A tale of two cultures

Daniel Ben-Horin

Daniel Ben-Horin

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 dbh@techsoupglobal.org

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2 responses to “A tale of two cultures

  1. My thoughts were very similar after I had an eye-opening fellowship stint at the Philanthropy Center at CUNY. But being a european, I felt like I landed on a different planet. What I saw was a developed…”market-place” around non-profits and foundations. And yes Daniel, you are right that the way we perceive the role of the state explains a lot (as the US tax incentives also do). But Europe undergoes a grave economic crisis which will probably change the state’s role, so some kind of “compensation” is in order, provided that companies have the needed surplus. So europe will have to learn from the more experienced US sector. But also has a lot to learn a lot from new models for us, like community foundations (an impressive concept), the social entrepreneurship movement etc. Bottom-line: Don’t give up!

  2. Pingback: Philanthropy Daily Digest | Tactical Philanthropy

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