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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