Is philanthropy rock and roll?


Elaine Stabler


Under the title of ‘Trust and Philanthropy’, the 2024 Philea Forum sought to answer two pressing questions: how can philanthropic organisations build and maintain trust in the eyes of their beneficiaries? And how can they help quell the rising tide of misinformation?

Under a roof adorned with gold-painted beams and ornate ceiling murals, the 2024 Philea Forum took place in the Viernulvier arts centre in Ghent, Belgium. Housed in the 100-year-old De Vooruit monument, Viernulvier was once originally the festival and art centre of the Ghent-based labour movement of the same name (meaning ‘Onward’ or ‘Forward’), comprising a ballroom, cinema, and theatre.

The opening plenary began with a welcome address from Philea President, Angel Font and CEO of the King Baudouin Foundation, Brieuc Van Damme. Perhaps because of his surroundings, Font was inspired to open the Forum by comparing philanthropy to some of the artists who had once graced the same stage, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana, stating philanthropy ‘can be somewhat rock and roll too.’

The comparison struck me as a bit unusual, but I took it for its metaphorical value. Traditionally rock and roll is associated with a culture of rebellion, a sense of freedom, and a distaste for blanket conformity. I was excited to see how the various speakers and sessions might demonstrate a similar sentiment.

Van Damme outlined the theme of the 2024 Forum, reminding delegates of the importance of trust and its multifaceted nature. Quoting directly from Rob Reich’s book Just Giving, he also stated foundations are too easily celebrated. Mainstream press coverage for foundations tends to be overwhelmingly positive, and ‘these actors deserve more scrutiny rather than our automatic gratitude.’ Van Damme left the stage and his audience with the impression that it was time for philanthropy to confront some hard truths.

The first was swiftly delivered by Dutch historian and expert orator Rutger Bregman in his keynote address. The bestselling author of Utopia for Realists began with the depressing truth: we’re all going to die. But what followed was an engaging and inspiring lecture on moral ambition. Bregman invited delegates of Philea to consider the important, neglected, and solvable problems of our time, giving the examples of Gerrit Smith and the abolitionist movement, Katharine McCormick and the invention of the birth control pill, and Bill Gates and the malaria vaccine. Bergman summarised his examples with a quote from Margaret Mead: ‘never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ In my unofficial quest to discover seeds of rebellion and nonconformity in philanthropy, so far so good.

The second hour of the plenary included a performance of two spoken word poems by artist Emeraude Kabeya, a panel debate on the topic of trust and philanthropy comprising Humentum CEO & President, Christine Sow; WARM foundation Director Damir Šagolj; and Europe Jacques Delors Director of Studies, Sophie Pornschlegal. But the showstopper turned out to be the interactive quiz on the European Philanthropy Manifesto delivered by Hanna Surmatz, Head of Policy, Philea. Delegates were invited to scan a QR code and answer questions by typing responses into their phones. Answers would then appear on the big screen.

By the time of the interactive activity, the plenary had been underway for over two hours. The audience was restless and the outcome predictable. Personally, I felt delighted to witness the audience’s renegade attitude and rebellious agenda. The answers on screen ranged from the serious to the trivial to the wayward, including everything from ‘Freedom for Palestine’ to ‘Where’s lunch?’

Session one

After a much-needed lunchbreak, the first session of the afternoon was titled Sculpting sustainable change: Philanthropy at the nexus of arts and the environment. Hosted by the Arts and Culture Funders Forum, European Environmental Funders Group (EEFG), and the European Philanthropy Coalition for Climate (Climate Coalition), and a panel comprising Dea Vidovic, CEO Kultura Nova Foundation (Chair); Thierry Boutonnier, Independent Artist Domestication; Julie Hervé, Head of Culture, Eurocities; Amos Wallgren, Activist Extinction Rebellion Finland; and Eva Peeters Coordinator Greentrack, the speakers attempted to answer one overarching question: How can funders learn from and collaborate with artists in the cultural sector to address the damaging impact of climate change?

