14 December 2020

Where are the European philanthropists?

By Isabelle Schwarz, Head of Public Policy, European Cultural Foundation, Amsterdam

Here I am, wondering why Europe is left at the doorstep of foundations? While the EU has agreed on a historic deal and budget of € 1.8 trillion to get Europe back on its feet, foundations don’t seem to be very concerned about making a distinct contribution to Europe’s recovery as a whole. Most of their focus is on local or global challenges but Europe does not appear much on their mind-map. Why so?

The European Cultural Foundation (ECF) and Allianz Kulturstiftung (AKS) wanted to find out and commissioned the study Imagine Philanthropy for Europe from Wider Sense. Based on desk research and twenty interviews with foundation staff, academics, artists, cultural activists and policy-makers, the paper explores the concept of philanthropy with a European purpose, assesses obstacles and opportunities arising from the Covid-19 crisis, and proposes a set of ideas how to move forward philanthropic engagement for Europe.

Foundations in Europe account for approximately € 60 billion annually but only a fraction of their resources are dedicated to Europe. There is a handful of small European foundations and some national foundations which engage in European exchange and collaboration but, combined, philanthropy with a European purpose does not even account for 1% of total giving in Europe. There is no equivalent to a European Gates Foundation, there is no Rockefeller, no Soros, no European Welcome Trust.

This is surprising as Europe has transformed so fundamentally in the last 70 years. Decades of European integration has resulted in dedicated European institutions, the abolishment of borders and trade barriers, the creation of the biggest common market, a common currency, a charter on fundamental rights and even Eurovision and the Champions League. In the world of philanthropy, there is a European umbrella organisation (EFC) and there are networks facilitating cooperation among foundations, such as PEX, but weight-wise philanthropy is not recognised as a game changer. And why should it considering its relative invisibility on European level and little money dedicated to Europe.

Let’s not misunderstand this thought of line. Foundations in all corners of Europe do incredible work on a local and national level to strengthen civil society and promote fundamental values such as democracy, diversity, inclusion, solidarity, empathy…but there is no translation of this engagement on European level, and no common force of proposition towards the EU. As a result, the EU has not put in place a framework encouraging transnational giving, cooperation and public-philanthropic partnerships for Europe.

The main barrier to philanthropic engagement for Europe seems to be the lack of European belief and purpose among philanthropists, among foundation board members, among foundation staff. There are also legal, fiscal, language and other barriers to committing foundation money to European purpose but these have been identified as rather secondary in the study.  

Another matter is that foundations have so far not been able to generate their own European funding. Even the ECF, Europe’s first foundation with a European purpose, created in 1954 by Robert Schuman and other truly European minds, has been funded almost entirely by Dutch tax payers. There is a misfit between its European purpose and funding of this purpose.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the enormous challenges still ahead of us cannot be resolved by the EU and national governments alone. Foundations need to become part and parcel of Europe’s recovery strategy and invest in our common future, hand-in-hand with the institutions. Foundations can bring a lot to the table, not only financial resources, flexibility and agility but years of knowledge gained from working on the ground, networks of civil society, and the extremely valuable capacity to bridge the local and the European.

How to turn a global crisis into a unique opportunity? The study includes a set of concrete ideas how to move philanthropy for Europe forward. These include an EU-Philanthropy Matching Fund, European Community Foundation, and digital crowdfunding platform for Europe. These will be explored in a design workshop in 2021. Philanthropy for Europe needs out-of-the-box thinking, probably a new organizational model but for sure its own resources. Let’s work together on it!

Imagine Philanthropy for Europe concludes that it is high time for foundations to gear up their European action, get more political, and explore new funding avenues connecting private and public resources for Europe. ECF and AKS are committed to further that future-oriented trajectory with foundations of all fields and parts of Europe. Interested?

Contact Isabelle Schwarz: ischwarz@culturalfoundation.eu

Isabelle Schwarz is Head of Public Policy at the European Cultural Foundation (ECF) in Amsterdam which she joined in 2002 with the responsibility to lead the foundation’s advocacy. She combines expertise in EU policy development, philanthropy, and cross-cultural relations. Isabelle serves different juries and boards and has two post-graduate diplomas in international cultural exchanges and in history and civilizations of Europe.

Imagine Philanthropy for Europe can be downloaded here https://culturalfoundation.eu/.

This article was commissioned for the December 2020 issue of PEXnews.