How European policy makers have re-discovered philanthropy


Barry Hoolwerf


Official interest in philanthropy is growing. In recent years European policy makers have (re-)discovered philanthropy and, more specifically foundations as contributors to the public good.

In Brussels, the Directorate-General Research and Innovation (DG RTD) was the driving force behind the European Foundations for Research and Innovation (EUFORI) Study, in which many ERNOP members collaborated between 2012-2015 and led to the first overview of foundations’ contribution to research and innovation in Europe. But the interest of public organizations in the work of philanthropy is moving fast and goes beyond research and innovation.

Examples of the growing interest of public organisations can be found in recent studies and meetings being organized in which representatives from the European philanthropy sector and policy officials meet. In the Netherlands, the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) initiated a study on the relationship between government and philanthropy (looking at crowding in versus crowding out).

Also in 2015, the Agence Française de Développement (French Development Agency) commissioned three studies to get more insight into international philanthropy and private foundations work in international development.

The firstBetter together? A Study on Philanthropy and Official Development Assistance, was based on a survey among international philanthropic foundations with a total annual budget of around $10.2 billion in 2015, sheds light on the relationship between foundations and official development assistance (ODA) institutions, including strategies, scale and intervention principles. The second, Philanthropic Foundations in Asia: Insights from Singapore, Myanmar and China, looks at the growing number of foundations in Asia where wealthy families, individuals, and corporations in Asia set up foundations to institutionalize their giving. And, finally, Philanthropy in the Arab World offers an introduction to the current status of philanthropic giving in the Arab world.

At a European level, the growing interest in foundations has landed on the table of the European Commission. The Commission states: ‘With the objective of meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Commission is exploring new ways of cooperating with foundations working in development and of promoting dialogue and partnerships between foundations and other key stakeholders. In this context, the Commission is convening this meeting in order to explore with foundations the added value of working together and the way forward as regards building mutually beneficial partnerships. We will discuss the rationale for collaboration and what could be achieved, taking into account work already ongoing in this area, as well as the role of the EU. We will seek to identify specific priority areas for collaboration and to define concrete next steps.’  Therefore, the European Commission organized a strategic meeting with networks of foundations working in international development on 19 March 2018 in Brussels. Related to the social domain, they organized a workshop on the role for philanthropic capital in the social financial instruments of the next Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF).

So how should the philanthropy sector feel about these developments?

Among some representatives, there is the sense that accepting an invitation by governments to collaborate is inviting the devil to the bridge table. Being seen as an ATM or substitution for public funds in times of austerity is definitely not what the philanthropy sector is waiting for. On the other hand, foundations taking the lead on a number of societal challenges rings the public alarm of legitimacy and accountability.

It would thus make sense that both players should get to know each other, meet and reinforce each other where possible. A nice example of a place where foundations and governments meet is the network (NetFWD) that has been established by OECD, where major international aid foundations meet and exchange experiences with collaborating with official development aid organizations, but also engage with ODA organizations themselves. The launch of the Centre on Philanthropy at the OECD on March 23, will hopefully contribute to the process of increasing mutual understanding and strengthening of both types of societal problem solvers.

Barry Hoolwerf is Executive Director of the European Research Network On Philanthropy (ERNOP)

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