Introducing the session, Vidovic stressed how culture professionals and creatives hold a vital role in defending cultural rights, advancing creative climate justice, building resilience, and decarbonising the cultural sector.

Despite its engaging premise, the overall delivery of the session was somewhat difficult to follow. Speakers talked at length about their careers to date before engaging with the session’s objectives. Halfway through the session, Vidovic invited audience members to share their own examples and practices around supporting and funding projects at the intersection of arts, culture and the environment.

I feared what was supposed to be a discussion around the arts and philanthropy, and the role of arts in addressing climate change, might prove my first introduction into the ‘philanthropy echo chamber’. Some audience members did stumble into jargon-heavy (somewhat self-congratulatory) speeches, many of which seemed to be based on annual programmes or projects. I was glad to hear Boutonnier challenge the audience with the retort ‘we have to work with a long-term duration…we are in a very fast and quick system, and we waste our time, we waste our money, we waste our energy. We have to think about the long-term.’

The session closed with Boutonnier leaping off the stage and running through the audience spraying a sample of rose water collected from a French forest. Very rock and roll.

Session two

As the 2024 European Youth Capital, the city of Ghent felt immediately fitting for the next session titled Empowering tomorrow: Youth action in the Global South. Hosted by Funders Forum for International Cooperation (FFIC), the panel consisted of Zaina Erhaim, Journalist (Chair); Carlos Ranero, Youth Net Fellow International Youth Net Fellowship; Fatma Ali, Finance and Grants Manager Swahilipot Hub Foundation; and Michael Mapstone CEO Anglo American Foundation, with a keynote address delivered by Richard Dzikunu, Action Learning Groups Leads YIELD Hub.

Dzikunu began his address with the revelation he started his career as a project beneficiary in rural Ghana. He went on to acknowledge how the environmental crisis, economic inequalities, and social injustices impact the sector. But ultimately, we have ‘the chance to reshape our future through the power of young people’.

A trained journalist, Dzikunu delivered a captivating opening address, referencing his experiences and appealing to his audience. It was not just superficial inspiration. It posed a challenge.

As a young volunteer for the project that originally benefited him, Dzikunu was told ‘I was valued, as many young people, including those on the panel today [have been]…but on the other hand we were tokenised [and] not compensated for our work. We were used as minority voices in spaces just for the representation and often disrespected.’ He dared the audience to shift the power imbalance, stating: ‘trust these young leaders to know what is best for their own communities, allow them to decide on their own priorities.’

The sentiment was corroborated by Mapstone in the panel discussion. Speaking from a foundation perspective, Mapstone claimed ‘we have no choice but to get down and speak and listen and respect and value young people’s opinions, energy, agency, and support that. We have no choice if we want to…ensure that our young people are not going to be failed again.’

The panel went on to discuss and outline the general lack of trust that accompanied every key trend, challenge, and opportunity in youth-driven initiatives in the Global South. Refreshingly, unlike the previous session (or conversations I’d had privately with other delegates), the panel was plain speaking. Instead of using terms like ‘support’ and ‘resource’, they spoke of money in actual figures. There was a notable lack of philanthropy jargon. There is no place for jargon in rock and roll.

Overall, my first Philea Forum was inspiring, engaging, and eye-opening. The 2024 Forum was attended by Philea’s broadest assembly to date: approximately 789 representatives from 39 countries across Europe. No doubt playing to a larger crowd, it’s rumoured that during the 1991 Nirvana concert at Vooruit, Kurt Cobain stopped playing mid-song, jumped into the crowd, and pulled two audience members up to dance on top of the amplifiers. Can I picture a similar scene at the closing plenary of Philea 2025? One can only hope.

Elaine Stabler is Magazine editor at Alliance magazine

Tagged in: PhileaForum2024

Comments (0)


Philanthropic organizations must strive to build and maintain the trust of their beneficiaries, as this is essential to the success and sustainability of their initiatives.

run 3

After outlining each major development, the panel continued by discussing the widespread lack of trust that accompanied them.

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