Reflections on strengthening the potential of European philanthropy


Axelle Davezac


After two years of the global pandemic, this spring finally saw the opening of spaces again to meet with colleagues across philanthropy, civil society and academia.

Attendees at the EASP gathering in Paris, France. Photo credit: Lucien Lung, Fondation de France

Against this backdrop, the European Academy of Strategic Philanthropy and Fondation de France co-organised with The Centre for Philanthropy of the University of Geneva to convene in an intimate setting in Paris; and the philanthropy sector again gathered at the larger setting of the Philea Forum in Barcelona, reuniting more than 700 individuals across the sector at large.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to share and reflect on perspectives, challenges, and opportunities with which the philanthropic sector – and more widely civil society – is confronted. I have found the past few months incredibly inspiring. Whilst enriching and insightful, these encounters have also made me realise more so than ever the urgent need to relocate philanthropic action and its strategies in a reflection on our role in the current social, political, and environmental contexts.

Three areas of concern are particularly pressing because they are transversal and underpin all our actions and considerations today. I should say that these thoughts reflect my European perspective, although they may apply to other realities across the globe.

First, is the need to promote inclusive and equal societies. Over the past few years, we have seen across all of Europe measures being taken by governments to reduce rights and freedoms of specific population groups such as migrants and minorities. The Covid pandemic has revealed the deep socio-economic inequalities that characterise our societies, internally and internationally. The promotion of inclusion and equity seem more so than ever pressing matters to tackle further.

We need to think and share, but we also need to act – and thus for foundations to use their resources promptly.

The digital sphere is another area that requires our greatest attention. Whether we are talking about the relationship between governments and GAFAMs, about the digital divide that marginalises already isolated or excluded groups from accessing information, or about the whole universe of distorted knowledge and media censorship. The digital transition is happening across the globe, and we thus need to figure out our role to facilitate matters such as digital access to those excluded, or to guarantee the freedom of the press. Finally, and most bluntly, comes climate. The situation is tragic, and we have known this for a long time. Even though the sector is largely engaging with this issue as attested by the various international and national coalitions as well as by the very term ‘environmental philanthropy’, climate needs even more – and urgently – our energy.

We need to ask ourselves how does the sector, and foundations specifically, work daily on these transversal issues? How can foundations further entrench these three areas of concern in their practices, irrespective of the domains they tackle? 

In what follows I begin to sketch three elements of response for the sector to do so, stemming from what I have been able to distil during those rich discussions with colleagues. The first suggestion relates to our need to engage in greater depth with systemic approaches to comprehend the complexity of social and environmental issues that have historical and political causes, and consequences. This means for us to sit down and really try to figure out as precisely as possible what is at stake by looking at the ‘big’ picture. It means for us to develop greater knowledge – be it practical or academic – on the topics we work on to foster action that addresses problems’ causes.

The second point, which directly relates to the first one, has to do with the need to open up more widely to collaborations that are horizontal and that can allow us to confront diverse perspectives to both innovate and foster social change that is as inclusive as possible. The three key issues I mentioned above can be tackled collectively across the sector, and because they are so transversal, they require European – if not for some global – responses. Partnerships, though, are not just across the sector itself. We need to find new methodologies to engage equally with other stakeholders with whom conversations are enriching, and urgent: public authorities, civil society, grassroots organisations and academics. We should not fear debate because this is precisely how we can reach nuanced understandings of societies and of their needs, together with the solutions that are required to build a more sustainable and healthier planet. The final aspect I want to mention here relates to time. The environmental crisis is showing us that there is no time left to wait. Of course, we need to think and share, but we also need to act – and thus for foundations to use their resources promptly. By this, I do not mean that we simply ought to respond to emergencies but to combine responses to crises with longer-term considerations and action plans.

Philanthropy exists in a complex set of realities that it seeks to address. Our European discussions and exchanges do show that, as a sector, we are already doing a great amount of work to unpack and tackle them. In writing this brief contribution I certainly wish to congratulate the incredible amount of work that is already being done. However, I also want to stress that there is a clear urgency for us to do more and to do differently, making sure we reach the optimum conditions to work together to foster our common goal: building more equal, inclusive, and healthier societies. Precisely because the sector has an incredible potential and enormous resources let us just make sure we use all our opportunities together to reach our joint ambition.

Axelle Davezac is CEO of Fondation de France.

Tagged in: Philea 2022

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