Imagine: a national government publishes a strategy on a social policy issue and explicitly points towards foundations as key players in the field. Imagine: as a reaction to this policy recommendation, an academic analyses the actual role of foundations in this social policy field with regard to their financial, social and intellectual investment in the field. Imagine: the academic concludes the study with the observation that the role of foundations in the respective field is highly overrated. The question is raised why this is the case.
Reality check: this is exactly what happened this summer in Germany. Professor Berit Sandberg from the University of Applied Science HTW in Berlin published a paper on the role of foundations in the enhancement of civic engagement. The study was commissioned by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, the foundation of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany. The paper was one reaction towards the national engagement strategy of the German government. The result of the study was that only a small group of foundations have a constant presence in this policy field as engaged donors and thinkers.
The whole debate raises some interesting questions about the role of philanthropy in a democracy. Are foundations in a special situation when they bring money, know-how and extended networks to the table? How transparent does a foundation need to be when it wants to actively use advocacy as a lever of change? What voices do foundations and donors represent in pluralistic societies? What is the actual relationship of philanthropy and the state?
The questions are as old as philanthropy. The answers to these questions have been discussed again and again. Philanthropy does not often get a chance to discuss them with a wider public. In this regard the debate is refreshing and encouraging.
The debate also shows that we need to come up with new answers to these questions again and again. The world of philanthropy is changing and so is the world in which it acts. The fact, for instance, that advocacy, communication and active partnerships with governments have become accepted levers of change in the world of philanthropy increases the demand for a public discourse on what a foundation defines as good societal change. It also underlines how important it is that in philanthropy we test innovative concepts in the real world before the promotion of a policy agenda.
The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian once said: ‘The position of the artist is humble. He is essentially a channel.’ Maybe the position of the foundation is also a humble one and it is essentially one channel of change. Philanthropy should underline again and again that its actors represent voices in a choir of many.
Michael Alberg-Seberich is managing partner at Active Philanthropy