19 August 2019

What philanthropy can no longer take for granted

At 30, the European Foundation Centre has matured into the continent’s preeminent support infrastructure for philanthropy. Its achievements notwithstanding, and they are many, philanthropy has little it can take for granted in 2019. The idea that it is widely accepted and appreciated by policy, politics or citizens is daily shown to be the stuff of wishful thinking rather than of facts – within and without the European Union.

Private philanthropists, such as the Open Society Foundations, must answer three difficult questions, if we want to go forward with legitimacy in the process of supporting societies to change for the better.

Where does the money come from?

The money we deploy as philanthropists may well be being spent for the good causes, but the question of how it is being earned remains the elephant in the room occupied by the foundation community. In our case, we have never shied away from stating clearly that our founder George Soros made his fortune in the financial markets, before becoming one of the most successful philanthropists of his time. This is not to argue that all private philanthropies have to be fully transparent. This may not be an option for some. But, foundations do need to realize that there will always be people who demand accountability of them regarding where their wealth comes from, and rightly so. Foundations should engage in the conversation even if it is at times uncomfortable.

Philanthropists and foundation staff alike must be mindful of the extent to which a lack of clarity about this issue can compromise their legitimacy in the contexts where they work. The philanthropic community needs clear policies on addressing the legitimate questions about this issue and on discarding those that are malicious and counterproductive to society.

The foundations community should also not take for granted the favourable tax breaks to corporations offered within liberal economic systems. While legitimate in that system, we cannot ignore those voices at both ends of the political spectrum that claim that making those corporations pay taxes would be a more legitimate way to tackle the issues and challenges private philanthropy claims to address. We might disagree with those voices, but disregarding them as illegitimate is not doing the credibility of private philanthropy any good.  Philanthropies should engage in the public debate on the issue, similarly to our founder George Soros recently called for a new government tax on extreme wealth to help fight climate change, reduce inequalities and support public health initiatives in the United States.

Whether real or perceived, this foundations ‘values gap’ provides both the radical right and the radical left with arguments that popularise conspiracy theories. Shying away from it just leaves charged ideological standpoints to explain the question.

Who does philanthropy represent?

Today, philanthropy still represents wealth rather than people, or maybe more specifically, people with wealth. Philanthropy exerts influence, on politics and on civil society. Much of it is obviously positive – we only have to think of the contribution of philanthropic support to culture, social welfare and change in favour of more and better participation of citizens. However, the extent to which lay people can differentiate this kind of influence from the undue influence of big business on politics is limited. Even if foundations rightfully believe that philanthropy has a role to play in suggesting agendas for political change, it is less than clear to many that ‘activist philanthropy’, which must be unequivocal on human rights, democracy and the rule of law to live up to the name, is not interested in political office. Private foundations also need to become clearer about which constituencies actually support their causes. Are these primarily made up of grantees, or are the end beneficiaries of our financial assistance well represented as well?

Who does philanthropy’s work actually benefit?

Philanthropy has been known to claim that it has the capacity to effect lasting change for ordinary people. How do we know what we do is really needed, really wanted? There is some research, yes. Monitoring and evaluation have been fashionable terms in the sector for some time. However, it is still not clear to which extent philanthropy is hard-wired to think self-critically about the intended and unintended effects of its actions, of its influence and of its politics. Maybe, less than one would hope. It has not escaped attention that much of what philanthropy does is by (upper) middle class people, with positive effects for other (maybe lower) middle class people. Social capital accrues to those with social capital, so to speak. This is a structural problem for and within philanthropy. Whether it is succeeding in its attempts to address it remains unclear. Even among those who claim not to be doing political work, a conscious look at the profiles of the beneficiaries through intersectional lenses (gender and sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, social class, ability, to name just some) must become standard. Whether they are aware of it or not, foundations that support groups and initiatives that predominantly represent white, middle class, male and majority concerns are making a political choice.

Foundations undoubtedly do good work; we often do the right work; we should be proud of it; we should continue to stand up for it. But, there is always room for improvement. In this political moment, when human rights, democracy and the rule of law are under attack from powerful political enemies, philanthropy is increasingly challenged to look beyond its own privilege. It has to surpass what some people see as self-righteousness, and to reflect on its position in society. Moreover, it has to detect what that positioning means for its mission and for public perceptions of its mission.

Gaining public confidence is not number one on the agenda of the philanthropic community, nor should it be. But, it will become more important as the political struggle for the legitimacy of philanthropy intensifies over the coming years. A serious look at those uncomfortable questions must be the start of de-centring philanthropy from itself. Foundations need to get closer to the people they serve. Conceptually, of course, but even more importantly, physically. Reimagining and redeveloping philanthropy as the humble enterprise of cooperation and solidarity, rather than of competition and control, is an ever more obvious strategic necessity. As 30 years of the European Foundation Centre demonstrates, the very best work is done when philanthropy leads from behind, being crystal clear about the colour of its money, the coherence of its mission with its practices and its legitimacy among the people it serves, not only those with financial and political influence.


The views expressed in this piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Open Society Foundations.



Goran Buldioski

Director of the Berlin Office, Open Society Foundations