26 March 2019

“Everybody can be a changemaker”. Interview with Carola Carazzone, CEO of Assifero

by Dr. Hanna Stähle

In January 2019, Carola Carazzone, a human rights lawyer, was elected to the Board of Directors of DAFNE. Since May 2014 she has served as Secretary General of Assifero, the Italian membership association of grant-making foundations and private philanthropy organisations. We discussed how Italian philanthropy has chagned in recent years and what role philanthropy can play in bringing about social change.

“When was it exactly, the Great Famine of Ireland?”, Carola Carazzone asked abruptly during our guided tour through Dublin. “The Great Famine of Ireland?”, our tour guide asked back, an Irish gentleman in his early sixties who was obviously surprised to hear the question. He continued: “It was between 1845 and 1849. This was the time of mass starvation and emigration, the worst famine to occur in Europe in 19th century. It was often referred to as the ‘Potato Famine’, when the potato crop – the main crop at that time – failed in successive years in Ireland”. We continued our guided tour, and Carola Carazone told me: “My grandparents experienced extreme poverty and child labour. They grew up in a poor rural region in Northern Italy. Their story, their suffering during the First World War had an immense impact on my life. They planted a seed in me so that I got passionate about social justice and human rights, of being humble but also bold”. This was the beginning of a longer conversation about the strategic role of philanthropy, social change and the divide between Southern and Northern Italy that we continued later on over the phone.

You spent 20 years working with Italian and international civil society organisations focusing on human rights. How did you enter the human rights field?

I joined Assifero in May 2014 after working 15 years on a number of human rights projects in numerous countries in Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe as well as at the international level, as a spokesperson of 88 Italian NGOs working on human rights. I never wanted to focus on individual judicial cases. I really wanted to work towards social change and social justice. At the age of 16, I was leading a peer-to-peer education project with people with disabilities in a poor neighborghood in my home city, while at the of 18 I started working with children in street situations in Paraguay. I really learned how to work with people from different backgrounds and in different situations. I learned to treat people not as objects of protection but as agents of social change. This is an important difference.

How would you describe the Italian philanthropy sector?

Italy is a country where most of the wealth is inherited and for many centuries, philanthropy was shaped by the Catholic Church, which provided social services and took care of the poor, of the elderly or children with disabilities. Wealthy familites were accustomed to support the Church financially. In the last 10 to 15 years we have seen a huge growth in the number of family foundations. This is because the younger generation is not so attached to the Church anymore. The Church is probably losing a lot of its social power. 30 years ago we had terrorism in Italy, le Brigate Rosse [the Red Brigade], so rich peole were under the attack and were victims of kidnapping and things like that. Now we have more favourable conditions and a new generation of families interested in establishing a family foundation.

Why did you decide to join Assifero and how did it change since you became General Secretary?

I wanted to contribute to a new phase of development trying to bridge some of the sector’s silos and to help bring about social change. We are a tiny but a very effective team of four people, running a number of programmes across Italy. In 2014 Assifero had less than 50 members, most situated in Northern part of Italy, with only one exception. Today Assifero has almost 100 members located in 15 regions, 20% are in the South of Italy. We have doubled our budget and have a sustainable membership fee system and are part of various multistakeholder alliances. Assifero has moved from being a traditional philanthropy “membership” organisation to a more recognised and well connected “leadership” organisation. The leadership role is very important to me. Foundations are not just cash withdrawal machines but independent organisations that have a mission and can make a difference.

Do you see yourself as a changemaker?

I really love the definition of this term but it has become a buzzword. I think everybody can be a changemaker. We really have to democratise this concept. You don’t have to be a hero, you don’t have to be a genius, you don’t have to be a Nobel Prize winner, everybody can be a changemaker.

You have been elected to the Board of Directors in January 2019. How has DAFNE contributed to the development of Assifero in your opinion?

Working in a very diverse but very conservative environment such as the Italian institutional philanthropy, I really made a lot of use of DAFNE knowledge and DAFNE opportunities for inspiring my members. This ranged from strategic planning, through accountability to impact assessment.

What role should DAFNE play in the next years?

I am a passionate European. I think that DAFNE can play a wonderful role in connecting different nations and making the diversity of European philanthropy a value but also something that can be better interconnected and integrated. I am active in the European philanthropy field also through Ariadne and ECFI, and I think that the breadth and depth of the understanding that DAFNE has of the European philanthropy field is so important. It is not only about giving grants but about really acknowledging the role of foundations and philanthropic institutions as stakeholders – as drivers of change, as actors of civil society. DAFNE is thus very important in supporting civil society in Europe and in ensuring philanthropy can be more impactful.

What does impactful philanthropy mean to you? In your TEDxtalk “The Third Sector Has To Change The World”, you appealed to Itaian donors and foundations to invest in civil society organisations and people who work for them and to provide strategic support instead of distributing project funding. How can foundations contribute to the development of civil society?

We need to encourage systemic change. Italian NGOs are weak and very much dependent on project funding. Since they never receive core funding, they cannot invest in their human resources, communications, fundraising or digital strategy. The stereotypical mantra is that overhead costs cannot be more than 5 to 7 % of the overall budget of NGOs. This has much impact on the human resources, on the capacities and on what NGOs and civil society organisations are able to reach in terms of long-term impact. Addressing this I published a call to action on 22 March last year in Il Giornale delle Fondazioni asking Italian philanthropic organisations and foundations to take action and reiterated it in my TED talk.

We live in a rapidly chaging world. Philanthropy is taking on new forms. Next Philanthropy, an initiative launched by the Association of German Foundations in 2018, seeks to capture relevant developments and trends in the global philanthropy field.

We should have an Italian chapter in Next Philanthropy. I would love to launch that.

Italian community foundations represent a fast developing philanthropy field in Italy. How do they tackle social challenges and what impact do they have on more traditional Italian philanthropy?

The first community foundation in Italy  will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year. Now we have 38 community foundations in Italy. In the South of the country there are at least five community foundations and others are in the process of the establishment. Community foundations are thinking out of the box. They are ready to use their assets for social good and give their revenues back to the local community, such as the Community Foundation of Messina in Sicily. Community foundations are able to build on local assets, not only on their endowments. This is an entirely new portfolio of help, it is not only about providing grants but also about offering financial guarantees, demonstrating leadership and buidling relationships.

You have been very successful in your career. What would you recommend young women working in the philanthropy field? How to achieve social change?

Women have to be bold and to lean in, we have to make our own cases. We need to candidate ourselves for boards. It is critical to take the initiative, to take responsibility. Sometimes it is so hard to raise your hand in a workshop and to speak publicly because we have been educated to listen. This is a real problem. I am a strong supporter of collective leadership and collective intelligence. Thomas Malone, professotr at MIT, wrote a book on the value of collective intelligence. According to him, there are three preconditions to have collective intelligence: 1) the group is diverse, 2) the group is able to communicate and to take collective decisions and 3) there is a big percentage of women.

Thank you for the interview.