Can the tail wag the dog? Research foundations building capacity for the future


Volker Then


This recent Carlsberg Foundation conference was organized under a bold title: ‘Building Capacity for the Future’. Foundations across the globe are increasingly discussing the challenges provided by the grand social problems of our time – poverty, peace, climate and sustainability, migration and integration, education. Discussions centred on the strategies and approaches that foundations need to pursue in order to have any impact at all on these grand problems. They all are in search of how the ‘tip of the tail can wag the dog’.

The Danish foundation sector is characterized by two distinct and remarkable features: a lot of Danish foundations are corporate foundations of a very special type (and also a distinct legal form), because in Denmark many foundations actually own part or all of major corporations, given to them by the previous family owners. And a large share of these foundations take a very strong interest in research funding. The former feature is also shared by a few other European countries, for example Germany, while the latter feature seems to be a preference of many foundations across the globe.

The contributions to this international symposium, which was well attended by about 100 foundation executives, board members and other senior officers, reflected key perspectives on the aspiration for impact which is increasingly driving philanthropic discourses. The role of foundations vis-a-vis the state in times of austerity; their position in a division of labour with other players from the public, the market and the civil society sectors; the branding of foundations as organizations sensitive to legitimacy questions by the general public; ethical standards for good foundation governance; the potential for being a learning organization; and foundation communications to support and push their mission – all these core issues were addressed.

It became clear that foundations have a huge potential to be highly effective when they base their approach on a self-conscious perception of their independence, or on a clear appreciation of evidence, be it scientific or based on experience in their own practical projects; when they consider advocacy approaches as a core element of their overall strategy; and when they pay due attention to good governance issues and accountability and transparency towards their core stakeholders, including the general public.

Foundations can focus on unlikely innovation patterns; they can be persistent in their strategic independence; they can organize networks of trust and social capital to connect the otherwise unconnected; they can be bridge builders between organizations, across sector boundaries and towards the mobilization of new resources for their and their partners’ agenda. And through all these approaches they can catalyse social innovation.

The discussions generally ended on an optimistic note: that the tip of the tail can wag the dog, but not an elephant. The global ‘wicked problems’ need to be broken down into manageable, tailor-made and realistic sub-problems to be addressed and resolved. Scandinavian foundation leaders acknowledged the leadership of the Carlsberg Foundation in providing a forum to work together towards this goal.

Volker Then is executive director of the Centre for Social Investment at Heidelberg University.

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