Bertelsmann chief: make the SDGs philanthropy’s lingua franca


Charles Keidan


One of Europe’s leading foundations has urged an audience of philanthropy leaders to embrace the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the unifying principle and ‘lingua franca’ of the global philanthropy sector. The comments by the chairman and chief executive of Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation, Aart de Geus, came at a gathering in Brussels to celebrate the European Foundation Centre’s (EFC) 30th anniversary in the presence of the godfather of European philanthropy, Raymond Georis, and longstanding EFC CEO Gerry Salole, who steps down next year.

Drawing on his contribution to a collection of essays on philanthropy to mark the anniversary, published with support from Oak Foundation and Fondazione CRT, de Geus argued that the Global Goals provide a ‘language on which everyone can agree’ and can help to align our field’s strategies and actions. The 17 Goals, which have been endorsed by all UN member states are ‘holistic, universal and even blessed by the Pope’, de Geus noted in a light-hearted reference to the Vatican’s own endorsement of the SDG framework.

In the session titled ‘Wake up Philanthropy’ de Geus also called for philanthropy to assert itself more forcefully saying that ‘business is free riding on democracy, politicians can’t change the rules of its own game, and science is ‘speechless’. Philanthropy, de Geus argued, can offer ‘new models’ and possibilities to address social issues by tapping into the knowledge of the communities it works with. Philanthropy has ‘more clue than business, less constraints than politics and more money than science, ’ de Geus added. In response to a question from the EFC’s vice-chair Sara Llewellin, de Geus agreed that Foundations should become more active ‘agents for change’, despite their position in the establishment, saying ‘now is the time for action’.

The lively event in Brussels, attended by over 100 sector leaders and participants on the EFC’s peer exchange programme for philanthropy practitioners in Russia and China, was also notable for a larger than usual number of British attendees who were given a warm welcome by their continental counterparts.

Rien van Gendt emphasised the need to continue co-operation between the UK and continental Europe while the CEO of the UK Association of Charitable Foundations, Carol Mack, emphasised the UK sector’s strong ties to the EFC and DAFNE. She also urged foundations to come together to address the global climate crisis. In a sign of potential collaboration around climate issues, Mack highlighted a collective funder commitment on climate change launched at the ACF conference this week which followed a separate $13 million commitment from four European Foundations to support the ‘global commons,’ reported in Alliance last month.

Charles Keidan is editor of Alliance magazine

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