16 February 2021

Soul searching at the online PEXforum.

The interactive online PEXforum 2021 “From crisis to renewal: Living up to our vision for a sustainable and just Europe” was a well organised and interactive gathering of souls with a shared desire to heal the world and the human race. Together they discussed the meaning and value(s) of European philanthropy, and ways to build back philanthropy better after COVID-19. Not only for the people, but also by the people. Where there is no doubt about the enthusiasm of the participants for a better Europe and a shared desire to strengthen philanthropy in Europe, certain questions remained – what we should consider as values of European philanthropy and what it would imply if philanthropy became more democratised. 

What is the value of European philanthropy? What are the values of European philanthropy? What drives European citizens, corporations and foundations to become engaged in committing their money, goods time and knowledge to public goals? And what makes European philanthropy different then its counterpart in the US, Asia or the Middle East?

At the online PEXforum 2021, representatives of philanthropic support organisations, like national networks of foundations, thematic networks and supporting networks had lively conversations about these questions. Fuelled by keynotes from Heba Kandill (Thomson Reuters Foundation) and André Wilkens (European Cultural Foundation), participants were stimulated to think about storytelling of philanthropy and the values that drive philanthropy in Europe. The general conclusion would be that there are no European values that drive philanthropy, but only global (humanistic) values that are very much supported and endorsed by the European philanthropy sector. Combined with a desire to democratise philanthropy, this would be the story that philanthropic organisations would share with the citizens of Europe.

But what remains European philanthropy if we are all to be part of a global community sharing the same values? And what if the citizens of Europe would not share the vision that philanthropy is about committing to these global values? There is one thing we know about philanthropy: it is characterized by diversity. This might also involve that it includes visions and expressions of commitment to values different than expressed at the PEXforum. We can ask ourselves to what extent organised philanthropy is a representation of philanthropy in Europe. Consequently, to what extent are the values of organised philanthropy similar or different from the values of philanthropic actors – philanthropists – (individuals, corporations, volunteers) across Europe? Is philanthropy also based on the same global values? And if not, what would this imply if we ought to democratise philanthropy in Europe? 

Let us first decide on what we mean by democratising philanthropy. The vast majority of philanthropic donations comes from European households and corporations. Institutional donors (grant-making foundations) only form a modest part of European philanthropy. So, what do we then mean by ‘democratise’? As the largest share is derived from small donations by the many, it can be argued that philanthropy is already very much democratised. It is true that there remain large number of people in European countries that remain on the side-line and are not engaged in philanthropic behavior. Enlarging the share of citizens committed to the public good would strengthen philanthropy in Europe and allow it become more democratised. So far, so good.

But it becomes more difficult if we mean by ‘democratise’ that the citizens of Europe should become more engaged with the mission and objectives of organised philanthropy in Europe. Or the other way around, to give Europe’s citizens a voice in European philanthropy’s objectives and policies. From research, we learn that individual giving is driven by, among other factors, a sense of need and values. Alas, broadly speaking, median individual philanthropists donate to causes that affect them directly – for example health-related causes and causes that directly affect their living environment. Or, if we take a look at values that drive individual giving, we learn that religious values are an important driver for many individuals to give. In the Netherlands for example, religious organisations receive almost half the donations from individual donors.

Illustration by Marina Roa from SenseTribe

Now if you are representing organised institutional philanthropy, I would like to ask you to ask yourself to what extent your organisation is committed to these goals and is driven by these values. Indeed, from what we know about philanthropy in Europe, the goals of institutional philanthropy and individual giving differ.

For the sake of legitimacy, it is very important that philanthropy is democratised and seen as an unmistakable part of our European identity. In my opinion, here lies one of the greatest challenges of philanthropy in Europe. Although were all concerned with the greater common good across Europe, we differ in our views of what we consider the common good. By nature, philanthropic values and goals might conflict with one another. If are ought to democratise philanthropy, we must be very thoughtful in identifying what binds us as European philanthropists.

Perhaps, we will find representatives of religious organisations at the next PEXforum? What is sure is that we will have lively debates.

Barry Hoolwerf

Executive Director ERNOP