Gathering momentum for philanthropy to engage in public-private partnerships


Max von Abendroth


If I have learned one thing over my past five years working in philanthropy, then it is that partnerships are key to address the challenges of our time in an impactful way. No single organisation is in a position to solve climate change, social injustice, the polarisation of societies, address the food security issue, engage in the SDGs and so on.

The philanthropy sector felt this very strongly during the pandemic and many actors in the field opened up to new levels of collaboration with other philanthropies, the corporate sector and public authorities. In Europe more than 140,000 public benefit foundations – the institutionalised philanthropy – act at local, regional, and international level, spending just over €60 billion per year. They invest their endowments – some increasingly in mission-related investment opportunities – and donate through grants. Typically, they take a long-term perspective and because of their nature are ready to take risks and pilot innovative ideas. For some foundations, triggering transformational change is the overall objective and most foundations want to achieve a meaningful societal impact around their mission area.

I had the opportunity to join the Annual Congress of the World Association of PPP Units & Professionals (WAPPP) in June, where the role of public-private partnerships (PPPs) in the context of climate-resilient infrastructure in the act of suspense with climate adaptation and social justice in the run-up to COP27 in Egypt was being discussed. Global philanthropy is about to mainstream climate action thanks to Philea’s and WINGS’s joint #PhilanthropyForClimate movement with more than 550 signatories, and this number is increasing every week. I value the unique role of foundations to connect the dots to drive intersectional solutions between areas that have been looked at in silos for too long, including the construction sector, the textile supply chain, the food industry, mobility, and energy transition, brings an outstanding leverage potential for change and impact to the PPP space.

At the WAPPP congress, it became clear that the concept of ‘public-private partnerships’ (PPP) has developed impressively between the profit sector and public authorities over the past decades. The non-profit sector and in particular philanthropies are only beginning now to explore the full potential of PPPs at a larger scale. The session “The Growing role of Private sector initiatives and Philanthropy in developing critical infrastructure PPPs with social impact” highlighted three reasons why there is a momentum now for ‘public-private – philanthropy – partnerships’ to become more mainstream:

1. Following the experience of the pandemic and in the light of the complexity of the challenges our world is facing, philanthropies are now actively looking for new alliances to join to increase sustainable impact. To support the philanthropy sector on this journey, ‘the partnering initiative’ (TPI), has recently presented a report aiming to develop the ‘strategy and institutional capacity required to maximise foundations’ impact through partnerships and systems leadership’.

This approach suggests four roles of foundations in partnerships, that I would like to invite you read in extension to public private partnerships:

  1. Foundations as trusted partner: foundations move beyond project funding and become genuine partners with key grantees
  2. Foundations as connector: foundations broker collaborations
  3. Foundations as supporter of multistakeholder partnerships: foundations join multistakeholder partnerships and support them
  4. Foundations as system leader: foundations initiate and drive multistakeholder partnerships for system transformation

2. The constantly increasing infrastructure of community foundations is reaching a level that provides the opportunity for PPPs to engage and collaborate with local citizens. The number of community foundations is increasing across Europe and beyond. There are approximately 900 community foundations in 23 countries in Europe. Community foundations are non-profit institutions that mobilise and invest technical and financial resources in a specific geographical area. They have an important catalytic role contributing to social, economic, and environmental development in their locality. Their capacity to link up citizens, the private sector and local authorities is unique and powerful, as the example of the Bucharest Community Foundation shows that set jointly with the ING bank the Bucharest Environmental Platform, a space for dialogue, creating opportunities for collaboration and providing innovative vehicles for funding.

3. Public authorities realise in the light of their own limited resources and the urgency to address the challenges we are facing as a society, that they have the opportunity to boost transformational change and leverage funding by engaging more closely with the philanthropy sector. The EU’s InvestEU programme foresees a guarantee instrument for foundations co-investing and co-funding in areas such as climate, social justice and democracy, and the 10 years’ road map of the European Commission titled ‘Social Economy Action Plan’ is planning to implement this new partnership level, as outlined in this article by European Commission’s Georgia Efremova, titled ‘Philanthropy in the EU: Giving Europe a brighter future, together’.

A good indicator for the next big thing on the PPP journey is, that the most dynamic, publicly funded climate coordination and innovation body in Europe, the European Institute for Innovation and Technology (EIT) Climate KIC, is increasingly cooperating with the philanthropy sector to become one of the biggest public private partnerships in Europe to implement climate action in a systemic approach at large scale.

So the question is: how do PPPs have to be shaped in order for foundations to join PPPs at new scales?

To make this happen we need to (a) invest in trusted relationships between all partners involved as this is so crucial for the way how foundations work, (b) make sure we look to foundations beyond funding in order to bring everything foundations have on offer to PPPs, including deep knowledge, outstanding expert networks, convening power, local connections and the ability to drive innovation and (c) come up with a PPP framework including the right incentives for the very specific needs of foundations when it comes to matching their societal impact as well as their funding objectives.

Max von Abendroth is the former Executive Director of Dafne, the European umbrella organisation of philanthropy, representing 10,000 public benefit foundations across Europe. He developed the interest representation of Europe’s philanthropy sector and created opportunities for new public-private partnerships for the entire philanthropy sector, such as in the InvestEU Programme. Max also heads the WAPPP Forum on Philanthropy in PPPs.

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