8 May 2023

Be Philanthropy: A View from Canada

More than a thousand people gathered in Brussels in the last week of April to talk about philanthropy – striking evidence of a pent-up demand for conversation and learning about the role of philanthropy today. The convenor of the sold-out gathering BePhilanthropy was itself a major philanthropic player, the King Baudouin Foundation, Belgium’s most significant foundation. The Brussels conference was the largest of several in person gatherings planned by the foundation in 2023 to convene philanthropy not only in Belgium but also in other parts of Europe. The meeting brought together a diverse group of European foundation leaders, donors, advisors, researchers, intermediaries and a few non-profit leaders and fundraisers.

Much has changed in the world since March 2020 when this conference, then optimistically titled ‘The Spring of Philanthropy’, was first scheduled. Pandemic, war, inflation and social unrest have darkened the mood in Europe. The climate crisis and global migration are putting great pressures on European societies. As the conference program noted, “today’s challenges are complex and require creative approaches”. Perhaps sensing the need to energise a philanthropic sector in need of encouragement, the organisers structured their program around four exhortations to philanthropy: Be…Responsible, Enabled, Innovative, and Engaged.

European philanthropy itself is in strong shape, despite the effects of the pandemic. According to the Global Philanthropy Environment Index 2022 from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Western and Northern Europe continue to score very highly in global measures of philanthropy. The policy context and the socio-cultural environment generally support philanthropy. Philea, the European network of foundations and donor associations, confirms this in its own report on the Philanthropy Environment in Europe, from December 2022.

The conference opening speeches of Belgian leaders, including Queen Mathilde and the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, reaffirmed the importance of a strong civil society and the value of philanthropy in supporting that society. The President of the National Bank of Belgium (the central bank) who also serves as the Chair of the King Baudouin Foundation, spoke eloquently about the advantages and opportunities for philanthropy to work with policy makers in creating dialogues, contributing diverse voices to policy debate, and supporting a just economic transition.  Canadian philanthropy, I believe, would be only too pleased to have its unique role similarly recognised by key national policy leaders.

That said, there were plenty of speakers to point out the challenges that European philanthropy must overcome. For example, there are regulatory obstacles.  While there is a common market for goods and services in Europe, there isn’t one for philanthropy.  This makes cross-border funding and operations more difficult and costly. Philea advocates in its European Philanthropy Manifesto for a EU philanthropy common market, to allow donors and foundations to operate across  borders. The European Commission (EC) is now consulting on a possible European Statute for associations and nonprofit organisations. An EC representative at the conference spoke about the importance of sharing with philanthropy a joint purpose around transforming and decarbonising the continental economy in a just and sustainable way. The EC also recently presented a proposal for a Defence of Democracy which “will include measures to foster an enabling civic space and promote inclusive and effective engagement by public authorities with civil society and citizens in order to bolster resilience from within”. If the EC is beginning to recognise the need to develop new forms of engagement with philanthropy, this will open important possibilities.

Another set of challenges for European philanthropy focus on accountability and the need to build trust. Delphine Moralis, the Chief Executive of Philea, pointed out at the conference that the crisis of trust in philanthropy is present in Europe as well as in Anglo-Saxon countries. This will require an agile and determined response by philanthropy. The flexible and collaborative approaches to working with community that were forced on philanthropy by the pandemic will need to continue.  European philanthropy must use lenses of social justice and equity in designing their funding and work more closely with communities to build their resilience and foster social solidarity.  Citing a philanthropic accountability model that combines transparency with performance and democratic accountability, Ludwig Forrest, Head of Philanthropy at the KBF, spoke of the need to share knowledge, engage beneficiaries and also maintain accountability to donors who trust public foundations such as KBF for philanthropic advice and expertise.

The conference identified key issues for the future of philanthropy that we share across the Atlantic: cross-sectoral collaboration; corporate partnerships and social investment; global giving; localisation; the formalisation of philanthropic infrastructure, including advice and advocacy; and the digital revolution in philanthropic giving. My sense was that some important topics did not get enough airtime (in contrast to many current philanthropic dialogues in North America): power, privilege and the importance of decolonialising and diversifying philanthropy.

The perspectives shared were notably those of funders and donors, less so those of charities and community partners. But there were twelve separate discussions during this very full conference day and these views may have been expressed in sessions I did not attend.  The KBF will continue generously to share the content of the day through recordings of every discussion, so we will have a chance to find out.

I came away feeling that European and Canadian philanthropy have much in common. Giving is a universal human activity….and as one conference speaker said, “philanthropy gives purpose to life”.  To be purposefully philanthropic, to be boldly engaged, as this conference reminded us, we need courage and an openness to listening and learning from each other.


Hilary Pearson
Founding President, Philanthropic Foundations Canada