Philanthropic infrastructure – sexier than you think?

Caroline Hartnell

Caroline Hartnell

According to the EFC programme, the overall aim of this session, called ‘Building philanthropic infrastructure – sexier than you think’, was to prove that ‘funding infrastructure is in fact sexy’. Judging by the fact that the session was packed out, with standing room only, one can only conclude that EFC participants already think it’s a pretty sexy topic. However, as one speaker pointed out, it doesn’t need to be seen as sexy, just important.

Sexy or otherwise the topic may be, the sad fact is that there are ever fewer funders willing to fund philanthropic infrastructure. Unlike people in the business world, foundations largely don’t get the importance of the organizations that exist in order to make their work more professional and effective – at least not to the extent of being willing to help pay for them. Moderated in great style by David Emerson of the UK’s Association of Charitable Foundations, the session presented two foundations that do in fact fund philanthropic infrastructure and tried to get to the bottom of the question of why so few are willing to do so.

The first presenter was Karin Jestin of Fondation 1796, created by the partners of the oldest private bank in Geneva, which works on sustainable development, social entrepreneurship, and helping to build the sector in Switzerland. Karin cited the need for cooperation among foundations as one reason for wanting to support philanthropy infrastructure. Another was the need to put philanthropy on the map: if they are not seen as relevant partners, she said, foundations will lose opportunities to have impact.

The second presenter was Pieter Stemerding of Adessium Foundation, a welcome newcomer to the small band of infrastructure funders (see Alliance interview with him at  Adessium’s decision to establish the Erasmus Centre for Philanthropy at Rotterdam University arose initially from their founder’s own difficulty in finding a place to get independent, useful advice about embarking on philanthropy.

Why do so few funders get engaged? Many different reasons were put forward. The most obvious is that there are so many causes foundations want to support, and infrastructure can’t compete with children, human rights, etc. There isn’t a level playing field. Another reason, put forward by Karin Jestin, is that it isn’t easy to find projects to support – you may have to put effort into mobilizing/finding the right project. While there is some truth in this, there is no shortage of existing infrastructure projects lacking support. A speaker from New Zealand suggested that sometimes foundation staff are ahead of trustees: if trustees don’t see the value, they won’t fund.

If there’s a value in what infrastructure offers, foundations will fund it, said Fernando Rossetti from GIFE in Brazil (GIFE is the Brazilian funders’ association). This seems to me optimistic. Perhaps the proof will be in the pudding. Foundations are not good at being self-critical, said UK consultant David Carrington. If investing in infrastructure fosters self-criticism, this will help effectiveness and demonstrate the value of infrastructure. The trouble with this particular pudding is that demonstrating its value is not easy or straightforward.

Several speakers suggested that it should be seen as the responsibility of every foundation as a good citizen to support their own ecosystem and make sure it’s sufficiently visible to the rest of society. Seen in this light, funding infrastructure could be seen as a ‘self-imposed tax system’.

With all tax systems, payers tend to dislike non-payers. In this case, however, there was little evidence of much dislike of free riding. Certainly neither panellist saw the free rider issue as a problem. Gina Anderson of Philanthropy Australia commented that many new, small foundations may never join Philanthropy Australia, ‘and that’s OK’.

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One response to “Philanthropic infrastructure – sexier than you think?

  1. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find
    this topic to be really something which I think I would never understand.
    It seems too complex and very broad for me.
    I am looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

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