News & Views
David Emerson talks about trusts, foundations, conservation and treading the boards
Did your early years influence what you are doing now?
I was an only child growing up in the country after the war. My parents were churchwardens and involved in lots of other community activities: the Scouts, the WI and the local library. I wrote a book with Jill Pitkeathley (another only child) in 1994 – The Only Child:How to Survive Being One which is now in its third or fourth reprint and translated into around ten languages.
So what was your ‘first’ career?
I read geography at university and went on to do a master’s in landscape, ecology, design and maintenance. Then I undertook a community environment protection project in Cheshire and morphed into community development work, becoming deputy head of what was then the rural department of NCVO.
And then what happened?
I received a small legacy, gave all that up, and retrained at drama school to become an actor.
That’s an interesting question; I chose to do it – why is probably beyond the scope of this interview. I understudied Nicholas Lyndhurst in The Foreigner, I was in Jeffrey Archer’s Beyond all Reasonable Doubt and worked with Derek Nimmo touring around the Far East, but to be honest I was never that good, although glad to have done it. I increasingly did more back stage and production management work in the mainstream West End shows and then got a job running the trade association for regional theatres in the UK and, after six years, moved sideways to running this one at ACF.
Tell us about your grantmaking experience
The Stephen Oliver Trust provided funds to help young composers of opera as well as small scale opera companies. I was its secretary. It was hard to be transformative with the amounts we had, but we supported a lot of composers and did spend down and wind up.
What was it like what you got to ACF?
There was a considerable turnover of staff – there always is with any change of CEO. The Atlantic Philanthropies had made a capacity-building grant which immediately provided a further two staff and made a huge difference.
Tell us what ACF does
Like any other membership association we provide specific information and guidance to the members, and we represent their interests upwards. But the difference here is that the membership sits on considerable assets which it uses for public benefit. We provide an opportunity for our members (the big ones aside, most are very small operations) who are spread right across the UK, to get together and talk about common funding issues such as penal reform, domestic violence, the arts et certera as well as about improving the processes of grant-making.
Can you share some of your achievements?
We contributed in making sure the Charities Act for England and Wales included a duty on the Charity Commission to encourage charitable giving. Also, the SORP, which is crucial to all charities, does not particularly apply to grantmakers where the public benefit is delivered by others. We worked with the Commission on this on behalf of our members, and it is easier for them to deal with us, and now members have public benefit guidance approved by the regulator.
How do members assess impact?
There are probably as many answers to that as there are grants made! Members would always be cautious about the attribution of their impact: you can’t demonstrate impact by sales, or footfall, and the positive impact of a grant on disadvantaged children might not be seen for decades. But many trusts giving small amounts of money to local and community organisations have surely been one component of the thriving civil society in the UK.
How do foundations fit into Big Society?
We have been funding Big Society for a long time and now we are in a period where the social contract between the state and society is being reviewed. There is a role for trusts and foundations to monitor the change and what is or is not working. One of the strengths of UK civil society is its plurality and we always want to have multiple voices. Another of our roles is funding for campaigning and to support the underdog.
What are the main issues facing the sector?
The money that won’t be there from central and local government and what that means. There also has to be a question about how people will have the capacity to volunteer if they are not in work to pay their bills. And we have to understand how, with a very southern England-led government, you maintain cohesiveness of a UK-wide ‘big’ society.
How do you switch off?
Walking with Jill, our home in Herefordshire has a couple of acres of wildflower meadows. I am a supporter of the Grasslands Trust – you can see the transformation in a few years, not in lifetimes!
The last play you enjoyed?
Black Watch returned to The Barbican and it is stunning.
Best of times?
Getting married to Jill two years ago
Working in the theatre – it only acknowledges what you do on stage, and when I wasn’t very good and was ‘resting’ there were some desperately low points.
David Emerson was talking to Clarissa Dann
David Emerson is chief executive of the Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF), the membership association for charitable trusts and grant-making foundations in the UK.
With a background in rural community development and then work with NCVO, he moved into professional theatre and then to the professional membership association for regional theatre in the UK, which he led for over six years before joining ACF in 2003.
For ten years he was the secretary of a trust promoting contemporary opera, and currently is chair of NITRO, Britain’s leading black music theatre company.Read more articles by this author