Is there a foundation thought leader in the house?


Carsten Terp Beck-Nilsson


Hello? Is there a thought leader in the Nordic foundation house? Anyone?

The thought hit me at the opening session of the EVPA Conference ’Guiding Lights’ in Oslo last week. I was listening to the keynote speaker Sean Hinton, the CEO of the Open Foundations Economic Development Fund, who spoke insightfully and with great perspective about the wicked problems of the world and how to adress these problems with philanthropic tools and methods.

Hinton’s starting point was the EVPA slogan – Matching the soul of philanthropy with the spirit of investing. But is that really what we do? he asked, adding, a little provocatively or are we allowing the dark side of investing to corrupt the soul of philanthropy?

And that’s when it hit me: Where is the Sean Hinton of Nordic philanthropy? Where are our thought leaders?

It’s not that we don’t have wicked problems in Scandinavia. From my own home country, Denmark, I could mention the integration of refugees and migrants, gang violence, growing economic inequality, urbanisation and depopulation of rural areas. And I haven’t even begun to mention all the global problems.

So where are the philanthropists and foundation leaders in the public debate about these important issues for our society? With few exceptions like Flemming Besenbacher, the chairman of the Carlsberg Foundation, I haven’t found them yet.

Maybe it’s due to our Nordic mindset. We don’t like to brag. We are humble, introvert, some would even argue that we’re as cold as our climate.

I recognize that in myself. It’s the same mechanisms which make it difficult for me to write a blog like this one even after 25 years as a journalist. I’ve always pushed my sources in front of me while I’ve stayed safely in the background. We even have an unwritten rule among journalists that if you are caught in a picture you have to buy beers for all your colleagues. Talk about incentives to keep a low profile.

So if this is true for me, then maybe it’s true for people in the philanthropic sector as well. Because I know for a fact that the thought leaders are actually out there. I’ve met people in the sector who have expressed dizzying big thoughts and strong solid opinions. But in the public debate all I hear from them is talk about specific projects and sometimes at very rare occasions about philanthropic tools and methods.

That isn’t enough. We desperately need the input of philanthropy practitioners in the public debate. We need to hear from people who are actively trying on a daily basis to solve some of the very complex problems our societies are facing. We need to hear constructive voices in a public debate which is degenerating a little for each day that goes by.

Not long ago I was critizised by a person working for one of the large Danish foundations: Journalism about philanthropy is too light, she said: You never do the in-depth, data-backed stories about measuring impact and the pros and cons of being risk averse.

That is a fair opinion. And I think there is some truth in it. But at the same time as she was pointing one finger at me she pointed three fingers at herself and her colleagues in the foundation sector. Because where are they when we need the sources that are nescessary to actually take the debate about philanthropy to a new level? They are nowhere to be found.

So guys, please come out of the bushes. We need you. You need to speak up – for the sake of philanthropy, but most of all for the sake of our society.

Let’s hear the thought leaders of philanthropy.

Carsten Terp Beck-Nilsson is Editor of Altinget: Civil Society.

Check out Alliance’s new column The Philanthropy Thinker for further reflections on thought leadership.

Tagged in: EVPA 2017

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