The good, the bad and the unspeakable – corporate foundations gather in Switzerland


Theresa Gehringer


Under this striking slogan, the second European Corporate Foundations Knowledge Exchange took place on the 21 and 22 of November 2017. Following the first edition in December 2016 in France, DAFNE and SwissFoundations invited to a second meeting in Switzerland hosted by the Swiss Re Foundation in Rüschlikon.

The aim of the gathering was to discuss in greater depth the relationship between a corporate foundation and its funding company as well as the associated challenges and opportunities. Ninety six representatives of corporate foundations and national support organizations from across Europe seized the chance and participated in the tightly packed program.

After a warm welcome from the organizers, Walter B. Kielholz, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Swiss Re and principal speaker, reflected on how corporate foundations are perceived and how they add value to business.

In his opinion, corporate foundations act as brand ambassadors and are thus a significant part of a company’s reputation and sometimes of even greater internal importance to employees.

How corporate foundations manage to make a difference was shown by the three following speakers with their illustrative examples: the C&A Foundation, the Costa Crociere Foundation and the Credit Suisse Foundation.

The buzzword of the exchange was already set here: how to ‘leverage’ the power and resources of the founding company? It became clear that the speakers perceive corporate foundations as a unique tool because of their ability to address market failures, align misaligned interests, take risks where the private sector can’t take it, contribute to the firm’s corporate culture, engage corporate employees and increase their own capability to generate sound impact by developing synergies with the company.

However, Prof. Dr. Georg von Schnurbein, Director of the Center for Philanthropy Studies, recalled the importance of the context in which corporate foundations act and it’s potential to promote or even hinder the effectiveness of the foundations work.

The corporate, welfare state and societal context influences at different levels and with different intensity the ability of corporate foundations to perform a boundary spanning role and to function as bridge builders.

The image of bridge builders in combination with the buzzword ‘leverage’ appeared from time and time again through the remaining discussions and talks. Nevertheless, the unspoken elephant in the room dominated the remaining afternoon sessions.

“Does our brand support and/or inhibit us in what we do or whom we work with?” and “Are corporate assets and resources such as people, know-how and money being utilized to their full potential?” were just two questions leading the discussions. Two interesting statements stuck with me: “The risk of not aligning the foundations mission with the firm’s core business and competencies means to lose a big opportunity” and “there should be a glass wall between the corporate foundation and its funding firm which has to be transparent to see and learn from each other but high enough that the company can’t throw its immutable will over it”.

The second day of the conference was all about the challenges of corporate foundations in playing an advocacy role and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Again, different corporate foundation representatives gave valuable insights into their daily work and tasks; one of them was Paul Streets from the Lloyds Bank Foundation England and Wales.

The legitimacy to speak out for specific topics can, according to Streets, only result from working with the foundations grantees and shouldn’t be the personal choice of the foundation’s board or management team. Starting the journey from being a sole grant maker to being an influencer could start, for example, with supporting grantees to advocate or advocating as a funder by oneself, collecting evidence or supporting research for the topic in question.

Patricia Benchenna from the Schneider Electric Foundation described the combined foundation and corporate effort in campaigning on access to energy and addressing fuel poverty. Steven Surneels from EVPA Corporate Task Group presented the SDGs as a framework, highlighting their relevance for corporate foundations in a world where profit motive and societal mission are becoming increasingly intertwined.

This was backed by a practical example from Malgorzata Zdzienicka from BGZ BNP Paribas Foundation who described how the relationship between the foundation and the bank and their respective operations had been analysed in respect of a number of the goals.

What was the most important message to take away by the end of the exchange? According to one participant: “not the answers, but the questions”. The issues raised will serve as inspiration to question the position of one’s own corporate foundation and to reflect on one’s own way of working.

Halima Mahomed just recently wrote in Alliance about the ‘tax elephant in the philanthropic room’, particularly the tax avoidance practices of multinational companies, highlighting the need for a critical discussion of corporate philanthropic practices.

It is to be hoped that such gatherings of corporate foundations tackle similarly difficult issues deeper than a superficial level.

The bar was set high by last year’s exchange –were the expectations for a “significant second” met? Yes, indeed! The second European Corporate Foundations Knowledge Exchange successfully provided a platform for an honest and reflective exchange. James Magowan from DAFNE said in his welcoming remarks that he was looking forward to an engaging and memorable event – and he was very well right about that.

It will be exciting to see which findings from the conference will feed into the corporate foundations daily work and advance the philanthropic sector at large.

Theresa Gehringer is a researcher at the Center for Philanthropy Studies (CEPS) in Basel, Switzerland

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