The Ashfords Foundation is a long-term philanthropic commitment requiring partner and employee buy-in, as George Wilkinson and John Toth explain
It is rare these days for law firms not to be involved in corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities.
Yet the most recent large-scale study of CSR in large law firms, undertaken by Birmingham Law School in 2015, found that the motivations of firms in undertaking CSR vary considerably.
They may reflect the business case and the economic drivers, whether as a result of specific clauses imposed by clients in tender documents or to meet the requirements of panel appointment processes.
The study also suggests that some firms adopt CSR policies as a way to increase productivity. The moral case is next on the list of firms’ reported motivations – that considering the impacts a firm has on the world is generally seen as ‘the right thing’ to do.
Finally, the study’s authors indicated that firms’ decisions around CSR also reflected the perceived positive impacts on recruitment, staff satisfaction and development.
The right thing
Inevitably, it is a mixed picture. And as the study’s author Steve Vaughan suggests, a firm’s urge to pursue CSR may simply derive from the need to keep up with competitors.
“It is not clear,” he notes, “whether the public commitment to corporate social responsibility by some large law firms is a result of dedication by those firms to the principles of CSR, or simply a knee jerk reaction to the implementation of CSR strategies by their competitors.”
All of this will be familiar to law firms. It is often the case that much of a firm’s CSR activity can amount to little more than a public relations exercise, to make it appear that the firm is doing the right thing.
So perhaps we should not be surprised that there is often a close relationship between a firm’s CSR aspirations and its objectives for PR, with business development also playing its part.
Too often, the result is that there is a definite blurring of the lines between the three; and it’s clear that across the profession firms are following different paths for different reasons – yet at the same time keeping an eye on what everyone else is doing.
Ashfords was, in many respects, no different to many of its peer firms. It had set up its own Community Matters CSR programme almost a decade ago. At much the same time, it had followed the example of other private sector employers in designating a charity of the year to be the focus of its charitable fundraising and giving.
So far so good, but its ambition went further. It wanted to look at how it might make a real difference in the communities in which the partners and employees of Ashfords live and work.
Fundraising for Charity Of The Year had invariably been successful, but had inevitably meant choosing a national charity – one that would command sufficient appeal across the firm’s six offices and its 530-plus people.
Why not, the partners thought, create a charitable foundation that would be able to support a wide range of local charities and charitable work? This, it was felt, would provide support where it was most needed.
At the same time, by creating its own charitable foundation, Ashfords would not only be able to bring together all of its charitable giving in one place; it would also provide an opportunity to build an enduring sense of common purpose among our people.
Charity Of The Year was always for one year only. A charitable foundation would be for a much longer time and would allow the firm to make a real and lasting impact. As a result, the partners established the Ashfords foundation in November 2018.
The actual formalities involved in setting up a charitable incorporated organisation are relatively straightforward. All the more so as Ashfords has its own charity and not-for-profit practice. What required much more thought and reflection was answering the key question of what the foundation once established would do.
Would it simply distribute grants generally; or were there to be specific beneficiaries, goals and areas of operation? This meant the firm had to be clear from the outset what it wanted and expected of the foundation.
Out of the discussions held around priority interests and preferred areas, it became possible to establish clearly defined objectives: to support smaller charities and community organisations local to any of Ashfords’ six offices through two grant programmes.
The first, Supporting Communities, was to offer one-off grants of up to £750 to small charities working at grassroots level. The second, Preserving Communities, was to support established charities and not-for-profit organisations develop a solid foundation for the future, helping them build sustainability for the long term with grants of up to £15,000 over a period of three years.
This was an ambitious goal, and to ensure the foundation would have a solid grounding, the partners committed themselves to provide both core funding for the foundation and a significant level of match funding.
In so doing, the partners understood that the firm would need to look beyond both its CSR and PR requirements, recognising that the foundation is a long-term philanthropic commitment.
At the same time, in choosing to establish a charitable foundation, the Ashfords partners understood that the foundation would need to be independent of the firm, so it handed control of the foundation to its trustees.
From the outset, the governance arrangements were designed to allow the foundation to develop its own identity without losing the close and necessary link between Ashfords, the firm, and its foundation.
This is no different to many charitable foundations and their corporate founders; and it’s the foundation’s trustees alone who now set and oversee the foundation’s strategy and objectives, monitor its effectiveness and award grants. Though the first trustees are all Ashfords partners, in due course the intention is to appoint external trustees.
The relationship between the firm and the foundation has been set out in a memorandum of understanding. This provides how each will respect the other’s rights and responsibilities and identifies those services, such as accounting and treasury services, that the firm will provide to the foundation.
