Civil society in the digital age: 2021 EFC Conference Preview


Lucy Bernholz


The 2021 European Foundation Centre annual conference will look at ‘ways for philanthropy to help catalyse a more holistic response to the vast challenges that still lie ahead’. The event will take shape via four interwoven strands (Climate, Democracy, Philanthropy and Society), each moderated by an expert who is widely recognised in the field, and will consider the four underlying themes of culture, digital agenda, education and civic engagement. Ahead of the first day, Lucy Bernholz, who is the Philanthropy track lead, previews the sessions in the days ahead.

The Vienna gathering marks the first time in almost two years that European Foundation Centre members will gather together in person. Somewhat ironically, even as member organisations have not been able to meet, they have been working together, pooling funds, and collaborating on new practices throughout the pandemic. It is the power and potential of this joint work that is to be both celebrated and pushed forward during the actual conference.

The thematic track on philanthropy is structured around the collective identity of civil society in the digital age. Three of the four sessions address realities shared by all institutional funders – digital dependencies, the changing nature of civil society, and questions of legitimacy. The fourth session introduces several new practices for organisational forecasting – equipping participants to develop meaningful responses to the challenges facing the sector. Our aspiration is for every participant to recalibrate their work to meet the urgent threats facing philanthropy, civil society, and democracies.

The last eighteen months have demonstrated that foundations can move quickly, pool funding, and support communities with safe digital infrastructure. At the same time, people around the region sought support and relief from each other – through mutual aid, kinship and kindness – throughout the pandemic. These two types of action have not worked well together in the past, but our present and future are bringing them together more often. The more foundations pursue legitimate contributions to our biggest challenges (climate) and our most tangible relationships in communities, the more it will be (rightly) held to account.

Lucy Bernholz is a Senior Research Scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and Director of the Digital Civil Society Lab.

Alliance magazine will be at the EFC annual conference 2021 to capture key conversations for our readers. We hope to be able to share the topics and themes from the conference with those who are unable to attend — and hear comments from those who are. Are you attending and would like to get involved? Get in touch!

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