How can philanthropy live up to the values of liberté, égalité and fraternité in today’s fragile world?


Hanna Stähle


While I am writing these lines, the melody of the Anthem of Europe, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, reverberates in my head. ‘O friends, no more of these sounds! Let us sing more cheerful songs, more songs of joy’, Jorge Chaminé, President of the Centre Européen de Musique, recalls the powerful words of the ‘Ode to Joy’ and lets the audience of some 800 representatives of philanthropy from Europe and across the globe, sing together the anthem. A moving beginning of the Annual EFC AGA and Conference 2019: Liberté, égalité, philanthropie in Paris.

In this moment of joy and unity, one forgets gilets jaunes. One forgets Brexit and the Ibiza scandal that left Austria in disarray. One forgets the fire of Notre Dame that, after generating millions of euros for the restoration of France’s centuries-old cathedral, has ignited an explosion of criticism of philanthropy and its inability to show compassion and meet the demands of those who are in need.

‘67% of Europeans think that their lives had been better before’, says political scientist Ivan Krastev at the opening session of the conference. At the OECD Forum 2019 ‘World in EMotion’ that preceded the EFC conference, Richard Wike, Director of Global Attitudes Research at Pew Research Centre described Europe as ‘the most pessimistic place in the world’, not in terms of economic performance and lack of social mobility but in terms of people’s perception.

There are many signs of fragility in today’s Europe: climate change, declining trust in politics and institutions, weakening social ties, says Axelle Davezac, Director General of the Fondation de France, in her opening speech. How can philanthropy meet the most pressing challenges? How can it live up to the values of liberté, égalité, fraternité? How can it empower and lift up those who are marginalised and have no voice?

There are no easy answers to these questions. While philanthropy’s contribution to the public good is tiny in comparison to the welfare state, it is part of civil society and is connected to local communities and their needs. At the same time, philanthropy is an expression of wealth and power. We have to better listen to people’s concerns and to strengthen citizens at the very local level. Gdansk Citizen Assembly is a good example of how philanthropy can empower local communities and contribute to more inclusive leadership in cities.

Marcin Gerwin who has been behind organising citizen assemblies in Gdansk, says that ‘the way decisions are being made matters’. After getting a PhD in sustainability studies from the University of Gdansk, he was frustrated by the fact that well-known solutions to climate change did not inspire action but were simply ignored. This lead him think about empowerment of citizens and the question of how to transfer power from governments and parties to local communities who are not constrained by election cycles and conflicting interests. Philanthropy could play a crucial role in enabling and promoting participatory democracy and empowering local communities.

Hanna Stähle holds a PhD in Slavic Cultural Studies (summa cum laude) from the University of Passau. She is Aide to the General Secretary of the Association of German Foundations and Project and Communications Manager at DAFNE.

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