Britain has lost the EU but its foundations may yet find a role

 

Max Rutherford

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This week, at a meeting in the European Parliament between national foundation associations from across Europe, MEPs and officials from the European Committee, philanthropy was rightly described as ‘civil society’s treasure’. Philanthropy, it was said, has an important role to play in any number of fields, including research, conservation, the arts, fostering social harmony, promote justice and democratic inclusion.

The meeting sought to engage senior figures within the EU with concepts of institutional philanthropy (principally family and corporate foundations) to promote the notion of a ‘single market for philanthropy’, and the potential contribution of foundations as investors in the ‘InvestEU’ initiative.

InvestEU is an EU venture in development, which aims to attract €4bn of private social investment to European projects that aim to deliver both a social and financial return, backed by an EU budget guarantee. It is hoped that InvestEU will be a stepping stone towards the longer-term goal of a single market for philanthropic money, which currently does not benefit from the free movement of capital across EU member states in the way that other money does, stymieing cross-border giving and intra-foundation collaboration.

Europe is home to 114,000 charitable foundations, which collectively award €60 billion each year in grants across social justice, heritage, the arts, research, the environment, and many other causes that contribute public benefit and support pluralist societies. They also hold more than €511 billion in assets, and the prospect of unlocking even a small proportion of these was what members of Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe (DAFNE) and the European Foundation Centre (EFC) wanted to showcase.

The response from those representing the EU was encouraging, with MEPs and officials repeatedly acknowledging the unique value of foundations to the social economy, both in terms of their historic endeavour to bring about progressive social change, as well as their considerable financial clout. There was agreement that InvestEU must consider the role of philanthropy as investors, and will do so – with reference already explicit in advanced drafts of the proposals that are now working their way through the EU machine. In addition, plans are being made to ensure that relevant EU committees are briefed and mindful of philanthropy in the important next stages of its design and eventual delivery.

It was acknowledged that securing approval for InvestEU won’t be easy. Some member states and MEPs are seen as hostile to the notions of the ‘social economy’, adverse to the agitating role of philanthropy in challenging oppression, and may seek to shut down initiatives that are disruptive to populist agendas. In addition, once launched, it will require a free-flowing pipeline of investable projects, mechanisms for dispensing finance, processes for recouping returns, and means of measuring impact.

Looming large above these discussions were acute concerns about the current and growing threats to the EU itself, particularly the rise of populism within member states and the risk of further ‘Brexits’. It was said many times that the foundations that believe in the EU Treaty and the European project may increasingly find they are required to play a more proactive and vociferous role, in order to help protect what already exists in an effort to ‘hold the line’. In this regard, as highlighted elsewhere, it was felt that opting for silence isn’t a neutral choice.

It was also expressed that, given how much impact the EU will continue to have on the UK post-Brexit, UK foundations may wish to consider how they can support civil society within the EU and help uphold its values. Whatever the result of the current negotiations, we at the Association of Charitable Foundations in the UK will continue to work closely with DAFNE and EFC colleagues, and do our part to enable our members to collaborate across the continent.

Max Rutherford is Head of Policy at the Association of Charitable Foundations in the UK


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