How can philanthropy build more bridges between the UK and Europe


Daniel Ferrell-Schweppenstedde


After many years of political wrangling, the UK has finally left the European Union. We are now in the middle of establishing a new relationship with European states. Central to this will be the new UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), and civil society should play a role in shaping its implementation.

Significantly, the UK remains part of Europe, which is larger than the political union. Ties remain not only in a geographical sense, but also between the sectors which have strong links to Europe (for instance in business, culture, academia etc.), and think of their activities in a wider European context.

The EU has always provided an additional framework for these ties to exist and flourish. But most sectors have a myriad of networks that are not necessarily predicated on EU membership per se. These ties are widely impacted by Brexit due to the legal and economic ramifications, but they also continue to exist in spite of these impacts.

What comes after EU funding?

Civil society has felt the changes that came with leaving the EU from the early days. The potential loss of EU funding was one of the major concerns, with many small and medium-sized charities being part of the service supply chains that benefitted from EU funding programs, mostly on the local level. Initially, losses were estimated to be around £258m, with the real number potentially higher. The UK Government has since then made a commitment that any shortfall in EU funding post-Brexit will be replaced by the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. This is set to replace EU funding that came from the structural funds in full and should be launched in early 2022.

As part of the TCA, the UK decided to associate with Horizon Europe, the EU’s €95.5bn research and innovation research funding programme that succeeds Horizon 2020. Many civil society organisations will benefit from continued access, such as health and medical research charities.

In other areas, such as the Erasmus student exchange programme, the UK chose to forge its own path. The new Turing programme is designed to help up to 35,000 students to work and study abroad. However, unlike the Erasmus programme it does not offer placements for teaching, college staff and youth workers. Of course, philanthropy is already active in cross-border exchanges. Yet, this is an example of where the UK departure from the EU has created a gap, or opportunity, that could be filled by philanthropic actors. For instance by expanding their existing work, helping to create new schemes, or bring in new partners and unlock additional resources.

Many parts of the various EU funding programmes came with peer exchanges, study visits, best practice networks and other forms of learning opportunities connecting participating organisations and individuals across the EU. And they could even include a global dimension. UK national funding programmes that will replace EU funding streams might include such elements. But equally, there will be potentially new gaps where ties have to be re-established or strengthened through new cross-border collaboration, exchanges and ventures.

Maximising impact through cross-border collaboration

Historically, civil society has always played a role in building and maintaining bridges between the UK and Europe, and many cross-border networks and platforms already exist. Charities Aid Foundation for example is a proud partner in the Transnational Giving Europe network which allows donors to give to good causes across Europe. We still need to learn how Brexit might impact donors’ ability to make tax-effective donations, in particular from EU Member States into the UK. But practical solutions to move funds across borders safely and effectively are already in place.

This is just one example of how cooperation between civil society organisations – and in particular, philanthropic foundations – bring citizens from different countries together to achieve social impact on the ground. Individuals can give across borders to support charitable organisations through online donating but also crowdfunding platforms in some cases. UK-based charities are operating in Europe or have European partners. European philanthropy and social investing networks are collaborating building hubs to also identify opportunities on the demand and supply side for social investing. Donors and philanthropic actors are already fuelling the social economy in Europe to transform lives. They are not only showing cross-border solidarity, but are also seeking innovative projects and opportunities to invest in future scalable solutions with real social and environmental impact.

Applying a European lens

But in particular, institutionalised philanthropy and individual philanthropists could probably take on a larger role when it comes to building bridges between the UK and the rest of Europe. The European Cultural for example put out a statement on how foundations and cultural institutions working in Europe and the UK will strengthen their ties. They are independent and can create their own programmes outside or in collaboration with government.

There are a range of areas which could lend themselves to develop more work with a European lens. Some of these are more inward-looking and targeted at how philanthropic organisations define themselves and their past, present and future links to Europe. But they could also work on bigger bridge-building exercises to form a broader vision on how to collaborate across borders and fill emerging gaps. Some examples are:

  • Creating new forums to explore European identities: Large parts of the philanthropic sector have always placed discussions on practices and approaches, or about its role in society, in a European and global context. This is also often reflected in the work they fund or how they operate. Introducing a European or global dimension might be more common in particular areas where cross-border exchanges are more ‘built in’ (like science or arts). But there might be a new need to create additional spaces in which individuals and institutions can have exchanges about the UK’s geographic, economic and cultural ties to Europe, including shared identities and values.
  • Philanthropy with a European purpose: The European Cultural Foundation has identified a lack of ‘philanthropy with a European purpose’. This wider discourse could provide an opportunity for UK-based philanthropic actors to explore how philanthropy could provide a platform to shape the UK’s wider relationship with Europe and what a new European identity outside institutional membership of the EU could look like. Central to this are discourses about shared values, rights and principles. But it could also involve very practical steps of expanding existing work with a European dimension or taking a wider European lens to their funding portfolios.
  • Large scale collaborations for filling emerging gaps: This could take different forms. On a smaller level, it could mean investing more into staff exchanges. But funders could also include an ‘Erasmus’ approach to their programs connecting UK grantees with European peers or other learning opportunities abroad. Then there are larger-scale ideas, such as a ‘Philanthropy Erasmus’ that enables larger exchanges between the UK and Europe (and there is precedent for philanthropy being a partner in creating bridges between European countries – in the 1980s the European Cultural Foundation created a collaborative fund for the implementation of the first Erasmus programme together with the European Commission). Students and researchers might continue to have opportunities to take part in exchanges through new or existing programs that will be continued (both public and private). But ‘average citizens’ (however defined) or members of particular professions and trades might be able to benefit. It could not only increase the cultural ties between the UK and the rest of Europe but also translate into additional economic benefits.

The UK is already a global centre for philanthropy. The top 300 foundations hold net assets of £72bn (including the Wellcome Trust) and their grant-making reached almost £3.5bn in 2019/20. Many already have a European dimension to their work. Some have even a presence in other European locations. For instance, the Wellcome Trust opened an office in Berlin to grow its international partnerships in global health, science, innovation and culture. It could be time to look for opportunities for the sector to apply a European lens to its work. The appetite across Europe for increased collaboration with the UK is already there.

Daniel Ferrell-Schweppenstedde is CAF’s Policy Manager.

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