European foundations and philanthropists need to act now and help re-frame the narrative


Nicole van Schaik


 As we process the implications of the European election, all the ideas gathered and pledges made at last week’s European Foundation Centre’s annual conference in Paris seem so pertinent and strategic.

Of all the conversations I attended, the ones around the climate emergency have stuck with me most. The remarkable speakers – including Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and founder of Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, Elizabeth McKeon, Portfolio Lead Climate Action at IKEA Foundation, and Tom Brookes, Executive Director at the European Climate Foundation – gave a compelling presentation which framed the crisis as the most pressing issue of our time. That if we don’t take necessary urgent action, the World Bank is forecasting an additional 100 million people in poverty and on the move due to increased floods, droughts and extreme heat – and all this by 2030.

Mix the climate crisis with the rise of nationalist right-wing populism across Europe and it feels almost impossible to meet the Paris targets in such a time of polarisation. Especially as the extreme right has so much more financial support to organise and agitate with.

So how to respond? I do believe that through the power of arts & culture we can unite peoples, refind our common values and take on the greatest existential challenge of our times. At Doc Society we have been working with independent documentaries for over 15 years and have directly witnessed the power of documentaries on society and the environment. Films like Thank You For The Rain, Virunga, Chasing Coral, This Changes Everything, Silas, and Frackman have changed public awareness of a given issue, influenced corporate policy, impacted lawmakers and policymakers triggering reviews or enquiries, affected consumer behaviour or voting decisions, and helped build capacity or raised funds for organisations on local, national and international levels.

Hence, our belief is that narrative shift strategy should be one of the key tools in each funder’s toolbox to advance the values and issues that they care about. Because story enriches the lives of individuals. With a unique ability to engage and connect people, transform communities and improve societies.

As acclaimed French cartoonist Platu said in the opening plenary session: ‘culture is the enemy of populism’. European foundations and philanthropy should use grantmaking as a tool to empower storytellers and local cultural leaders who have the strength and vision to counter populists’ messages of hate and fear.

With less than 10 years to go – and the clock is ticking – the European foundation & philanthropy sector needs to step up its game and act now. At our Foundation we have pivoted to put climate at the centre of our focus but it left me thinking about more ways we could scale up our efforts and intensify collaborations over the next five years to try to meet this challenge. We need to put our hands, heads and financial resources together in order to make a real change. Are European funders up for the challenge?

Together we can inspire and activate movements and work towards a better and safer world for future generations. Like Mary Robinson said: ‘let’s imagine this world that we want to get to, quickly’.

Nicole van Schaik is the Director of Development at Doc Society

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