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.