Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust: Q&As on the origins of our endowment
15 April 2021
The Rowntree Society has today released a summary of findings from initial research into the Rowntree global supply chains and histories of slavery, forced labour, colonialism, and racial injustice.
Please read our statement on these findings.
The following Q&A elaborates on this statement and our next steps.
What kind of organisation is the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust?
The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT) is a charitable grant-making Trust. We have a constitution (known as our ‘Trust deed’) which sets out how we are to operate and govern the charity. We have what are known as ‘general’ charitable purposes which means that we can carry out work that aims to achieve any purpose that is recognised as charitable in England and Wales. This includes aims like relieving poverty and need, promoting equality and diversity, the advancement of conflict resolution or reconciliation and advancing health. Charities have to comply with charity law and have to ensure that their activities help to further their charitable purposes for the public benefit.
JRCT was established as a Quaker Trust in 1904 by an endowment from Joseph Rowntree (an endowment is a specific type of gift to a charity from a donor used to provide income to a charity for a long time). We are registered with the Charity Commission for England and Wales (number 210037). A core focus of our grant-making activity to further our charitable purposes is tackling the root causes of conflict and injustice, including in particular a focus on racial justice.
Why is examining the Rowntree Company’s past important?
JRCT has worked to further its charitable purposes by tackling the root causes of conflict and injustice for some time. This has resulted in a long-standing commitment to supporting and funding racial justice work, in line with our Quaker belief in equality, and as a key way of furthering our charitable purposes. We have a moral responsibility to critically examine our own history and practices and to confront and do something about uncomfortable questions and challenges.
As a society we know that racial inequality is so ingrained that people’s life experiences and outcomes are systematically shaped by race. The exploitation of people in Britain’s colonies – which the Rowntree company benefitted from – contributed to today’s distribution of power and privilege and to the discrimination and harm that many people still face.
For our organisation to legitimately continue working towards change and towards dismantling injustice and inequality we need to have a full understanding of our history and an active commitment to doing what we can to repair the harm caused by it.
Why hasn’t JRCT done this before?
The Black Lives Matter movement prompted many organisations, including ours, to examine their role and responsibility in creating racial injustices. This made the need for research and engagement with our own history all the more urgent.
We sincerely regret not having begun this work earlier. In order for us to address the harms of the past, we need to reflect on why we overlooked this history and how this relates to dynamics of power within our organisation and wider society.
Does this change JRCT’s understanding of the Rowntree legacy?
As a charity we have sought to build on Joseph Rowntree's commitment to addressing the root causes of injustice. As JRCT, we need to reflect on how this information challenges and changes our understanding of the Rowntree legacy.
Although the work of the Rowntrees helped - and continues to help – a great many people in this country, with an ongoing positive legacy in their home city of York, we recognise that the Rowntree company caused enduring harm through their actions overseas.
Research is underway to explore aspects of this history in more detail. This will undoubtedly challenge past narratives but we believe that it is only by honestly examining this history that we can fully understand the complexity of the Rowntree past, present and future.
Is JRCT re-writing history?
No, we’re not. We have taken a look in the mirror at a key aspect of our history. We have taken pride in our work to build on Joseph Rowntree's commitment to addressing the root causes of injustice. But as a charity, we’re reflecting on how this information about our history challenges and changes our understanding of Rowntree and our legacy.
Although the work of the Rowntrees helped - and continues to help – a great many people in this country, we recognise that the Rowntree company caused lasting harm through their actions overseas.
Research is underway to explore aspects of this history in more detail. This will undoubtedly challenge past narratives but we believe that it is only by honestly examining this history that we can fully understand the complexity of the Rowntree legacy.
Parts of the Rowntree history, and their inter-generational impacts, have contributed to the systemic racism that is still present in our society. We all believe everyone should have the same chances in life but the Covid 19 pandemic – which has disproportionately affected black and minority ethnic groups – has clearly demonstrated that we still don’t. We need to honestly face up to the past in order to effect change.
Does JRCT still benefit from the profits of the Rowntree Company?
JRCT was a shareholder in the Rowntree business until 1988, when Rowntree Mackintosh was bought by Nestle. Since that time, JRCT’s endowment has been invested according to a responsible investment strategy. Further details of our investment strategy are available on our website.
What will JRCT do next? What exactly will restorative justice involve?
We sought advice from experts on how to develop our response to these findings.
We are taking immediate action to further strengthen our contribution to racial justice, in our grant-making, investments, governance and staff diversity. We are also committed to listening to, and engaging with those communities affected by the enduring harm caused by the Rowntree business, to develop a longer-term plan focused on what we can do to address that harm.
