With a full program, lots of side events, and tons of peers to talk to, attending the EFC’s General Assembly is often not on the priority list of people attending the annual conference of the EFC .
But, while I agree this surely isn’t the mostly exciting part of our annual gathering, it is an important one as it focuses on the health of the network. A network is only as strong as its weakest link and we, its members, should not sleepwalk into becoming exactly just that.
Particularly in this time of closing space for civil society it is important to have a strong and healthy philanthropic infrastructure. Civil society across Europe is experiencing increasing infringements on its ability to operate independently, resulting in a negative impact on democracy, diversity, equality and freedom.
Non-governmental and academic institutions and the free media are being constrained by governments, and civil society actors are attacked, discredited and presented as public enemies.
The EFC is generally in a good place and has a lot going for it: committed and experienced staff, a strong core of committed participants, events that are widely attended, and a broad community.
The tasks at hand, advancing the philanthropic sector, is not easy, however, and all networks are susceptible to people problems.
One problem of networks is that they will suffer if members grow too like-minded and become immune to new ideas and new ways of thinking, or when they become too large and it takes a great deal of time to make decisions.
Recently, however, a letter of support related to the crack down on civil society in Hungary was signed by 85 organizations – just over the weekend.
Moreover, the outgoing Chair, Ewa Kulik-Bielinska, did an amazing job in putting together, during the Warsaw conference, a diverse group of foundations to launch the Philanthropic Alliance for Solidarity and Democracy in Europe.
This alliance is concerned both with the operating environment for civil society and, more broadly, with the urgency to respond to the violation of democratic values such as human dignity, freedom, justice, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.
It commits to pooling together broad-based, diverse philanthropic resources and establishing a Solidarity Fund to support initiatives aimed at strengthening civil society actors and safeguarding democratic values in Europe. So I was very pleased to see there is still room for action and bold thinking at the EFC.
A second problem for large networks is the risk that the peer-learning, provocative, open approach and focus that make it so valuable get diluted. The annual conference provides a safe space, but I feel we still pat ourselves on the shoulder too much. Learning from mistakes is often more effective than sharing successes, so it would be good if foundations become more self-critical.
It can be overwhelming to be around more than 600 people (I just keep thinking how terrible these types of conferences must be for introverts!) and sometimes the discussions are rather general, but this is where the networking sessions and Thematic Networks come in.
A third problem of networks is that some participants take more than they give. I’m afraid the EFC is no exception here, as income from membership fees and general support grants has been going down over the past years. This negative trend is worrying but I’m pleased to see that both the Director and the Governing Council want to address this, as part of their plan to increase the network’s long term sustainability.
Now it’s up to the membership that needs to realize the importance of this. Compared to the US, Europe does not have a strong tradition of paying for peer-led networks and this has to change if we want to keep European infrastructure ‘fit for purpose’.
We, EFC members, should either reject or embrace the network, and if we do the latter (which I hope everyone will) we should put our money where our mouth is.
Just like democracy is about more than elections, membership is about more than just showing up at a conference once a year.
Léonie van Tongeren is Special Assistant to the Regional Director for Europe, at Open Society Foundations, Spain.
Click here for more coverage from the 2017 EFC annual conference.