George Wilkinson asks: Is New Year the time for law firms to turn over a new leaf?
Law firms are no strangers to charity - whether it is fundraising on Red Nose Day, supporting a runner in the London Marathon, putting in place a payroll giving scheme, encouraging staff to volunteer, sponsoring a local sports club, or making a hefty donation. And, almost without exception, law firms invest in their CSR programmes alongside their charitable support initiatives and sponsorship.
But there is invariably a close relationship between a firm's CSR aspirations and its public relations objectives - and all too often charity, CSR, public relations and business development get mixed up. There is nothing necessarily wrong with any of this but in looking for something in return for their investment, law firms are at risk of losing sight of the real benefits that creating a charitable foundation may bring.
Ashfords LLP established its 'Community Matters' CSR programme some eight years ago, and at much the same time took the decision to nominate a Charity of the Year. Both have been very successful, and partners and staff at Ashfords have been fully engaged in both, as well as in wider charitable fund raising. It is that very success that led the firm to look more closely at how it might make a real difference in the communities in which its partners live and work, and, so far as possible, bring together all of Ashfords' charitable giving and build a sense of common purpose among its people. As a result it was decided to establish a charitable foundation, with very clearly defined objectives to support smaller charities and community organisations through two grant programmes, Supporting Communities and Preserving Communities.
The firm was also very aware that staff engagement in the Foundation is essential to its long term success. It could not just be about the firm providing the funding. There is therefore a Staff Committee, with members drawn from each of the firm's offices and the Trustee Board, who will play a significant role - both in recommending grant awards for the larger of the Foundation's two grant programmes, and in promoting the Foundation within the firm. There were more than double the number of applications from staff for places on the Staff Committee.
Ashfords has looked beyond both its CSR and PR requirements in setting up the Foundation, and in providing both core funding for the Foundation, and a significant level of match funding. The partners recognise that the Foundation is a long term philanthropic commitment.
There is a close and necessary link between charitable foundations and their corporate founders, and Ashfords’ approach is no different. But Ashfords has taken what can be considered a bold step. In establishing a foundation independent of the firm, it has handed responsibility to the Foundation's trustees, who alone set and oversee the Foundation's strategy and objectives, monitor its effectiveness, and award grants. And although the first trustees are all Ashfords partners, the intention is in due course to appoint external trustees. The governance arrangements are designed to allow the Foundation to develop its own identity (for example the power of appointment rests with the trustees and not the firm).
Law firms are very wary of handing control of even a little of their money to someone else, as Ashfords has done. But 2019 should be the year that firms change their approach and consider launching a foundation, and one that has true independence. There are real advantages to this generosity - there is no direct commercial benefit in philanthropy, but it says a lot about an organisation that it is prepared to do this.