Interview with our outgoing Chief Executive Bharat Mehta - working together for change

The following article recently featured in Trust & Foundation News, a magazine produced by the Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF). They interviewed our Chief Executive Bharat Mehta as he reflected on his time in the sector ahead of stepping down from his role later this year, discussing topics such as responsible investment, learning from first-hand experience, and more.

Has COVID-19 helped us collaborate? Has diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) really improved in the sector in the past two decades? Bharat Mehta CBE, who is about to step down as Chief Executive of Trust for London, tackled these questions and more in his conversation with Sarah Myers.

I joined Trust for London, or City Parochial Foundation as it was known then, over two decades ago. The organisation was set up in 1891 and has a remarkable history. I started as clerk to trustees but became CEO, overseeing the transformation to our current incarnation, in 2010.

Social justice is something that's simply been part of my life. I don’t come from a well-off background. I was born in Nairobi in Kenya and my family came to the UK when I was 16. In the early 80s, despite having two degrees and two years of work experience, I found it very hard to get a job. You learn that life is not that straightforward for many people. I volunteered at a charity called Pensioners Link clearing older people’s gardens, and eventually got a job there. I’ve also worked in social services and at the National Schizophrenia Fellowship, now Rethink Mental Illness, as director of operations and CEO.

Through my experience at Trust for London, and beyond, I’ve seen many changes and developments in the trusts and foundations sector. In the past, we've tended to concentrate, understandably, on the grants that we make. Jed Emerson, a prominent thought leader in the philanthropy world, likened grant-making to horse manure. He notes that we tend to concentrate a lot on how we spread the manure, but not look at the horse – focusing on what comes out rather than what goes in. We had to find more imaginative ways to work with the horse, so we could bring the changes we want to achieve with the manure. There’s a growing awareness of that now in relation to social investment and how funders can bring about change.

The development we’re seeing is two-fold. Firstly, there’s more interest in investing in initiatives with a social return as well as a financial one. Secondly, endowments are being used to influence what we invest in – and what we choose not to invest in – creating a platform for driving systemic change.

Climate change, green energy and modern slavery are all examples of issues that are making progress,

thanks to vital attention from the civil society sector and the funders they work with.

Investing for a social and financial return

A great example of funders working together is the Charities Responsible Investment Network (CRIN), which is about furthering charities’ missions through responsible investment. In the last few years, the network has engaged with investee companies, investment managers and policymakers on a broad range of environmental, social and governance issues. This includes the Living Wage, workers’ rights in supply chains, executive pay, corporate lobbying and investment managers’ voting records.

In 2014, we were part of a unique project to create an office building for social justice and human rights organisations calledThe Foundry, which is in Vauxhall. Developed by the Ethical Property Company, with the Barrow Cadbury Trust, Lankelly Chase Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, it’s home to around 25 different organisations tackling everything from malaria to gender-based violence. The building is specifically designed for collaboration and the exchange of ideas. It’s helped regenerate the area, offers a sustainable return to investors and below market rent to the organisations that move there. This wonderful building shows how you can do good at the same time as getting a financial return.

The Foundry is based on a model that we established at City Parochial Foundation nearly 30 years ago called Resource for London, on Holloway Road. Similarly, it’s an office and meeting space designed to support charities. As a wholly owned subsidiary of ours, it was a massive, brave step back then. And it worked.

Bharat in front of the Index of Multiple Deprivation map

Working collaboratively to bring systemic change

When I joined the sector, it could feel sometimes like funders were on a pedestal, whereas now there’s a far more collaborative approach coming through.

The funding sector has got money, the civil society sector has awareness and knowledge. Now we’re asking, how do we address issues collectively? What role can funders play besides giving the money?

Take the example of the Living Wage campaign, something that directly meets our mission at Trust for London. We exist to tackle poverty and inequality in London, the Living Wage was about getting more money into the pockets of the lowest paid people in our city. Citizens UK led on this, but it was a proactive, joint effort. We took a ‘whole assets’ approach. As well as investing money, we offered our research, intellect and resources. We convened an advisory group and worked to influence the companies we invest in, the people we work with, and our advisers. Of course, most importantly, we funded Citizens UK, so they could do what they're best at – community-led development. They brought together community energy to influence things at a local level – local authorities and businesses, and regional government.

