8 November 2019

2019 Raymond Georis Debate: ‘Re-imagining the philanthropy infrastructure’

The annual Raymond Georis Debate looked at why getting philanthropy’s architecture right is going to be key to the sector’s ability to create real impact and change.

Speakers included:

  • Carola Carazzone, Secretary General of Assifero
  • Carol Mack, Chief Executive, Association of Charitable Foundations
  • Rien van Gendt, Vice Chair of the Supervisory Board of European Cultural Foundation

Carol Mack began by asking whether foundations “can speak to power, or only for power”? She pointed out that foundations are not always about change, that sometimes they are about preservation, passing on what’s worked before. For her, a good place to start with an infrastructure review is asking what foundations need. Infrastructure bodies have to ask new questions, and be more self-critical, in terms of asset use and impact evaluation. Her organisation, ACF, plays a key role in protecting the space for its members and bringing in the voices of critical friends: speaking truth to power. For her, not all foundations will feel a moral obligation to join infrastructure organisations, but these organisations nonetheless have a role to play in articulating the value of the sector. As associations, organisations like ACF or the EFC monitor the critiques of the sector and are hence best placed to respond. Post Brexit, she sees the role of EFC as being as vital as ever.

Carola Carazzone agreed that the effort to build infrastructure is worthwhile, and that in such challenging times we have to invest in building the sector and be more ambitious. Infrastructure organisations are more than just membership, but rather agents of impact, ensuring that our collective voice is heard at EU level as one of the stakeholders of civil society. She warned that our sector is one of the worst affected by ego and silo-ism, and our challenge is to shift towards a collaborative paradigm to face global challenges. These are challenges that no foundation, regardless of size, can achieve on their own. She concluded by saying that we need to shift away from thinking of ourselves as a membership, and more a part of the work, as enablers and multipliers.

Rien van Gendt called on those present to find the same courage, agility and strength shown by the seven founding EFC members in 1989 to build a strong infrastructure with coherency, because there is no coherent ecosystem at the moment. In doing so, he suggested that it would reverse the negative narrative, and at the same time improve philanthropy’s own legitimacy. For him, the most important issue is to have a united voice, so whatever infrastructural mechanism achieves this is critical. He said that courage also means members looking at the association as an investment, not an administrative burden. Such an infrastructure should also go beyond merely professionalising the sector and focus on critical issues that are threatening it. He also stressed that membership retention is just as important as pursuing new members, and that a strong focus should be put on ensuring that foundation board members attend EFC events as they often have the keys to continuing support. He concluded by saying that the EFC has a critical international role post-Brexit, best summed up as “far before governments relate to each other, civil society organisations relate to each other.

“Europe doesn’t know where it is going, but it is going there fast”

Raymond Georis

The last words were saved for Raymond Georis, who began by paying tribute to Bill White, former Mott Foundation Chief Executive Officer, describing him as “a great friend but also a role model.” He said that Bill would have been an excellent panellist for this session, as he always advocated that for creating infrastructure you need patience and a long term view. This long term view needs to be addressed by board members to determine what the EFC should look like in 30 years’ time. Asked what foundations can do to really help support society, to stop it regressing, he said that the short answer is investment and infrastructure. The shorter answer is “Be courageous!”