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Bold, ethical, open-minded: why Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust is unique in Britain

Decades of work by JRCT advancing democracy and social justice has changed the face of Britain. We explore what is distinctive about the trust, at a time when its second secretary is bidding farewell.
Stuart Weir
11 November 2011

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRTC) has played a unique role in advancing the causes of democracy and social justice over the past 20 years; and the trust has, through the civil society organisations it has funded, brought about real achievements in public understanding and reform. During this time, the trust has had two outstanding secretaries – a typically modest job description for a demanding post – first Steven Burkeman, then since 2001, Stephen Pittam: both of them committed and imaginative men of great integrity.

Stephen Pittam is retiring next year and the post of trust secretary is now being advertised. It is a good time to consider the contribution the JRCT has made and what makes its role unique. I would also say, “celebrate”, and will do so while declaring several interests. The trust invented Democratic Audit, the active research organisation for which I worked from 1991 and has funded it ever since. The trust also provides funding for OurKingdom. And Steven and Stephen are personal friends.

JRCT is very busy. The trustees provide funds of about £5 ½ million annually to some 175 to 200 organisations. Its funding is spread across three main programmes: first and foremost is the “power and responsibility” programme which covers both democracy and corporate accountability; then “peace”, a good Quaker word, reclaimed from a rather more prolix programme title, and “racial justice”, a programme that has regularly been reinterpreted since being introduced in the 1960s to deal with, for example, asylum and immigration issues and generational shifts in Britain’s ethnic minority communities.

From my own limited experience I know of significant advances that JRCT has been behind – for example, funding and part-funding individuals and organisations such as Chris Pond and the Low Pay Unit (alongside trade unions), whose work contributed to the adoption of the national minimum wage; Maurice Frankel at the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which ultimately won and keeps watch on the FOI Act and protection for whistle-blowing; James Cornford at the birth of the IPPR for the first draft written constitution for the UK; Francesca Klug, Liberty and others campaigning for and securing the Human Rights Act; Anthony Barnett and Henry Porter and the Convention on Modern Liberty which achieved a panoramic review of the state of freedom in the UK; Wendy Hall and me at Democratic Audit revealing the scale and unaccountable power of the quango state for the first time.

What strikes me about the trust’s work is its clarity of decision and a bold open-mindedness that is not constrained by academic or other notions of respectability. Its officers and trustees thoroughly investigate the quality of the organisations (and especially the individual workers within them) which apply for funds and trust to their own judgment. I think for example that the decision to give funds to the Islamic Human Rights Commission, when more cautious foundations would have feared that the idea of a self-professed Islamic body and human rights principles were utterly contradictory, was justified and has proved to be so. By and large, too, the trust sticks to the proper ethic of grant-giving foundations – in that it does not take a proactive approach to funding projects of its own devising, but sets out broad programmes of work and invites CSOs to apply for funding for their own projects and work. It is true that JRCT deviated from this ethic in joining its partner, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, in funding the Power Inquiry in 2004 and then Power 2010. In the first case, the inquiry received funds over and above its annual allocation for funding; as for Power 2010, admirable though the initial aims may have been, my assumption is that trustees will have regretted being involved in the bungled and ill-thought out project.

The trust also has the capacity to adapt to circumstances. During the Thatcher era in the 1990s, Stephen Pittam said, JRCT struggled to make progress on equality, race and diversity. He was in charge of the race agenda at JRCT and decided to take another route and began funding the Starting Line at European level, which led ultimately to the new directive in the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997 taking equality into a wider dimension. Member states were asked to combat discrimination on six grounds – race, gender, disability, age, religion and sexual orientation and to establish a single body to look into discrimination on these grounds. This move created tensions within the human rights community in the UK and within the trust as race and black organisations feared that they would lose out through the change. JRCT funded both sides of the debate: assisting Sarah Spencer to set up the Equality & Diversity Forum and continuing to fund the black organisations which opposed the abolition of the Commission for Racial Integration.

I asked Stephen Pittam what lay behind the trust’s strength of decision. He replied that it was its values, based as they were in its Quaker ethic. These values were integrity, peace, accountability, transparency, simplicity, equality, respect for the environment.

“There is a rootedness to these values, I would describe it as a spiritual rootedness. Our strengths lie in our traditions, we don’t flip about from issue to issue. As Quakers, we are used to operating in the secular world, but we hold onto a vision of a more democratic, just and equal society.”

These values also give JRCT the shared trust and cohesive spirit within which very able trustees and staff work together to such effect.

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