Similarly, with the issue of modern slavery, we worked collaboratively. In 2007, the anniversary of the 1807 Slave Trade Act, we wanted to launch a campaign to show that slavery, in another form, still exists. We wanted to develop this area of work, particularly as it applied to London because that’s our remit. There were several organisations that had been working on the issue, Anti-Slavery International, to name one. As well as providing grants, we set up an advisory group and offered research and resource.

Now we have the Modern Slavery Act. It’s an achievement of the organisations that have been working together on this issue for such a long time. It was a collaborative effort to bring about systemic change.

Learning from those with first-hand experience

Something we’ve rightly seen become increasingly important over the past few years, thanks to civil society organisations and those that fund them, is lived experience. Or first-hand experience, as we call it. We’re providing more of a platform for strong voices coming from the communities that are affected by the issues. We’re seeing people who’ve actually had these experiences having a say in what needs to be different.

This has been the case in some organisations for longer than others. But it's good to see that the direction of travel, generally, is to enable people with first-hand experience to have a say and stake, rather than things ‘being done to them’.

A broader approach to diversity, equality and inclusion

In some respects, the funding sector is getting to be more diverse. It used to be predominantly white male and of an older age. I think we're starting to get a much better gender balance, both in governance and management. I think on age, we're beginning to improve. On race, however, we are nowhere near.

An article appeared in this magazine in March 1998, when I was appointed clerk of trustees at the City Parochial Foundation. It’s opening line was: “The glass ceiling for black achievement in the management of charities and trusts is finally beginning to crack open”. Back then, I was one of around four chief execs from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities among ACF members. Now, in a membership of over 400, I think there’s still only around five.

I think it’s really important to look at DEI in its broadest sense. These conversations shouldn’t just focus on race. This is about disability, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities and, one aspect that often gets missed out, because it's not a protected characteristic, class. It’s particularly important for organisations like Trust for London, as we work in the areas of poverty and inequality. It would be remiss of us not to be sensitive to issues of class. Whether it's something we're good at or not, I'm not sure, but it's certainly something that we are aware of, as an organisation. For instance, in our audit of trustees, co-optees and staff we ask if people have a direct experience of poverty. It may be a crude way of assessing it, but it's a way of reminding people when they're filling in their diversity survey that class is an important issue to reflect on. And it would be good to see an increasing awareness of this across the sector.

Having a diverse workforce that reflects the population makes us richer, in terms of governance, but also management and operations. It makes us better organisations if we have a broader spread of people involved.

Formative experiences help you understand issues. For example, Moving on Up is our initiative for getting young black men into jobs. We need it because graduates from African, Caribbean and mixed-race communities are twice as likely to be unemployed even with the same degree. I understand what it’s like to find yourself in a disadvantaged position as I’ve been in those shoes. We encourage staff to think about what it’s like, even if they haven’t been in that position themselves.

Overcoming the fear of getting it wrong

I don’t believe there’s one formula that works when it comes to diversity – ABC will not lead to XYZ. But there are some things all organisations can do. One of the main ones is taking up appropriate training. At Trust for London, all staff have done some training from Inclusion London on disability and we’ve had training on recognising unconscious bias. I think there’s a lot more to do around LGBTI communities. We also want to engage with the ACF’s Stronger Foundations toolkit. We’ll use it to improve our own awareness of DEI issues, so we can move further to support people who are least likely to be heard.

One of the things that stops people enquiring about diversity and making a difference is fear of getting it wrong. My view is ‘just do it’, with as much consultation and thinking as possible. But just do it. It's better than doing nothing because you worry you won’t be perfect. Be honest and transparent about what you’re trying to achieve. It’s okay to get things wrong.

Responding to the pandemic

If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it's that inequality exists in a significant way. COVID-19 has not brought these inequalities, it has shown them up.

The pandemic has also shown how there’s genuinely so much more to be achieved by working together.

Look at the London Community Response.

London’s funders are working together to provide coordinated funding to support groups responding to the needs of its communities in the pandemic, led by London Funders. We’ve put £2.5m into this initiative over the last year and others have put in more. It’s been a huge exercise in all types of collaboration – on initiatives and investments and between funders and grantees.

Looking to the future, I will be delighted to see this coming together continue. Grantees and funders, people with first-hand experience, local authorities, regional government, businesses and more, all working together for social justice and systemic change.

25 May 2021

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Thank you to ACF for allowing us to repost this article.
Writing credit: Sarah Myers and Trina Wallace.