17 February 2016

What does it mean to be a foundation nowadays? Part I

Part one: On diversity, adaptability and the art of acupuncture

European foundations can be encapsulated in one word: diversity. They have diverse characteristics in terms of their origin, focus, size, decision-making and funding mechanisms, aptitude for change, appetite for collaboration and governance, among many other things. Trying to typify or categorise foundations is therefore an exercise in futility: each is truly sui generis and should be recognised and treated accordingly. I know this because I once presented an ‘EFC Typology of foundations’ to a group of foundation CEOs who told me, in no uncertain terms, that the best thing I could do with it was put it in an obliging bin.

The times they are a-changin’
Now, one of these aforementioned foundation characteristics resonates with me more than the others – their aptitude for change. Despite the multitude of things that no one foundation has in common with the next, they do all share a common array of complex, wicked and interlinked problems. Overcoming these problems, which will be described in this and later posts, above all else requires adroitness, flexibility and an affinity with constant change. Put another way, foundations – like all organisations – need to be able to change not for the sake of it, but for their own sake.

Here at the EFC we celebrate the diversity of our membership, and with our privileged aerial view of the sector we seek to better understand the challenges foundations face today and help them to work effectively in what is often a testing environment. One of the issues we see foundations facing day to day is unreasonable expectations of what they are supposed to achieve.

Great expectations – not what we were hoping for
For example, there is recurrent, almost constant speculation and expectation, especially during the recent economic crisis, that European foundations should somehow ‘step up to the plate’ and replace dwindling or withdrawn state funding. Let me be very clear on this point: foundations are not a replacement for government or state spending or their other responsibilities. Foundations are acutely conscious that they possess what amounts to ‘swimming-pool’ resources in comparison to the deep blue sea of governmental or state coffers. A drop in the ocean, so to speak.

Now, there isn’t much you can do with swimming pools apart from swim in them, so allow me to change metaphors here. Foundations have, over time, adapted their programmes and funding to become skilled acupuncturistsadeptly applying pressure to specific areas of concern to treat either the symptoms or the cause, or in many cases both. But they are not a silver bullet to cure all of society’s malaises and shortfalls – it is neither their role nor their responsibility.

That’s it for this first post, but please leave your comments on what you think it means to be a foundation nowadays. What roles and responsibilities do they have within the broader domain of civil society? I will do my very best to respond to each comment!