28 October 2019

2019 Grantmakers East Forum identifies common actions for social change through mobilising people, creating spaces and using technologies

The EFC’s 2019 Grantmakers East Forum (GEF) took place in Tbilisi, Georgia, hosted by the Europe Foundation. In its 24th year, the 2019 Forum explored the role of foundations in confronting the new threats and challenges to civil society in Europe and beyond.

In the Opening Plenary, Catherine Herrold, Assistant Professor at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, addressed the role grantmakers can play in developing civil society. Are they helping, or blurring the landscape? In her response, she explained that in her opinion the role of foundations fundamentally is to support civil society, but then asked what we actually mean by civil society. Traditionally it meant NGOs, and philanthropy tended to fund organisations with capacity, a formal sector. But increasingly, citizen-led social justice movements are looking outside formal structures, and are rejecting organised NGOs in favour of more informal spaces.

Ms Herrold also offered the following tips for grantmakers and their Programme Officers to mobilise civic spaces:

1) De-silo grantmaking, breaking down some of the programme areas which can be problematic, such as “human rights” and focus on “local innovation” or “social justice” rather than “democracy”

2) Look for new types of grantees and community groups, as often established grantees have a closer relationship with the donor than they do with the grassroots community

3) Think about application and reporting requirements – and how donors become co-learners with their grantees

4) Support grantees’ core operating support, which is often overlooked but essential


Moderated by Anna Sienicka, Techsoup Europe, the morning plenary heard from speakers discussing strategies for activism and citizen-led protest movements.

Journalist and civil rights activist Salome Barker described the 2019 Georgian protest movement she is involved in, a community which incorporates people from diverse backgrounds and with different views. She recognised that it is not easy for foundations to support movements, and so diaspora giving is important (echoing the comments made in the previous night’s opening by Catherine Herrold) – such as Georgians in the US. Ms Barker explained that “our movement was transparent – if we wanted to meet up, we just posted where on Facebook. You have to build your community and communicate with them. If you’re supporting a good cause, you don’t need a communications strategy”. She pointed out that the movement didn’t have time in advance to create a solid strategy, and explained therefore that funding mechanisms for movements need to be fast enough to react to rapidly changing situations.

Gabriella Benedek, a board member at the Roots and Wings Foundation, described her community foundation in Hungary which supports matching and operational grants for infrastructure almost exclusively to local projects, and connects local to international partners. Importantly, the foundation needed to be trustworthy at a time and place when so many organisations are untrustworthy. She suggested that you need NGOs and movements, online and offline, for a truly healthy infrastructure, something which nearly collapsed in Hungary. Her organisation won’t advise the best solution in only one direction, but rather strives to open conversation and reflection. She also stressed that it is important to have a connection between people who understand infrastructure and those working on the ground.

Thomas Lohninger, Executive Director of digital rights NGO epicentre.works began with an overview of what digital rights are. His organisation works on legislation for online/digital rights, privacy, open internet etc. Activists rely on online platforms, and what used to be a hobby became a job.

He explained that technology and social media are changing the way activists get their messages across, but also open up new ways to collaborate, and are new expressions of democracy. Mr Lohninger pointed out that while various free social media are accessible to activists, they need to understand the business models behind them. People, he explained, also need to be aware of the risks and limitations of online activism, as without care actions can be found back and used against you later.

Moderated by Sascha Suhrke, ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius, the closing plenary of the 2019 GEF consisted of a one-on-one interview with Gerry Salole, Chief Executive of the EFC who will stand down from his role in 2020. Mr Suhrke pointed out that GEF is the longest running EFC Thematic Network still in existence, and that this interview represented “the beginning of a long goodbye to Gerry” and a unique opportunity to look back over the development of GEF and where it could go in future.

When Mr Suhrke asked whether foundations are (still) fit for purpose for the modern requirements, Mr Salole replied that you can’t talk about foundations in a general way, because they are all truly sui generis. He claimed to have never seen organisations as agile as foundations – not all, but some. Left to their own devices, he said, foundations are excellent at being agile. As a sector, he said, we have to strive for self-regulation, we have to accept it as a tool.

As we strive for new solutions, new ways of working, Mr Salole pointed out that previous accomplishments and solutions are sadly easily forgotten by new generations. He expressed a desire to find a mechanism to archive things that have worked before as solutions are not always new.

Mr Salole continued that his biggest regret is that the sector still doesn’t reflect the diversity of real life in towns and cities around Europe. It is still largely one dimensional in terms of the people working in the sector, and that until it diversifies in terms of personnel, it will always be considered “the other” by citizens.

In his concluding remarks, Mr Salole wrapped up his thoughts after 15 years of working at the EFC:

The most reassuring thing about European philanthropy is its tentativeness. No one is sure they are doing things 100% right. The European way is less prescriptive. But unfortunately we are also always looking at philanthropy from the perspective of the donor. The giver. We have been missing the vital importance of reciprocity. We need to recognise that we are getting something back for what we are giving.

This has been one of the best GEFs I’ve attended. Maybe because the conversations I’ve heard have had different perspectives, all relevant, and not necessarily in agreement. This is worth holding onto. This region now has a pedagogical responsibility to help the rest of Europe.