I doubt when the EFC organized this conference and designed the “Foundation Week” session titled “Walking you through the EU maze” they had any idea of what was to come. But, on Wednesday morning Janis Emmanouilidis of the European Policy Center began a most important conversation on the impact of the current credit and political crisis in the EU on philanthropy’s role in society – especially European society.
But his remarks, most of them rather pessimistic about the ability of European nations to rise above domestic politics for the good of the European Union, set the stage for an incredible set of conversations at this conference. At the opening session of the EFC Conference, Rui Villar (Fundacao Calouste Gulbenkian) began by saying, “These are, indeed, times of uncertainty.” He was soon followed by the Program Committee Chair, Luc Tayart de Borms (King Baudouin Foundation), who made clear, “This conference is not business as usual.” As if these two comments were not sufficient, Gerry Salole, the EFC’s Executive Director was even more direct. He said bluntly, “This is not the moment for foundations to be shy; to withdraw. Europe is in a deep crisis and it needs civil society to engage.” All three voices displayed the appropriate leadership we now seek from philanthropy in today’s world. Good for them!
But, I couldn’t help wondering if this crisis and philanthropy’s response isn’t the next chapter in our tepid walk towards a more global definition of philanthropy’s role in society. Over the past two years, we in the United States have witnessed a more activist federal government taking a careful look at what is the appropriate level of the public sector safety net and protection for our citizens. As we all know, the U.S. has long supported both a stronger market-based system and limited government, with philanthropy playing a larger role in the social lives of our citizens. I suspect that today we are beginning to see a recognition within Europe that governments are limited, by resources if not desire, in how much they can/should do for their people. And as European governments begin a difficult era of fiscal discipline, I suspect that European philanthropy will be pressured – by its social conscience if not for political reasons – to do more in support of the common good of its fellow citizens.
In some ways, Europe and the U.S. are again taking a step towards more common definitions of the respective roles of the public, private, and philanthropic sectors. I’ve long suggested that the early years of the 21st century will define philanthropy’s history as one growing in size, service and scrutiny. Now, after two consecutive economic crisis those words remain true. Philanthropy will grow in size – both in Europe and the U.S. Philanthropy will do more. And as the informal, if not formal, partnership between the pubic and philanthropic sectors continues to grow we must accept the fact that the scrutiny of our sector – both in what we do and how we do it – will also grow.