Businesses are from Mars and Foundations are from Venus – or are they?


Sophie Hersberger-Langloh


A brief report of the first C-Summit, co-organized by the Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe (DAFNE) and the European Venture Philanthropy Association (EVPA), and hosted by the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt in Munich.

‘The level of noise and buzz in the background is the best evaluation that you can have at the end of a conference’ said James Magowan, coordinating director of DAFNE, at the end of the first C-Summit in Munich. Agreed! The lively conversations among participants were definitely a testimony of active networking and sharing, one of the goals of the event. The topic: strategic alignment between a corporate social investor and its related company. The audience: mainly representatives from corporate foundations across Europe, but also businesses, consultants, and nonprofits. I had the honor of being the master of ceremony, and was happy to learn about the potential and pitfalls of strategic alignment and figuring out what the current trends and issues in this area of philanthropy are!

The C-Summit was kicked off by the welcoming words of Max von Abendroth (DAFNE), Steven Serneels (EVPA), and Frank Niederländer (BMW Foundation). All three highlighted the need to collaborate and find a common language to unlock the full potential of business-foundation alignment, with the C-Summit being a good start for both of these things! I then had the pleasure to welcome the first keynote speaker, Erik Fyrwald, CEO of Syngenta, on stage. He talked about strategic alignment from the view of the company, whereas our second keynote speakers, Leslie Johnston, executive director of the C&A foundation, took the standpoint of a corporate foundation. While Erik Fyrwald shared how they support the Syngenta foundation for sustainable farming by giving them access to know-how, infrastructure, and other resources, Leslie Johnston spoke about how corporate foundations act and work independently, but can use their affiliation with a company to get a seat at the table and promote systemic change. It seems that once businesses and foundations really were as far apart as Venus and Mars, but they are indeed moving closer together and becoming collaborative partners to promote change. Seeing Leslie on Erik up on stage together, discussing issues around the influence of the founding company, the governance of a foundation’s board, and the impact they both want to have through their organizations, made that clear!

The second day was equally thought provoking, but much more interactive. We started with a presentation by Karoline Heitmann from EVPA, who presented a typology of strategic alignment between corporate social investors and their related company. I learned that strategic alignment is much more than aligning on business – there is also thematic, instrumental, or industry alignment. Participants could indicate where they position themselves and where they would like to see themselves via live polling. The typology offered a great framework for the following breakout sessions, where participants could listen to case studies from experienced practitioners, followed by Q&A. The afternoon sessions took place in a fishbowl format; a ‘lead fish’ gave a short input about a topic related to strategic alignment, two ‘smaller fishes’ followed with their opinion, and then the bowl (= a circle of chairs) were open for everyone to take seat and take a stand on this particular question or issue! Both the morning and afternoon session covered a variety of topics, ranging from ‘why is it even important to align themselves with the foundation or company?’ to ‘how does the public perceive such an alignment?’, and much more in between!

The last session, the final sprint of the C-Summit, wrapped things up with a plenary harvesting of the key take-away of the participants. One of the conclusions was that corporate foundations have the potential and power to get companies talking about key issues our planet faces. Strategic alignment, after all, is a means to an end – yes, we can align on business, industry, instrument, or theme, but eventually we need to align on a mission.

Sophie Hersberger, Center for Philanthropy Studies (CEPS) | University of Basel

Tagged in: CSummit19

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