A few weeks ago, Fondation de France and the Centre for Philanthropy of the University of Geneva (GCP) hosted a unique event gathering leading European foundations and academics to reflect on current and future perspectives on philanthropic practices.

We initiated the project more than two years ago and the immense challenges that Europe and the globe have recently faced – from the global pandemic to the conflict in Ukraine – have only reinforced our initial intuition that a profound collective reflection on the role, scope and responsibility of philanthropy within our societies is much needed.

Six key themes emerged from our collective brainstorming which, I hope, will provide further insight into the journey towards the European philanthropy of tomorrow.

The first point relates to the role and scope of foundations. Why do foundations exist and what is their mission?

This major issue opens up an array of social, legal, political and ethical questions that foundations ought to reflect upon. These include the role of foundations within democracies, their scope of action in relation to other private, public and state actors, the space that ought to be given to the (by essence subjective) emotions at the basis of any philanthropic initiative, and whether altruism is a duty or a virtue.

The second aspect I want to highlight is time.

If we were to translate foundations’ visions and missions on a timeline, what impact would that have on their decisions and behaviour? Foundations are largely set up without an end-date, as if they were supposed to last forever. Yet, we may want to question whether such a timeframe is the most appropriate for philanthropy, as demonstrated by the very existence of the so-called ‘sunsetting foundations’ that schedule an end-date to their activities. Short-term vs. long-term, though, is not just a matter of foundations’ lifetime.

The third point that needs mentioning is risk-taking.

Lately ‘impact’ has become a keyword in the philanthropic space. Pushed to its limits, a constant focus on measuring the impact of the projects supported has meant that, at times, foundations have not financed projects whose impact was not guaranteed or financed on a pay-by-performance basis. Whilst social impact remains a key component to assess the relevance of certain projects, foundation should accept to take the risk to fail.

The fourth aspect relates to the importance of sector and broader partnerships.

It was clear from our discussions that if a foundation aims at being catalytic, and engage systemically with social, political, health and environmental issues, it cannot act alone. Sustainable Development Goal no. 17 explicitly captures this precept, calling for the need to establish greater local, national, regional and international partnerships among stakeholders be these foundations, governments, NGOs, IOs or corporations.

The fifth theme that emerged from our exchanges relates to transparency and data.

In a world in which, rightly or wrongly, many philanthropic initiatives and foundations come under criticism, it is key to communicate well and be transparent about functioning, activities and missions as well as achievements and failures. Access to data can only be beneficial to all and at every level, whether in relation to internal practices of ‘good governance’ or when constructing stronger bridges between foundations and other stakeholders and enable to improve efficiency.

The final point I want to mention is the importance of supporting education and research to better understand, debate and improve knowledge on philanthropy and on the social, political, environmental, and health issues that the sector tackles.

Read the full article about European philanthropy by Henry Peter at Alliance Magazine.