From counting the trees to picturing the ecosystem: research about foundations in Europe

Marta Rey Garcia

Marta Rey Garcia

This morning Anthony Tomei chaired Wioletta Gradkowska from EU DG Research, John Healy from the Centre for Nonprofit Management Trinity College Dublin and myself, in what turned out to be a exciting debate with all participants in a crowded room about the state of, and future perspectives of, research about the foundation sector in Europe. We all basically agreed upon the idea that knowledge about the foundation sector in Europe is scarce, but very much needed. Anthony pointed out that reasons why include: the interest of foundations in evaluating their own practice, the interest of sector networks and platforms in presenting the sector’s impact to policy makers and potential partners, and the urgency of building critical thinking and reflection about the role of foundations in society from a European perspective.

Wioletta shared the perceived benefits of the FOREMAP project, including the identification of areas of improvement and effective action in the field of public-private research partnerships, and graphically concluded that “we understood where we misunderstood foundations”. John expanded on the difficulties of getting a pan-European view about philanthropy and proposed reinforcing the quality and international scope of some of the existing centers for research and teaching on philanthropy in Europe, rather than creating new ones.

The session provided me with the unique opportunity to share and test the research initiative that the Institute for Strategic Analysis of Foundations is undertaking about the Spanish foundation sector with smart colleagues and friends with an acute critical capacity. The research project of the INAEF, which is promoted by the Spanish Association of Foundations, focuses as much in generating knowledge about the sector as in communicating it to society. The first step is to generate a “map for the archipelago” (RESEARCH), that is to gather data about some 11.000 foundations (approx.) registered in the country and to use them to quantify the impact of the sector in terms of income, expenditures, business models, direct and indirect employment, volunteering, geographical distribution, profile of founders, beneficiaries, areas of activity etc. Our goal for the medium-term is to provide the sector with tools to build its capacity and evaluate its performance for continuous improvement (DEVELOPMENT). The long-term goal of the INAEF is to explain and grow the (perceived) value added by the sector to society (INNOVATION).

The debate that followed reminded us that a sustainable agenda for research about foundations in Europe requires not only the commitment of donors’ associations, supervisory entities, and statistical agencies, but also that of foundations with accountability and transparency. It also requires capturing the interest of mainstream academic researchers who are willing to apply their theoretical models to explaining the foundation sector. And it requires a focus on international comparability that starts with streamlining data gathering methodologies and exchanging best practices in philanthropic research, as we are already striving for from the European Research Network on Philanthropy.

My personal concluding remark would be that it also requires from all of us interested in researching the sector a new view of the forest of foundations: once we end up counting the trees, including the bonsais (so far we had no choice but to estimate the size of the forest from the couple sequoias existing), we should make an extra effort to understand the ecosystem where foundations enter in long-term relationships with the public and the business sectors, other nonprofit organizations, and civil society in general, and to understand how these relationships can ultimately generate social capital.

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