20 May 2019

Philanthropy with a European purpose

It is 2019 and Europe is under attack. It would not be an exaggeration to describe these attacks as the Battle of Europe. The attacks are coming from inside and out. From the inside, they are coming from those who want to re-nationalise Europe, seal it off, and turn it into a copy of its former self, in which hostility between nations almost destroyed it twice. Those attacking the continent from the outside have long regarded a united, supranational, cooperative Europe as a thorn in their side, because it sets a utopian example to the rest of the world.

This Battle of Europe is being fought not with tanks and missiles, but with ideas, narratives, bots and social media. The majority of Europeans do not yet realise that their continent has become the site of a global battle – and the outcome will have international implications, as history has shown so many times. It’s time to defend the European idea of peace, stability and prosperity before it’s too late.

Standing up for Europe is not about defending a boring status quo, but a viable future. Europe is not perfect. Of course not. Inequality has been growing for more than 30 years; political and economic elites have lost touch with ordinary citizens; Brussels is incapable of explaining how it makes Europe better and for whom; national leaders sabotage common action where it is needed most. Europe urgently needs reforms that put people and the environment first. Europe needs to excite with its vision, utopian ideas and practical measures which improve people’s daily lives. But we must also win the Battle of Europe. Because otherwise there will be nothing left to reform.

These are challenging times, confusing times. These are no times for business as usual. We need to take a hard look at ourselves: What went right and what went wrong? In response, foundations need to get out of their (often very comfortable) comfort zone. Although foundations are not responsible for the current state of Europe, they have also not prevented it, despite all the wonderful projects, conferences, colourful annual reports full of impact matrixes and smiling grantees.

What can philanthropists do?

There are around 147,000 public-benefit foundations in Europe with estimated assets of €510 billion. Together, they spend around €60 billion every year. The sector is growing rapidly with hundreds of new foundations being created every year. More than 50% of the foundations in Europe were created after 1990. And more than 50% of the foundations were created by the founders while still alive. All this is significant.

But does this amount to a strong and growing European philanthropy, a philanthropy with a European purpose? No. Philanthropy in Europe is primarily national and local, with just a hint of Europe. Of course, there are great initiatives like the Network of European Foundations, Civitates and Philanthropy House in Brussels, but philanthropy with a European purpose is a niche and manifests itself primarily through conferences and meetings.

But just imagine if each foundation based in Europe would allocate only 1 percent of their annual spending to the purpose of strengthening European unity. That would amount to around €600 million. And imagine if that money had been spent before the European Parliamentary elections to raise awareness of European challenges, openly debate them, seek solutions, find answers. Or launch a real European citizens assembly or a European citizens media channel. Just imagine what could be done with 2 or 3 percent.

The Battle for Europe creates space and urgency for new thinking, readiness for experimentation and for taking risks. European foundations should use the current crisis as an opportunity to create a philanthropy with a European purpose.


Andre Wilkens

Director, European Cultural Foundation