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Monthly Archives: May 2010
I fully expect Foundation Week to be positive and interesting. But in the spirit of the event, which is advertised as a ‘series of open debates’, I want to offer a bit of a reaction I had to a particular assertion in the event materials. While I support the idea that European philanthropy is significant and perhaps too hidden, I am not certain that the main reason it remains off the public radar is due to European foundations being focused on their work rather than their public profiles. And more importantly, I am not a strong supporter of the idea that a higher profile for European foundations would by itself make a meaningful difference to the broader goals of the foundations.
I believe that if the work of European foundations is not on the radar of the public, it is in part due to the fact that the outcomes of philanthropy rarely occur simply because of the work of foundations, even in Europe where foundations tend to be diverse — operating as well as grantmaking. Contributions are required from a chain of actors, including NGOs and volunteers who deliver on what foundations and others can only start. Although money is certainly a key requirement, it alone does not make social change happen. The civil society organizations and local communities that the philanthropists support are directly involved in contributing their ideas based on real, grounded experience. They often bring deep understanding and insight as well as the trust required to bring sophisticated and nuanced relationships and key individuals together. Local governmental institutions, umbrella organizations and volunteers all contribute expertise, support and time. And the individuals who receive services or benefit from services can increasingly, through the ‘magic’ of technology, offer their voices to improve impact.
So it strikes me that raising the profile of any one contributor in the chain can only get us so far. We have to strengthen the overall chain of contribution to get to the best results. I hope that the debates at Foundation Week raise not only the profile of foundations Europe, but of also raise awareness of the eco-system within which foundations operate.
More than the cobblestones, alleys and chocolates, for me the grandeur and splendour of the magnificent buildings in the centre of Brussels is overwhelming. Palace after Palace, maison after maison, large ornate and often plated in gold, these marvellous buildings speak of a vast and rich European history. Today is a quiet day for me – just getting over the jet lag. It is cold and grey – just like a winter’s day in Melbourne – but the conference registration has opened and there is the buzz of seeing old friends – and those you know through emails!
Tonight, Banca del Monte de Lucca Foundation is hosting a Puccini opera which should be wonderful!
At the start of the week we asked you to vote for the session you would most like to see covered, by us, at Foundation Week. The votes have all been counted and most popular session proved to be:
Impact measurement, evaluation, benchmarking, non-profit analysis – What works?
As promised we will now be covering the session, which takes place on Thursday morning with the our findings being published later that day.
Thanks for voting and we look forward to seeing your comments.
Having travelled to Heidelberg for the Charities Aid Foundation’s Foundation School earlier this month, I’m not looking forward to another long flight to Europe for the EFC annual meeting and Foundation Week. Nor am I happy about my carbon footprint. But I am still looking forward to networking with my European colleagues and I trust that it will be worthwhile given the thought-provoking programme that Gerry Salole and his colleagues have designed for Foundation Week. I appreciate the risk that EFC took by harnessing the power of self-organizing networks and allowing the Foundation Week programme to emerge organically from the members of the network. The session organized by the Russian Donors Forum is particularly intriguing considering that the Global Greengrants Fund makes a lot of environmental grants in Siberia and the Russian Far East.
We will soon see how it all goes.
You will forgive me I hope if my prose is bit florid. I am in the grip of Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s incredible Booker Prize-winning novel about the nuances of conscience in Henry VIII’s England. As I tweeted about the book, ‘God wishes she could write like Hilary Mantel.’ So do I.
A favourite quip about foundations in the States is ‘if you’ve met one foundation, you’ve met one foundation’. The moral is to not generalize about US philanthropy. I will now proceed to generalize.
Philanthropy has to be one of the relatively few fields where culture is older, deeper and richer in the New World than the Old. That said, I think this is less true because of the longevity of American foundations – after all, Gates, Omidyar, Skoll, Case and many other American foundations are very young – and more a function of the relationship of these foundations to other social institutions.
If you sit in the almost invariably lavish, view-perfect offices of most American foundations and survey the social landscape, what do you see?
You see a government that is perceived by many citizens as the ‘other’ – something that was deposited upon them from an alien planet, perhaps. Taxes are viewed as some kind of vicious whim of bureaucrats. Not all Americans feel that way, but enough do to constrain government from doing ‘frivolous’ things like spend a whole lot of tax dollars on social needs.
You see a business sector whose socially responsible members are much more the exception than the rule. ‘The business of America is business,’ as Henry Ford informed us proudly. Poor people aren’t customers and aren’t (most) businesses’ concern.
And you see an enormous non-profit sector that has to fill in the social gaps left by the government and business and, for its pains, is damned with faint praise as ‘do-gooders’.
