14 March 2016

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

Part Two: There is nothing so stable as change

In this series of blogs, I’m considering what it means to be a European foundation today: what are the issues and concerns that worry foundation colleagues? What are the legal and fiscal trends affecting our operating environments? What’s the next big issue peeking over the horizon? I hope you have already read my last post, which touched on the diversity of the sector. After more than ten years at the EFC I’ll readily confess that I’m still continually surprised at the myriad forms and structures European foundations take, the multitude of issues they seek to address, and the vastly different approaches they utilise to get this work done. I find myself often parroting the cliché that “once you’ve met one foundation, you have only met one foundation” which continues to be authentic for me, even after all of the encounters I’ve been privileged to experience.

Yet over the last year I’ve been amazed by how this diverse set of players have, whilst pursuing their own considered paths, rallied around and engaged with an issue that for some of them was completely new: Europe’s current challenges with refugees and migrants. Thinking about European foundations’ response to the current situation has obliged me to distil one other powerful lesson about this dynamic sector which I’d like to focus on in this blog post: that change is inevitable and that, in their own ways, European foundations are in fact quietly adept at dealing with shifting contexts. Let me elaborate.

As 2015 unfolded I was humbled and in awe as I witnessed EFC members recalibrating their processes, inventing and adopting new tools, modifying their work and using their intellectual, social and financial capital to react to the unprecedented numbers of migrants arriving in Europe. We at the EFC appreciate that, in many instances, it is no simple feat to shift organisational direction, as foundations must learn to navigate adroitly between their traditional responsibilities and more urgent concerns, often within the confines of specific mandates.

Thus, members such as the King Baudouin Foundation and the Barrow Cadbury Trust who have worked on issues of asylum and immigration for years have shown a fierce commitment to sharing their expertise with others. In addition they have adapted their existing programmes, not resting on their laurels but going further when the pressure is at an all-time high.

Beyond these guiding beacons, it has become clear that foundations that a year ago may not have considered working on immigration, are today asking new questions and providing fresh perspectives on the issue. I sit on the board of the Global Fund for Community Foundations, which is currently considering how community philanthropy organisations in Europe may be uniquely placed to respond to the massive challenges posed, much like Mama Cash is carving out a space for women, raising the voices of refugee and migrant women, who are lamentably all too often missing from public debate. Here, the strength of knowing what works for women or in a community environment proves to be an asset without limits, and applying this to the current immigration context works.

Another example is found in Volkswagen Stiftung, as an experienced research funder that has reached out to support doctoral students and post-doctoral researchers working on current strategies and coping mechanisms in relation to the refugee crisis.

Even after these few examples that I have space to mention here, the truism that foundations are really diverse somehow takes on a new nuanced meaning as one glimpses the incredible capacity foundations have to experiment and respond. You may have only met one foundation, but it will have many faces – it will know its strengths and recognise when to apply them and when to look to others for inspiration. One thing though that I have learnt, is that you are unlikely to hear about these responses unless you actively ask about them because, believe it or not, foundations are shy about talking about this most important ability they have to try and respond to exigencies while going about their regular business. At the EFC our role is to ask, and we dedicate space for the inspiring stories that foundations provide. At the end of this week comes a new set of questions from the EFC as we launch a new questionnaire asking foundations to update us on their work in response to the refugee crisis.

As always, we encourage them to contribute and eagerly await their replies.