Moving deckchairs around the titanic or driving radical reforms. Is philanthropy stepping up to the plate?


Jana Hainsworth


Cards on the table. I lead a European network of NGOs advocating for children’s rights in Europe. We are cash strapped. Although fortunate to be core funded from the European Commission, our ambitions exceed our resources. And the strings attached to our funding tie our activities to our funders needs, not necessarily those of our members.

Being part of this year’s European Foundation Centre’s conference in Vienna was therefore an important opportunity to take the pulse of philanthropy across the region. Where is there alignment with our change agenda? How is the sector responding to the scale and urgency of the challenges faced by society, the environment and democracy?

There was no shortage of inspirational speakers. The programme did not shy away from critical and challenging voices both from inside and outside the sector. Several recognised that philanthropy has a ‘legitimacy crisis’. There were calls for risk taking and for Foundations to step out of their comfort zone. But overall I left with the impression that changes are incremental, and that philanthropy is indeed ‘moving deckchairs around the titanic’ rather than driving radical reform.

Take investment in children and youth. Apparently over 50 per cent of EFC members have portfolios that in one way or another reach children. But as highlighted by Kumi Naidoo in his closing speech, a vast majority of grant making goes to short term delivery of projects and programmes. Grants that are tied to specific deliverables, impact and demonstrating ‘what works’. A much smaller proportion goes to policy change with a timeframe of up to 10 years, and even less to governance change which includes influencing the agendas of multilateral, intergovernmental organisations.

There were conversations about systemic change, emphasising the need to influence government so that public money is invested where it’s needed most and in ways that will make the greatest difference. However, in the minds of some in the philanthropy sector this equates to hiring former government officials onto their staff, ‘to build relationships of trust’ directly with people with power. Such an approach runs in direct opposition with networks such as ours which are trying to preserve and expand spaces for systematic out-reach to civil society in public decision making.

There is also much talk about participative decision-making. Huge progress has been made in recent years in recognising children’s right to participate in decisions affecting them, and lots of examples of good practices exist. Thankfully we see activism among children and youth flourishing. They bring much needed energy, honesty and sense of urgency on issues like the climate emergency, social justice and gender equality.

Enabling meaningful child participation is a critical part of what our network does, both involving children directly in our work and building the capacity of our membership. It’s encouraging to see how members of the EFC are integrating child participation into their own work, taking inspiration from the Learning for Well-Being Foundation and Act2gether. Child participation is both a means to an end, and an end itself. If done well it challenges adults to think and act differently, whilst also contributing to children’s learning and development.

Notwithstanding its importance, concentrating EFC’s Children & Youth Network thematic network coordination effort solely on children’s right to participate sets a very low bar. With coordination and opportunities for mutual learning, philanthropy can do so much more to drive societal change and respect for children’s rights Europe and globally. For example, recent EU initiatives such as the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child and the European Child Guarantee initiative are tied to millions of euros of EU funding and policy guidance that could transform children’s lives in 27 EU Member States and beyond. If harnessed strategically, they could give an enormous boost to Foundations’ grant-making efforts. What’s needed now is long-term, flexible funding to build civil society’s capacity to advocate for social change, leveraging international influence and funding. Investment is needed to build communication and advocacy skills, to support self-advocates and those with lived experience to speak truth to power. Philanthropy cannot shy away from being political. As so eloquently said at the end of the conference: money = power = politics.

If philanthropy is to fulfil its potential as a catalyst for change, it needs a long-term vision and trusted partnerships with change agents who can set and follow their own agenda.

 Jana Hainsworth is Secretary General of Eurochild

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