So, as a funder, viewing that landscape, how do you feel? Pretty damn smug, in my observation. Obviously all my foundation friends and all my organization’s funders are saints and scholars, witty and beautiful, and universally excepted from this calumny, but as for the others … Well, when you are uniquely in a position to combine compassion, intellect, resources and influence, it’s hard not to feel just a teeny bit good about yourself. And the sucking up funders receive from non-profits in the States is something to behold. As a friend quoted to me after he first entered Foundation Eden: ‘Joining a foundation means saying goodbye to your last bad meal and your last honest compliment.’
I don’t experience European funders the same way. Humility might be an overstatement, but I perceive a sense of partnership with, and respect for, civil society that is far too often lacking in the States. Clearly European foundations have more money than do European civil society organizations but they share many issues. Both foundations and civil society organizations are trying to make sense of the New Europe. They are jointly dealing with the aftershock of the fall of Communism and they are jointly dealing with the massive, challenging, ongoing social experiment that is the European Union. And whatever one may think of any individual European government, there is no way that either philanthropy or civil society actors in Europe can claim to be the only entities that are concerned about the marginalized.
As I understand Foundation Week it is on some level an attempt to raise the profile of foundations and to establish the foundation sector’s legitimacy as a vital player on the European scene. ‘Take the time to know us,’ European foundations are saying. American foundations are more likely to say ‘Take a place in line’.
I’ve been rattling my tin cup at US foundations for 30 years and perhaps you detect just the tiniest tinge of frustration and irritation in my perspective on my own country’s funding caste. I guess I wouldn’t have lasted this long if I hadn’t occasionally attracted a bit of spare change, and I count not a few funders as close friends, but if I had a dollar for every time a 30-year-old MBA two years into a foundation job knows so much better than I do how to do my job and fulfil our mission, I wouldn’t need to do nearly so much fundraising.
In the last five years, I’ve started trying to work my wiles on Euro-funders with, so far, not much more than conversations and ideas to show for it. Still, I’ve enjoyed those conversations a lot. They’ve started from a place of mutual respect and I’ve felt less like I’m talking to a high priest and more like I’m talking to a partner.
Unfortunately for the pith factor of this post, I made the fatal mistake of discussing it with a veteran European philanthropist. Don’t you hate it when the facts get in the way of a good opinion? My contact conceded that my critique of American philanthropic style had merit, but she found my view of European philanthropy naïve by an order of magnitude. She recited a litany of chronic sins she finds in her Euro-peers … and finds refreshingly absent in the States. European funders, she ranted, insist on being publicly credited at every turn by their grantees. They are unforgiving of breaches of protocol; one strike and you’re out. And they lack strategic vision, as evidenced by their extreme reluctance to provide core support and near-total (in her view) insistence on project funding, which results in a paralysing lack of capacity on the part of civil society organizations.
So, on that note, on to Brussels.
Daniel Ben-Horin is the founder and co-CEO of TechSoup. Contact email@example.com
Usually, when I tell people what I do, I have to do quite a lot of explaining. I edit a global philanthropy magazine, I say. Many of our readers are foundations. While the big international NGOs like Oxfam and World Vision are household names, lots of people don’t know what a foundation is or what we mean by ‘philanthropy’ – as opposed to ‘charity’, which is more widely understood.
An American intern working with Alliance a couple of weeks ago volunteered to do a bit of spot research for us and asked her flatmates the question ‘what is a foundation?’ While one answered ‘a base for your make-up’, most were agreed in seeing it as a ‘solid ground on which to build your beliefs, viewpoints, religion, etc’ or similar. When she added in the word ‘charitable’, as in ‘charitable foundation’, one of her flatmates said that ‘she thinks of someone fundraising for a specific cause’ and she instanced the Ronald MacDonald Foundation, which financially supports the Ronald MacDonald House. Not a bad answer, but limited. Her flatmates were all Americans, who one might expect to be more familiar with foundations and philanthropy than Europeans.
What’s worse, when people do understand, they may not be favourably impressed. Those in the foundation sector see themselves as ‘doing good’, and find it hard to imagine that others may not see things the same way. Yet, given that foundations are a product of wealth and attract tax privileges, it’s not so surprising that some are suspicious of their motives, and the mainstream press is all too ready to detect a gravy train.
I see Foundation Week as a very welcome real attempt to connect foundations with the public, and EU policymakers, rather than simply talking among ourselves, as we so often do. I particularly look forward to talking to some non-foundation people and seeing what they think of what they’re seeing and hearing.
Caroline Hartnell is editor of Alliance.
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