European philanthropy networks up their game


Charles Keidan


What happens when you bring philanthropy wonks together, roughly divided into two groups, to spend quality time with one another? One set of groups represents the interests of foundations in individual countries and the other set is focused on joint action on shared issues and themes. To put the question a different way, what do you get when the European Human Rights Funders Network meets the Albanian Donors Forum?

Would they talk past each other? Would they even be talking the same language?

This was the social experiment recently conducted by the Donors and Foundation Networks in Europe (DAFNE) and the Spanish Association of Foundations (AEF). They brought together 125 willing accomplices from across Europe’s burgeoning eco-system of national, regional, European and thematic networks to the Impact Hub in Madrid. With paper, marker pens, post it notes and circular signs hanging and floating from the tall ceiling, the Philanthropy Europe Networks or PEXForum – as it was billed – was and felt like a first-of-its-kind gathering: pioneering, purposeful, ego-less and intimate, enthused with a spirit of co-operative endeavour far removed from some of the larger funder dominated meetings.

The attitude and spirit of participants was a large part of the success but it was also thanks to DAFNE’s foresight in arranging some remarkably self-effacing and skilled facilitators from Sense Tribe to manage the event. Even those suffering forced or self-imposed exile from the European Union – Albanians, Turks and more than a few Brits – seemed genuinely delighted by the warm welcome.

Apart from the inter-philanthropy cultural relations and consumption of tapas, serious sector business was also in the making and a sense of ambition was apparent from the outset. Spanish foundation leader Rosa Gallego invited participants to join a ‘new stage of the game’ while DAFNE’s CEO Max von Abendroth encouraged participants to ‘be ambitious’ and ‘give their best answers’ to some immense questions facing the sector.

DAFNE’s Chair Felix Oldenburg highlighted opportunities for philanthropy infrastructure to help philanthropy work more effectively with government. ‘Government wants to work with philanthropy as sources of funding and intelligence but our sector hasn’t fully worked out how to partner on big things yet’, he noted.

Oldenburg also raised the spectre of climate change. Here, it turned out that British foundations are actively leading a European-wide philanthropy conversation. A delegation from its Association of Charitable Foundations, led by CEO Carol Mack, shared insights from a recently launched a UK climate funders commitment. With backing from France’s Carasso Foundation, this initiative looks set to cross borders and could even become a pan-European commitment. Be bold but not too bold, however. The ACF were keen to stress that no foundations were informed that they must sign up to this commitment. After all, no one, certainly not foundations, like to be told what to do.

Another first was seeing men from across Europe agree to write articles about gender equality prompted by the Bundersverband’s Anke Pätsch. This was one of the concrete outputs from a small gender working group, one of a handful of ad hoc groups which came together to agree action on specific issues. Others included activity on next generation giving under the #NextPhilanthropy rubric and a further cluster on data, and deepening ties between philanthropy scholars and practitioners.

There was also a specific focus on advocacy and lobbying including a helpful framing of the topic from the Good Lobby’s Alberto Alemanno. It is surely not long now before we start talking routinely of a ‘philanthropy lobby’ in Europe. Some of what this lobby will seek was articulated in an impressive session delivered by Max Von Abendroth and the European Foundation Centre’s Hanna Surmatz – two of the sector’s most knowledgeable and informed figures when it comes to Europe wide policy engagement.

One issue which wasn’t on the PEX agenda was the future status of the relationship between DAFNE and the European Foundation Centre. While discussions about a possible merger are ongoing, more than one person muttered over tapas about whether such a merger would actually happen and whether it was even desirable.

Did foundations hear that message? That was one question which wasn’t directly addressed in the final ‘funders panel’ – a panel which seemed somewhat jarring after the highly interactive and intense sessions which preceded it.

But overall, this was a meeting when a significant number of Europe’s philanthropy networks came together, and talked to each other. Priorities were shared, collaborations planned and bonds strengthened. Next year in Turkey and the one after in Rome. By opening their networks beyond geographical confines, DAFNE has unleashed new momentum into Europe’s philanthropy sector.

Charles Keidan is editor of Alliance magazine

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