28 May 2019

A time to go up a level (or change the game itself)?

I was asked to offer some reflections about what the 30th anniversary of the EFC represents. On the one hand, while I have worked in philanthropy for over 25 years, as an American, I am an outsider. On the other hand, the annual conference in Paris this year represents my 25th EFC conference. My first was in Prague in 1993. Initially, I worked for the Council on Foundations, and for ten years thereafter I was a Senior Program Officer on Philanthropy at the Ford Foundation. At Ford, I was the program officer responsible for Ford’s grants to the EFC. Since 2010, after I left the foundation, I attended most often under the aegis of PSJP (Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace) with which I remain active. This year was different, as I attended the EFC conference as a board member of the Friends of the Fondation de France (US), in part to celebrate their 50th anniversary. So, representing a colleague institution, serving on EFC committees and then especially as the EFC’s program officer for a decade, I have had unusual access to its staff, internal decision-making, programming and finances − especially for someone who is not European. It has been a privileged though unusual seat from which to observe the organisation.

Personal impact

Attending EFC meetings over many years has allowed me to get to know a number of foundation leaders across Europe. Three related elements emerged over time from those relationships − friendship, trust and learning. I have been very fortunate to build some wonderful friendships in Europe over the years. Real friendship takes time to develop and 25 years allowed several to blossom. The friendships fostered trust that permitted conversations about confidential and sometime delicate problems. These frank and respectful relationships served us as individuals, as well as the institutions that we represented. The third part of this triad is learning. I owe a debt to several of my EFC colleagues for their patient willingness to tutor me about many particulars of the European project. I feel strongly about the importance of these connections, so I am worried by what I see as the loss of such relationships especially by my government, but I also regret that not more US foundations have chosen a dynamic engagement with their European counterparts. In my mind, this limited engagement can result in missed opportunities for learning and joint action, and a greater chance for misunderstanding.

Stages of growth

There is a substantial body of research about organisational development and one key finding tells us that organisations go through stages of growth as they move through time and, like people, if these developmental stages are fostered properly, the organisation may thrive. I think of my 25 years’ experience with the EFC and see three distinct organisational stages − two past and one as a potential future.

First era: Birth and early years

The story of the EFC’s genesis is well known, including the key role played by Raymond Georis. That first decade or so was characterised by a pioneering spirit − of claiming and devising a sort of European philanthropy project, while Europe itself was birthing the European Union as the manifestation of the grander Project. As an organisation, the EFC struggled with unreliable finances and “old boy governance”. Its programmes were sometimes thin and the annual conferences, with a few notable exceptions, were often collections of large panels of rather dry academic presentations. I vividly recall years ago sitting in the last row of the European parliamentary hall with the then head of Mama Cash whom I had strongly encouraged to consider joining the EFC, or at least attend this conference. There were very few women members of the EFC at that time. We looked down on a panel of a dozen white-haired, white men on the subject of “why fund scientific research?” She turned to me and said, “You asked me to come for this?” Despite its several weaknesses, however, an institution now existed that focused on foundations across Europe. At minimum it provided a new space where foundations leaders from many countries, including my own, could discuss common issues, learn from each other and cooperate where useful. This was no small accomplishment.

Second era: Organisational and programme development

The next phase of development involved a greater maturation of the institution. In my opinion there was a critical intervention that helped propel the EFC into this second phase − new governance. There was a shift in the membership of the Governing Council, and especially the Management Committee, that reflected a new generation of foundation leaders. I believe that shift had important effects including: reconfiguring the EFC leadership and staff, providing a more secure financial base, and improving the governance of the organisation. This intervention and the related effects allowed the next phase to occur − if the right conditions were met.

In 2005 the new Chief Executive, Gerry Salole brought experience from senior positions in two major international foundations at a time when members were raising their expectations for quality services. While no membership organisation that I know can satisfy all of its members’ wishes, the EFC upped its game considerably. The EFC represented the philanthropic community within the EU legal and regulatory bodies, among other initiatives, supporting a sophisticated campaign to enact a philanthropy law. While ultimately unsuccessful, the multiple-year effort engaged a large number of foundations across Europe on a European agenda in an unprecedented way.

Over more than a decade the EFC created or supported numerous issue- or geographically- specific forums where funders could work together − I count at least 20. In the early 2000s I recall getting a call from a colleague at the Ford Foundation in New York whose work focused on HIV/AIDS. Did I know any foundations in Europe working on AIDS with which he could partner? I called Gerry who had an EFC staff member organise a meeting in Brussels. That meeting led to a successful multi-foundation partnership whose work had substantial impact. I can cite several other examples where many of us at Ford and other American foundations used our connections through the EFC for critical and trusted partnerships.

The EFC membership grew but also became far more diverse − by geography, gender, ethnicity, and other factors. This diversity reflects both the reality of changing faces across Europe and an intentional outreach and recruitment strategy. Thankfully the annual conference substantially changed its format and incorporated a variety of more effective learning experiences. These are just some examples of how I watched the EFC mature and become more sophisticated as an institution.

Third era: Creative response to new realities?

There is a set of key functions that most membership associations need to provide, and while that list changes only marginally, how they are designed and delivered vary widely. The past ten years offer impressive examples of how the EFC has improved its many functions. Membership organisations must also constantly balance the “service demands versus leadership” tension. I believe that there are reasons to celebrate the success of both previous eras. The EFC has come a very long way from those chilly but heady days in November 1989. At the same time, like many other organisations whose context has massively changed, I believe that the current conditions − some that pose existential threats to European values − both require and provide a chance for a radical new vision for at least part of the EFC. It seems to me that the EFC’s 30th anniversary offers a moment to step the game up to its next level and perhaps alter parts of the game itself.

So while the EFC may wisely decide to keep many of its current activities, the 30th anniversary could be a time to consider a critical issue (e.g., the threat of the growing power of nationalism to the vision and values of a unified Europe, or growing economic inequality and related taxation inequities, or some other) and explore radical new ways for how to help European philanthropy more effectively address the issue. It could foster the birth of a creative, new, perhaps independent, platform. I am reminded of Raymond Georis’s creativity 40 years ago with the birth of the Network of European Foundations (NEF), what I consider to be a very creative institution that affords members useful flexibility.

It is very difficult in any organisation to re-imagine and make radical changes to its work and its ways of working. The organisational scholar Chris Argyris devised the theory of single- and double-loop learning. It asserts that most of us use the former that solves symptomatic problems, in contrast to the latter, which questions underlying assumptions. While more powerful, the use of double-loop learning requires a more creative and assertive engagement. Perhaps the EFC could apply such learning for a specific leadership initiative − and design something quite new, creative and more powerful.

I wish the EFC a very Happy 30th Birthday and also hope that it might take this opportunity to experiment and set the stage for its third era. Best wishes!


Christopher Harris

Board Member, Friends of Fondation de France