At the PEXForum 2020, held in Madrid on 23-24 January, I was reminded of this old Roman saying, while thouroughly enjoying the informal and yet very concentrated and productive meeting of experts in philanthropy. I for one was able to put an exciting new project we are doing up for discussion: Philanthropy.Insight, a new methodology designed to go way beyond measuring impact when looking what and how foundations are doing. It has nothing to do with judging or ranking; the point is for foundations themselves to gear up to face the critical mood for individual philanthropy that is spreading world-wide. Enthusiastic support and very valid criticism were heard, both invaluable in pursuing the project.
On a more general note, discussing with experts at European level the dangers and threats philanthropy is facing through excessive anti-terrorism and money-laundering regulation was a fruitful exercise. While carefully monitoring any undue infringements on civil society independence, foundations will have to step up their internal precautions. We will all have to work on a way to do this in the near future.
All this said, and gratefully acknowledged, a word of criticism. Philanthropy, while certainly a valid expression of civil rights, and an important contribution to an open society, is not an end in itself; it can only work and achieve good results, if foundation executives remain self-critical, open to criticism from outside and in constant close touch with those they profess to be helping. Community building among foundations is all very well, but foundations exist to serve others, and these need to be involved in any serious conversation foundations and their networks are having. By their very nature, foundations are not associative, but rather lonely sole traders. Networks like DAFNE certainly help a lot to bring foundations out of isolation, but they shouldn’t stop there. Beneficiaries have a voice that should be heard – and mind you, more often than not, they are staffed with very experienced experts in their field of activity. It would be well worth while listening to them carefully, taking their criticism seriously and establishing a level playing field of dialogue with them. They certainly do not deserve what they usually get: being seen as grant seekers only, to be treated with benevolence (at best) and contempt (at worst).
In Madrid, arguably the most senior foundation executive in the room, Joachim Rogall, CEO of the Bosch Foundation, reminded the audience that it was individuals like Greta and not private foundations who usually changed the world. As these civil society activists gain importance, while being pressured and harassed by governments and the business sector, foundations could do a lot by showing solidarity with their next of kin in society. If they stick to themselves, they end up staying the mutual back patting club they used to be. If they really want to be involved in change, they will have to network and join forces with the other side of civil society, most particularly, if this happens to be uncomfortable and demanding. After all, the best ideas have always come from the most unlikely sources. An exercise in careful listening may help bring these to the fore. That is what the Roman saying audiatur et altera pars, invented for legal procedings, means. I would argue that in future PEX fora, which I really hope will happen, this other side should always be present and heard.
Rupert Strachwitz is CEO at Maecenata Foundation