Working within the framework of charity law, we will explore and identify forms of reparation which further our charitable purposes for the public benefit. The trustees have not at this point determined the quantum, scale, time period or precise geography of this charitable work. The precise nature of future activities will be determined through a careful process of listening and engagement, as well as public benefit requirements.
In order to resource the development of this work we are establishing a new permanent role in our senior leadership team. They will also be supported by an external advisory group of experts in slavery, colonialism and restorative justice, who will guide and scrutinise the Trust’s response to the origins of its endowment.
Is JRCT taking a more critical stance than is warranted by the Rowntree Society research to date?
JRCT furthers its charitable purposes by funding work to tackle root causes of conflict and injustice, and we have a responsibility to examine any harm our origins may have caused and do something about it.
We recognise that further research is needed to uncover some of the details of the extent of the Rowntree Company’s involvement in purchasing goods produced by enslaved people, and the conditions at its plantations in the Caribbean. However, as a Quaker Trust that is committed to supporting racial justice work, we are clear that any involvement by the Rowntree Company in benefitting from slavery or from the system of colonial indenture is completely at odds with our values. As a former shareholder in the company and a beneficiary of its wealth, we are deeply sorry.
What happened in South Africa?
There is evidence of oppressive and exploitative practices at the Rowntree company’s South African subsidiary, Wilson Rowntree, during the apartheid era.
JRCT was a shareholder in Rowntree Mackintosh at the time, and we say sorry to those who endured this appalling treatment. Whilst we know that JRCT trustees put significant and public shareholder pressure on the company to change its behaviour, we will examine and reflect on our actions during this period.
As well as being a shareholder, JRCT also operated a grant-making programme in South Africa from the 1960s until 2009. During the apartheid era, the Trust’s funding focused on supporting and empowering black communities and organisations in the areas of adult education, legal work and training for those involved in promoting peaceful change. Following the end of apartheid, JRCT supported work on peace and reconciliation, the strengthening of civil society organisations, and on building a culture of human rights.
Shouldn’t JRCT focus on its core work?
This is our core work. At JRCT, we further our charitable purposes by supporting those who address the root causes of conflict and injustice, within the framework of charity law. This has included a long-standing commitment to supporting racial justice work in line with our Quaker belief in equality.
We have a moral responsibility to critically examine our own history and practices. Understanding and acknowledging the origins of our wealth, and the harm caused by the Rowntree company, is crucial if we are to be true to our own values.
How has JRCT contributed to racial justice work up to now?
JRCT has a long-standing commitment to racial justice, and has funded a wide variety of work for more than 50 years. This included our grant-making in South Africa from the 1960s to 2009, as well as grant-making elsewhere in Southern Africa. In the UK, the Trust has also been an active supporter of racial justice since the 1960s, offering long-standing charitable funding for black-led organisations and others. Their work has tackled a range of issues, including voter registration, family justice campaigns, discrimination within the criminal justice system, and more. The Trust also ran a West Yorkshire Racial Justice funding programme for 20 years.
Is it hypocritical that JRCT funds racial equality work when this is part of its history?
We should have investigated this history sooner and we are sorry that we didn’t. We are conscious that our history has contributed to the harm and racial inequalities that persist today. This harm undermines our efforts to support those who work for race equality and racial justice. We hope that by honestly confronting our history, and embarking on a journey of restorative justice, we can begin to repair past harms in ways that support the ongoing struggle for racial justice today.
Will JRCT change the makeup of its board and senior leadership team?
We acknowledge that we are a white dominated organisation and that this runs counter to our values and our commitment to racial justice.
From the inception of the Trust all trustees have been Quakers (our Trust deed states that it is important that trustees are Quakers) which has resulted in the appointment of very few people of colour to our board. Unfortunately, Quakers are not representative of wider society and this is also a matter of significant concern. However, trustees have made a commitment to ensure a more diverse board in coming recruitment rounds. We also acknowledge that we have an all-white senior staff team and we are actively considering options to address this. Our trustees and senior staff team are committed to making JRCT a more diverse, inclusive and equitable organisation.
As a white dominated organisation, how will you ensure an anti-racist approach?
We know that black people, brown people and people of colour must shape this work. We will listen to the communities affected by the enduring harm caused by the Rowntree business, to develop a longer-term plan for tackling that harm through a process of restorative justice. As this is likely to involve an increased focus on racial justice work across all of our work, we are establishing a new permanent senior leadership role to lead this work. They will also be supported by an external advisory group of experts in slavery, colonialism and restorative justice, who will guide and scrutinise the Trust’s response to the origins of its endowment.
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