3 September 2019

The path forward for philanthropy − Harnessing the powerful voices of the young

Michael Mapstone of the Charities Aid Foundation looks back on 30 years of the European Foundation Centre and examines how the institution has evolved, the challenges that civil society faces today, and how to best harness the potential of young people in the future.

The EFC was borne of a moment of historical optimism – from the Berlin Wall to the first steps towards an end to Apartheid to a return to democracy in Brazil and Chile – there was a palpable sense of new beginnings. The European project was well underway and the invention of Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web heralded a new technological era that would galvanise a world eager to engage in the project of democracy.

Fast-forward 30 years and it feels that the democratic challenges of the 1980s have been replaced with a stark menu of new reasons to fear for not only the European project, but a general public that is increasingly reluctant to stand up and be counted.

Research signals that we have a silent but overwhelmingly liberal and progressive majority out there, but it either doesn’t want to engage with the system or is being ignored by it.

The voice that is emerging, however, is that of the young. They are selecting their issues and engaging both locally and globally. Their focus, understandably, is on the climate emergency, but also on the migrant crisis and the reluctance of wealthy nations to offer a safe harbour to those risking everything to flee war and famine. Closer to home, they see the rise in homelessness and the ever-growing gap between the poor, including the working poor, and the extremely wealthy.

This begs the question of those of us working in institutional philanthropy: How do we both re-energise those who share our belief in the values of civil society while simultaneously tapping the vigour of young future leaders?

At CAF, our data clearly shows that young people care; they’re just turned off from the system. Globally, they want to play an active role in addressing injustice and, bucking the global trend of decline in trust, they do trust the social sector to help them deliver. Our research shows that they are more likely to join pressure groups, political parties and take part in demonstrations and they’re willing to campaign for broader social issues that might not directly affect them.

But before we run off and develop theories of change, log frames and calls for proposal, let us please pause and think about our audience – people like my 13-year-old son.

Like most people his age and a bit older, he doesn’t know what civic space is and probably couldn’t name an SDG. That said, he gets the unfairness that eight men on our planet have more wealth than half the world’s population, he sees the need in the world around him. His is a world motivated by feelings, where excitement, mobilisation and commitment are at the forefront and facts and policy perhaps matter a bit less. For inspiration we only need to look at Greta Thunberg, a teenager at the centre of a global movement that draws in people of all ages.

Institutional philanthropists perhaps need to regroup. Have we become too focused on being organised, professional and strategic – all good things – while tipping over into being something that is now viewed as the domain of the wealthy and powerful? Are we disconnected from civil society, from everyday folk?

If we want to push back on the erosion of democracy and our liberal values, we need to harness and unleash people’s generosity and remember that people give because they are inspired. Big philanthropy’s job in the coming years must be to protect civic space and promote giving in all its forms and allow the Gretas of the future the space and support to take action. We must encourage and foster without forcing or dictating.

I have no doubt that it will get messy and often end up with strategic missteps along the way, but that’s okay. Civil society is messy and chaotic because it’s based on real people, complete with their emotions, convictions and their mistakes.

Thirty years ago a handful of organisations, CAF among them, helped create the EFC, which has become one of European philanthropy’s most important institutions. CAF’s investment was down to the simple fact that we value the essential building blocks that create effective giving, big and small, and promote civil society – the very foundation for stable democracies.

Above all, giving and civil society embody a simple idea; that people come together to make the world a better place. At a time of political turmoil and economic uncertainty, that is something worth fighting to protect, however messy.


Michael Mapstone

Director of International, Charities Aid Foundation