News January 2023

Aspiration is not enough

Our CEO, Jim McCormick, looks at how our work is being driven by contributing to lasting social change rather than solely mitigating disadvantage

"We are independent but not neutral"

While marking our 60th anniversary across 2021-22, we aimed do three things: honour the past, and the remarkable vision of the Robertson sisters as pioneering women of business and philanthropy; apply our values to connect with our mission on poverty and trauma until 2030; and put down longer-term roots as stewards of the Trust’s resources.

We did all of this mindful of the gale-force winds experienced by the people and places the Trust is here to serve. Layered on top of the poverty and trauma hardships already experienced by more than one million Scots before the pandemic. the cost-of-living crisis points to a drop in living standards not seen in the 60 years of the Trust’s life. Charities at the frontline are under intolerable strain and decisive action is needed by government at all levels to reduce the stark risks we are already crystallising.

That's why at The Robertson Trust, we are independent - but not neutral. We will use our voice and create platforms for others to advocate for the policy and practice changes we need, for example in embedding the Christie principle of prevention above all for those who face the hardest edges in society. Recently, we also published new research highlighting how many low-income families are being pushed into debt and arrears by the public bodies that are meant to be helping them through the cost-of-living emergency and used our platform to highlight a series of practical recommendations.

All of this requires us to think hard about the role an independent funder should play. We are now committing to an average of £25M in charitable expenditure per year, 25% more than was envisaged when we launched our strategy in Autumn of 2020. This is possible due to the dividend we receive from Edrington, in which the Trust has a majority stake, and our pooled investments portfolio.

We are planning further work to understand investing for impact and to accelerate carbon reduction. All of our resources could be taken up in crisis response but we are clear that we will have more impact if we act as a catalyst and partner with others, and if we protect some of this budget to invest in longer-term changes with a fighting chance of being sustained.

Running through our objectives to fund, support and influence are now four thematic priorities which define how we will contribute to the changes we need to see in Scotland. These are Financial Security, Emotional Wellbeing and Relationships, Education Pathways and Work Pathways. We have also have committed to a whole organisational approach to active learning on Anti-Racism and Allyship, becoming Trauma-informed and responsive and on advancing Participation. These actions help us understand our mission as one of advancing justice rather than extending charity: while charities are very often the best partners for us to get alongside, it is our joint commitment to lasting social change rather than mitigating disadvantage that will drive our work.

To end with the words of one of our founders, Ethel (Babs) Robertson’s statement of compassion which has an enduring place in the Trust’s work: “I want everyone to feel special and valued and they will see what they can aspire to.” But, knowing what we do now and facing the circumstances of today, we need to go further if we are to live up our value of ambition.

Simply put, aspiration is not enough. It is only part of the equation. Evaluation evidence from three decades in many countries, as well as recent Scottish research into how aspirations form in families by our Trustee Professor Morag Treanor, tells us that being able to access high quality opportunities is the other part. Raising aspirations without improving financial security or designing holistic, responsive services with people is doomed to disappoint. We cannot afford to pit aspiration against material circumstances. Money, services and wider support count in roughly equal measure when it comes to boosting the life chances of low-income children.

We have provided more detail about our plans in our Annual Review. This can be read here, while more information about our thematic priorities is also available on our website. We'd love to hear your thoughts and would encourage you to get in touch via Our Annual Review also includes some inspiring examples of how charities across Scotland are finding their own distinct way to keep hope alive in tough times. They fuel our ambition to do more and do it better.