severe and multiple disadvantage is being pursued in the context of existential threat to our collective survival.

As a charity, we have struggled to overcome these separations for years. Even from our position of privilege as a foundation, we have found it incredibly challenging work. But for those on the frontline, it is often bruising and violent. We have seen people celebrated for doing integrated, holistic work, and we’ve seen those same people burn out and become ill trying to fight a system of separation and control.

We are proud of the networked, place-based and participatory approaches that we have supported and engaged in. We have pushed these approaches and ourselves as far as we think they can go. And yet they are not enough. The separation and control is still there. We have to go deeper and look at ourselves.

Lankelly Chase has said for some time that we are part of the problem we’ve been trying to solve. We keep ourselves and our money separate from the field in which we were working: we are the ‘funder’, you are the ‘beneficiary’. We keep the organisations we fund separate from each other through competition for our resources. Our funding criteria separates people out into winners and losers. Accountability to us as the funder separates charities from the communities they are meant to serve. We exist in the separate world of ‘the funding sector’, with its separate networks, language and perspectives. Our investments are separate from our grant making.

We have treated these as ‘tensions’ or ‘paradoxes’ that are part of the complexity of the work. As facts of life that we have to deal with. However, we have gradually come to see them as plain contradictions:

  • A charity committed to equality and democracy that hoards money and decision making.
  • A charity dealing with deep social disadvantage through the proceeds of a global capitalist system that creates it.
  • A charity that asks its beneficiaries to describe their impact in detail, but is unable to account for the impact of its own investments in countries that it will never visit.
  • A charity that exists for the long term wellbeing of UK citizens that invests its capital in markets that are limiting the lifespan of the human species on this planet.

These aren’t just moral contradictions. They are mission-related contradictions that strike at the heart of our effectiveness. If severe and multiple disadvantage requires the dissolving of harmful, even violent, separations, this can’t be pursued through an institutional form that perpetuates separation at every turn.

It can look to some that our decision to ‘relinquish control of our assets’ is an abandonment of our responsibilities. We obviously view it very differently. By putting our mission before our institutional interest, we say that relinquishing control is a necessary step into deep accountability to our mission.

Anyone who tells you that they can control outcomes in complex systems is lying. Just as anyone who tells you that they can control the income you receive from your investments is lying. Control is a myth in a world of interconnectedness. And it prevents us from glimpsing the possibilities on the other side.

Instead of predictability, hierarchy and division, what if we leaned fully into interdependence, mutuality, community, entanglement?

Instead of holding money separately, as the primary asset around which we all dance, what if money was treated as just one resource available to communities, no more valued than other assets and resources, such as people, cultures, trust, expertise, networks, rituals, knowledge, histories?

Instead of keeping us all separate, what if money could help connect us in the way other assets do?

Instead of outsourcing wealth holding and decision making to distant institutions, what if it was integrated into communities where it could be a vital force?

Instead of money being controlled by gatekeepers, what if it was allowed to flow where it was needed, shared rather than granted?

A lot of these possibilities centre on money, even while they try to decentre it.  However, what if they were in service of something much more life affirming? Namely, of human beings in all our joyful, messy, interconnected, creative, integrated wholeness. Integrated with ourselves, with each other, with our non-human relatives, with our planet.

If we aren’t relying on the exertion of control to hold separate variables together, then new forms of coherence and even order have the space to emerge. In this world, we aren’t grappling with wicked problems and grabbing small victories from the jaws of defeat. We are investing ourselves and our resources consistently in ecologies of interconnection that reliably generate outcomes that are in support of life.

Given how programmed we are to keep ourselves separate, we now face the choice of whether we choose to belong to each other, and are prepared to do the hard work this implies, including the painful work of unlearning previous behaviours.

The information we need may come from unexpected places. From the unconscious, our feelings, our bodies, our ancestries, our environments. Ultimately it will come from dissolving the self-other binaries that are instilled in us by capitalism, economics, philosophy and modernity, that maintain the delusions of separation and control.

How vulnerable would we need to be? Or rather, what would we need to give up to stop making ourselves safe and comfortable at the expense of others’ vulnerability?

These are the questions into which we are now moving and that will form the basis of the next phase of our journey. Our next blog will set out in more concrete detail how we are viewing the work to come. And then we will share some learning on what it is taking to act in the interests of interconnectedness while continuing to operate within a framework of separation. 

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