Show the value of philanthropy. For what it’s worth.


Barry Hoolwerf


People care. By giving their hard earned money away to the causes by which they are moved, people engage in everyday acts of kindness. This is what philanthropy is about. This is a free interpretation of the statement from Michael Mapstone from the Charities Aid Foundation in the session ‘In search of liberté, égalité and fraternité for philanthropy and civil society in Europe’ in the late afternoon of the second day of the EFC conference, taking place on May 22-24 in Paris.

There is indeed remarkable evidence that philanthropy is part of human nature. Literally, it translates from the Greek word ‘philos antrophos’ – the love of mankind. As soon as philanthropy gets room for manoeuvring, private initiatives for the public good, emerge. In all European countries we see individuals and organizations stepping up to address societal needs, at a local, national and international level. Philanthropy is not only an activity carried out by a small group at the better end of the income distribution, but a phenomenon being present throughout our European societies. Also, if we look at the little figures we have on philanthropic giving in Europe, the constituency of philanthropy is broad and that most donations come from many households that donate to the organizations that they care about.

But it is also true that philanthropy and civil society are having a tough time in Europe and the space for philanthropy is shrinking or under pressure in many countries. The recent rise of populist movements creates new challenges to the philanthropy sector. Popular media often frames philanthropy as an outcome of undemocratic processes and as an expression of uneven distribution of wealth in European societies. Philanthropy is thus suggested to be considered as serving the needs and goals of elites, and to influence public policy making beyond its status as complementary to public service provision.  Even worse, philanthropy is considered to be there to serve the needs of groups that are less felt to be part of our contemporary European societies and should thus be treated as suspicious.

Even in European countries that can rely on a functioning democratic welfare state philanthropy is sometimes received with scepticism. In fact, philanthropy is still associated with a practices that welfare states have overcome, like particularism in addressing poverty, access to education and healthcare. Philanthropic initiatives are considered to be as a failure of the welfare state – as something that should not be there if the welfare state would function properly.

How to overcome the challenge of the paradox that a phenomenon like philanthropy sector has to prove its relevance to a society that forms the very fabric of its being? Recently, DAFNE and EFC launched a philanthropy manifesto, to be used as a starting point to engage with policymakers on how to position philanthropy in our European welfare states. Also, the European Economic and Social Committee released an exploratory opinion on the role of philanthropy. The objective of the opinion, is to explore which measures and initiatives should be taken at EU and national level in order to promote organised philanthropy and eliminate barriers within the internal market that are hindering the realisation of its full potential, so as to maximize its contribution to EU values, such as cohesion, social justice and European Policies, and to the competitiveness of the European economy. The opinion is expected to feed into the political priorities for the new Commission. But should we expect the EU to be the guardian of (institutional) philanthropy? How can it be that doing good is disputed by public organizations, politicians, the media and even the public at large?

There seems a strange contradiction in this. Philanthropy is an expression of pluralism and might collaborate but also challenge public organizations at the same time. So, although it might be helpful for philanthropy to have EU institutions backing the sector, philanthropy should be able to tell a story on its own. A story that includes the everyday acts of kindness by (extra)ordinary people that stand up for the causes in which they believe. Nevertheless ordinary people sometimes differ from foundations in terms what they deem important. Indeed, if we take a look on what we know about causes that are supported by households and foundations, we see a difference. The top three causes supported by foundations in Europe are (as far as we can say based on the little data that is available) arts and culture, national public/social benefit causes and science. The top three most frequent supported causes for households in Europe are health related causes, international (emergency) assistance and causes aimed at national public/social benefit related issues.

Top 3 Focus areas of foundations Top 3 Focus areas of households
Belgium Arts and culture Science and education Health Health Public benefit International aid
Denmark Arts and culture Science and education Public benefit Health International aid Other
France Public benefit Health Arts and culture Health Public benefit International aid
Germany Public benefit Other Arts and culture Intenational aid Other Public benefit
Italy Arts and culture Science and education Public benefit Health International aid Public benefit
Netherlands Arts and culture Public benefit Health Health Environment International aid
Norway Science and education Other Public benefit International aid Health Public benefit
Source: Hoolwerf, L.K. and Schuyt, T.N.M. (eds) (2017) Giving in Europe. The current state of research on giving in 20 European countries. Amsterdam: Lenthe Publishers.


A challenge to foundations is to engage with the public in the goals they support. If they believe that their criticasters should not be normative in which causes they support, foundations should engage in involving people in the activities they support to show their relevance. Show the relevance of scientific work, supporting museums and art performances. Perhaps this leads to less direct support to the goals themselves, but by building a broader constituency it can enlarge the support of the population for the same causes. On the other hand we see an overlap between causes that are supported by both households and foundations. Especially projects related to public and social benefit issues can serve as a way to connect the work of foundations with European citizens.

What’s more, the philanthropy sector could (or should) invest in telling the broader story of European philanthropy. At the moment, the story of European philanthropy is fragmented and based on very little solid data. Indeed, beyond showcasing the work that is being achieved by the support of individual foundations, it should also be reflected in the contribution of every single euro or hour that is contributed by individuals to the public good. If people will start to identify themselves as being a philanthropist themselves, the (institutional) philanthropy sector will have to pay much less efforts to convince the people of Europe that we are all in for the greater good together.

By Barry Hoolwerf is Executive Director of the European Research On Philanthropy (ERNOP)

On July 3-5 2019, ERNOP will gather in Basel for it’s biennial conference that is open to anyone interested in research on philanthropy. For more information visit

Comments (1)

nerede çekiliyor

Vaooov. This is very useful article. Thanks

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