This year’s conference of the UK’s Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) ended on a European note with a closing speech by Luc Tayart de Borms, managing director of the King Baudouin Foundation (KBF), a leading Belgian foundation.
Tayart, whose foundation’s objectives include promoting justice, democracy and respect for diversity, focused his remarks on the vexed question of how to give citizens a voice in foundations’ decision-making process, which can sometimes seem remote from the needs of beneficiaries.
In an intriguing talk, Tayart explained KBF’s approach which combines ‘top down strategy with bottom-up implementation’. At the heart of this approach is the idea that foundations can use their intermediary role between citizens and the state to foster deliberation, participation and compromise. The fact that 1,700 people are involved voluntarily in KBF’s work is testimony to their convening power. This pool of talent, drawn from a range of sectors including but not limited to civil society, is a source of both legitimacy and expertise – something that foundations are sometimes accused of lacking by their critics. As Tayart put it, ‘KBF identifies the problem but stakeholders identify solutions.’
He illustrated this by reference to KBF’s work on dementia. The management of the foundation was charged by its board with the task of improving public perceptions of dementia in Belgium. KBF built an expert group to create theories of, and strategies for, attitude change. Their work employed a variety of tools including grants but also publications, media programming and advocacy efforts at a European level. KBF’s proximity to major European institutions puts them at an advantage here compared to many of the assembled British foundations who lack such a presence in the European capital.
KBF’s approach clearly has many virtues. But whether it amounts to ‘citizen grantmaking’ is unclear. In theory, the perspectives of a 1,700-person network shape and influence the decisions of the 12-person board. But in practice, Tayart conceded that this is not straightforward. He expressed hope that a new advisory structure drawn from the large cadre of volunteers will improve representation and amplify the voice of those involved in bottom-up implementation.
The continental European voice at ACF, while limited, was a welcome addition to this year’s conference. ACF will be encouraging its members to be good Europeans by reciprocating in even greater numbers at the next European Foundation Centre gathering which takes place in Sarajevo in May 2014.
Charles Keidan is a philanthropy expert and visiting fellow at Cass Business School.