Before the Mirror: Foundations in the Public Space

Akwasi Aidoo

Akwasi Aidoo

This is the Foundations Week in Brussels! No, it’s not the week when foundations are on everyone’s mind. It is the week set aside by the European Foundation Centre for foundations to come out of their clustered corners to communicate their work to the public without “foundation-speak.”

As an African foundation executive answering this call to Foundation Week in Brussels, I came equipped with three irresistible questions:

  1. Can foundations find a comprehensible way to communicate beyond their peers to the general public?
  2. How can foundations become more self-reflective beyond the imperatives of accountability and impact assessment?
  3. Are European foundations cosmopolitan and global enough to learn from other contexts and experiences? How would they communicate with my African base?

There are over 500 participants from diverse corners of the globe and sectors meeting in over 50 sessions daily for discussion, debate and dialogue about diverse subjects ranging from climate change to youth banking. It’s not easy choosing which sessions to attend, for they are all relevant. So I literary randomly do the selection.

Yesterday, May 31, I started with a session on “migration and development” which was a discussion of what and how the African Diaspora can contribute to development of Africa, with a focus on Senegal. I went in with my three questions, and found myself invited to join the panel of discussants of a presentation by the head of Fondatzioni4Africa, which is a partnership of four Italian banking foundations (Compagna di Dan Paolo, FondazioneCapriparma, Fondazione Cariplo, and Fondazione Monte dei Paschi di Siena). The other panelists were Aichatou Sarr from Associazione Socio Italia-Senegal, El-Hadji Ka from Thilogne Association Development, Aida Balaci from the Joint Migration and Development Initiative of UNDP, Philippe Darmuzey from the European Commission, and Sebastiano Ceschi from Centro Studi di Politica Internazionale. Clearly, one couldn’t have had a group with more diverse backgrounds.

Were my three guiding questions answered? Well, I got many elements of an answer to each. First, there was an admirable effort by Fondazioni4Africa to accommodate the linguistic differences represented in the room. The EFC had clearly stated that the language of the week is English, and most of the participants are probably English-speaking, but the session allowed everyone to speak in the language of their choice. And, yet there was no Tower-of-Babel quality to the discussion. The message of what one wanted to say go through whether or not words like philanthropy were easily translatable across contexts. We crossed borders with ideas, experiences and lessons learned from the poor areas of Senegal to Brussels. We learned of new culturally-sensitive ways to interpret outcomes and results that what would normally be chalked up as project failures. Second, it was remarkable to hear statements like “Diaspora philanthropy is committing all the mistakes of traditional institutional philanthropy in Africa” (by Philippe Darmuzey). Third, the work of Fondazioni4Africa is exemplary in terms of how foundations can step out of their comfort silos, combine their resources, plug into what African organizations are themselves doing (with virtually none of the typical and frustrating donor-grantee dynamics at work), and continually seek to interpret and highlight what is not working. We heard fascinating accounts of innovative ways some Senegalese Diaspora organizations were developing sustainable projects, affecting policy for scalable impact, and building effective networks of giving around the message of “if you can’t live there, give there.”

The session ended with two ideas tucked in my head: The first is the idea that, perhaps, the big deal about foundations’ accountability does not reside so much in their satisfying regulatory requirements or even being transparent to the public, but in finding as many appropriate spaces as the EFC has created this week for fresh and frank conversations to occur between foundations and the public. The second idea is that, while impact assessment and evaluations are vital, nothing can take place of constantly seeking to understand the concerns and cultural texture of the different contexts within which foundations work. There is a lot more to say, but I must rush to a session on community foundations by the World Bank. I’ll be back…

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