Reflection is important, projection is critical
A sector of apples and oranges… and the odd banana
The philanthropic sector has been growing at a rapid pace right across Europe for at least two decades. Not only have the types of foundation increased – corporate, banking, royal or private wealth – but the mechanisms by which change is created have diversified with more market-based approaches accompanying charity mechanisms. Each foundation is unique (indeed there is a joke in the sector that when you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation) but collectively the sector contributes to knowledge creation and social change where and when both are needed. The EFC has accompanied this fantastic growth, helping us both reflect upon and project who we are as a sector.
I have had the privilege to work within three foundations, and while each one is a world unto itself, all of the three institutions bumped up against the same challenges: What is our theory of change? Actually, what is a theory of change? How do we recruit the right kind of talent? Actually, what is the right kind of talent? How do we build a programme? How do we get good ideas to stick? How do we know if we are making a difference? Does this sound familiar? The biggest thing that foundations have in common is that we all need a place to learn and compare our practices with each other. For 30 years the EFC has been there to fulfil this need and help us reflect. The EFC has created conditions by which its members can get better at being a foundation.
Shared learning – Contribution, not attribution
This can be no better exemplified than an effort started by the Bertelsmann Foundation which hosted a session on impact at the EFC annual conference in 2009. The session, which would usually be seated, was literally standing room only. Foundation heads and staff people were spilling out of a room to get a glimpse of a video on learning from grantmaking, and it was quiet as a church in order to hear the speakers. These early efforts by Bertelsmann led to a long and fruitful collaboration across a half dozen foundations through the EFC to better understand how to measure our own impact, how to communicate results, how to understand and embrace risk, and how to recognise contribution (and why we generally step away from attribution). This was one of the first platforms that the EFC created for foundations to embrace strategic learning.
The EFC has also helped foundations align around critical democratic issues. In 2010, shortly after taking on the role of CEO at Bernard van Leer Foundation, I was invited by a group of German foundations to address the needs of a critical marginalised population in Europe, namely the Roma. I knew nothing about the trials and tribulations of this community even though I had a long history of being engaged in eastern Europe. Through an EFC-convened learning group, I not only learned the history of Roma in western and eastern Europe, but began what became a five-year collaborative effort with foundations from across the continent for support and empowerment of Roma populations. Bernard van Leer’s programming to support Roma children was built to complement the efforts of other foundations and stimulate a greater collective impact. While we all continued to pursue support in line with our mission, what we undertook in common was a concerted advocacy effort to ensure that democratic rights and values were extended to the Roma; that EU funding was informed by Roma history and foundation knowledge in supporting different Roma populations; and that funding was directed in effective ways in the face of entrenched discrimination.
Taking control of the narrative – A taxing issue
Today, however, the projection role that the EFC can play, that any association should play, is perhaps of even greater import than the reflection role, most especially projecting the role that foundations play to support European values and ideas.
One of the things I learned through the EFC is the critical differences in philanthropy that exist in “winner-take-all” societies like the United States, versus European philanthropy. Philanthropies in “winner-take-all” societies are often fighting to get the state to assume responsibility through a series of carrot and stick approaches. In well-functioning social welfare states, however, the role of philanthropy is often to work in greater collaboration with the state, to discover new horizons in knowledge or to ensure that the history of the continent is well preserved. While this is a generalisation and there are many exceptions, the embedding of philanthropy in society working alongside other sectors seems more important in social welfare states than the need to stand out.
And this causes a dilemma. Namely, foundations are not well understood. A few years ago in the Netherlands, the national association of foundations (FIN) undertook man-on-the-street interviews to ask ordinary people what philanthropy means. Ninety percent of the definitions were wrong. We all had a really good laugh, but truth be told, most foundations were not really concerned. We don’t like to show off; we do not have a collective response to correct the misconceptions that are out there; and frankly, we don’t think it is that important.
This allows for misconceptions about foundations to grow. And sadly, today, foundations are increasingly becoming understood, but through the wrong lens, the one coloured by the “winner-take-all” cultures. One of the big misconceptions is that philanthropy is somehow the alternative to wealthy people paying taxes. The underlying narrative suggests that there is a choice between philanthropy and taxes. There is not. European nations, with robust social welfare systems financed through taxes, also enjoy rich philanthropic practices. The counter-narrative to the “winner-take-all” is alive and well in several European countries including France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland. And this is where the EFC comes in. The European story of philanthropy now, more than ever, needs to be told. It needs to be projected into the global dialogue to demonstrate common and aligned purpose between good governance that serves the need of a nation and good philanthropy. When foundations, however, do not tell their own collective story of contribution to society, it is easy for others to paint a negative picture. Foundations need an ambassador and one that can articulate the very special European flavour of philanthropic practice.
Support democracy, strengthen infrastructure
A second misconception that is perpetuated as part of the anti-democratic trend to close civic space, is that philanthropy is vulnerable to being misused by terrorist groups. Apparently we need extra regulatory attention scrutinising cross-border financial flows, though there is no evidence offered to bolster this claim. Nevertheless, this perception is alive and well. Without the EFC and other organisations projecting a counter-narrative, our license to operate could end up as collateral damage from anti-terrorist regulations.
The latter misconception only foreshadows the battles that are to come, and reinforces the need to commit to a strong infrastructure platform like the EFC. Foundations speaking with a collective voice can correct the public discourse on philanthropy and can also, by projecting the unique European approach, weigh in on the unique and special values of Europe.
The European project is in desperate need of allies that reflect and project European values of democracy, tolerance, human rights and freedom. While many foundations have traditionally been shy to overtly engage in a large political discourse, we all recognise that the wave of democracy that has buoyed Europe from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to today is cresting on the shores of autocracy, oligarchy and xenophobia. And whether we want to engage in this discourse or not, we are already part of the conversation. Foundations are caught up in populist discourses and international, anti-terrorist regulations with misconceptions abounding. The need to correct them and to defend European values has never been greater.
Oscar van Leer, son of Bernard, said, “To make money you have to be clever. To give it away you have to be wise.” Our collective wisdom, the kind Oscar sought, lives and grows within the EFC. Our greatest ally in demonstrating the strength of the sector and Europe’s particular brand of philanthropy is our association, the EFC, reflecting and projecting European democratic values.
Founder, Aim for Social Change