It also makes explicit the independence of the foundation from the firm – the trustees are to be free to exercise their judgement and manage conflicts of interest free from interference by the firm.
What the partners also recognised was that employee engagement would be essential to the long-term success of the foundation. Certainly, the partners were prepared to put up the necessary initial funding; but it wasn’t just to be about the firm providing the funding and driving its development – the employees were also to have a significant input.
The foundation is their foundation as much as it is the partners’. From the outset there has been an Employee Committee with members drawn from across the firm’s offices.
They have a dual role: first, the Employee Committee reviews all applications to the Supporting Communities programme and recommends awards to the Trustee Board; and second, they are involved in raising awareness of the foundation by promoting planned fundraising initiatives and encouraging others to get involved in and coordinating fundraising activities.
Terms of reference for the Committee were drawn up and agreed, setting out this dual role. The enthusiasm of employees for the foundation was underlined by the fact that there were more than double the number of applications from employees for places on the Committee.
Meeting quarterly, the Committee has established itself as an integral part of the grant making process. Adam Woodhouse, a member of the Employee Committee, says: “I have always been passionate about supporting local community initiatives; and being able to participate in granting awards and seeing the positive impact the funding is making to local charities is a real privilege.”
Employees at all levels and in all offices are involved in raising funds for the foundation – taking part in and supporting challenge events, charity quizzes, cake sales and similar.
Lastly, the right sort of communication with (and to) partners and employees has been critical in getting word out about the foundation.
All this inevitably takes time and commitment but this has been freely given. There is a real sense that the foundation is their foundation. Twelve months on from its creation, it is possible to take stock and assess progress.
Although it’s still early days, grants have been awarded from the Preserving Communities programme to nine applicants; and the Supporting Communities programme has already supported 29 small charities or community organisations.
These grants are spread both geographically and across different types of charity supported, ranging from a significant grant to a homelessness charity in Bristol, a small grant to an East Devon primary school and a similar award to a Plymouth-based charity supporting people in recovery.
Some of these applications have come from charities that have learnt about the foundation from its website or a fundraising directory, others through word of mouth and an increasing number the result of Ashfords’ employees encouraging charities and community organisations they know, or are involved in, to apply.
Not every grant application is successful. The foundation is focused on supporting organisations that are embedded within their communities and addressing local needs. Nonetheless, the numbers speak for themselves.
From the beginning, the trustees understood that the grant application process needed to be as straightforward as possible. Simple application forms are on the foundation’s website, together with guidance notes for applicants and frequently asked questions.
The feedback the foundation has had from applicants has been positive. Susy Talbot, trusts fundraiser at children’s charity CHICKS says: “The application process was clear and easy to follow. The carefully crafted questions allowed us the opportunity to clearly show what our organisation does and the impact of our work in a concise and well laid out application form.
“In particular, it was great to be asked about volunteer opportunities – they are a hugely valuable part of our respite break product which can work brilliantly with corporate social responsibility strategies and it was wonderful to have the chance to demonstrate this in an application. The supportive and friendly staff at Ashfords continue to make this partnership one that we are very proud of.”
And once an application is received, the review and decision process is designed to be as user friendly for the trustees as possible. This has involved appointing a secretary to the foundation to run the process and be the applicants’ main point of contact.
Decide your ethos
Setting up a charitable foundation isn’t necessarily right for every law firm but it’s certainly worth thinking about. The starting point, as it was for Ashfords, is to decide what any foundation’s mission, ethos and longevity is to be – particularly the latter, as that has a real bearing on how any foundation might be funded.
And as Ashfords has found, getting partner and employee buy-in to the idea is critical. A charitable foundation such as The Ashfords foundation cannot operate in a vacuum so internal communications and message are every bit as important as getting the word out to potential applicants.
The one thing you can be sure off is charities will find you – but you need to know that the foundation has the necessary support from the firm’s partners and employees generally.
Law firms are no strangers to charity, whether it’s fundraising on Red Nose Day, supporting a participator in a challenge event like the London marathon, implementing a payroll giving scheme, encouraging staff to volunteer, sponsoring a local sports club or making a hefty donation.
But too often charity, CSR and business development get mixed up. Although there is nothing necessarily wrong with this, in looking simply for something in return for their investment and support there is a significant risk of losing sight of the real benefits of philanthropy.
There is no direct commercial benefit in philanthropy, but in taking the bold step of setting up and supporting its foundation, Ashfords is not just making the immediate and direct impact in its local communities that it wanted to – but has drawn its partners and staff into this endeavour.
George Wilkinson is secretary and John Toth is chair of trustees to The Ashfords Foundation ashfordsfoundation.org.uk