SwissFoundations Symposium 2015: How foundations reach their goals


Heiko Specking


Swiss Foundations, the association of Swiss grant-making foundations, chose a picturesque place for a day-long annual symposium on 3 June 2015. Three hundred participants were warmly welcomed at the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute, a well-respected Swiss non-profit organization. The institute was built as a ‘place of reflection and encounters’ for conducting ‘scientific research in the social and economic field’ in Rueschlikon, close to Zurich.

Up on the hillside overlooking Zurich Lake, the philanthropy community of Switzerland, including many like-minded companions from abroad, discussed recent dynamics in the sector.  A beautiful sunny day blessed the conversation.

The symposium aimed to illustrate the interaction between foundations’ initial activities and their targeted outcomes. Participants raised questions such as: ‘How do foundations act and therefore have an impact?’ We all had different perspectives on how to evaluate the change-making impact of our funding.  Foundations generally try to benefit the public or a specific social group. But what is the impact on society? More generally, we asked: ‘Are all parameters measurable?’ and ‘How can we evaluate long-term outcome?’

The main take-home message could help foundations revise their approach to measurement: establish a vision, formulate a mission, and set your goals according to a clear strategy. Preferably collaborate with partners across sectors. Establish and implement a sound measurement system to learn from mistakes or disappointments – address this with your partners, and find new ways of avoiding those mistakes in the future. Be aware that providing grants is a continuous process and a person should be able to adjust an already running project. Being able to monitor the success of a project has a positive effect. The awareness of different cultures and therefore different behaviour plays an important role in establishing a successful strategy. Never forget the power of entrepreneurial mechanisms and try to integrate them in your wider project work. Foundations should use their standing to influence policy making, preferably as a diverse group of organisations across different sectors, in different regions.

The final highlight of the symposium was a discussion with Stephan Schmidheiny, a Swiss industrialist who founded the Avina Foundation and remains its president. Reflecting on his long work in South America, he expressed how important it is for philanthropies to initiate social change. He emphasised collective learning, adding that large foundations should take a leading role in collaborations between funders and the societies they serve. He encourages the founders themselves and the next generation to be better connected with each other and to pool strategies and resources. His personal motivation for charitable work is the joy that comes with it. He says being able to do charitable work is a privilege.

Given the splendid environment of the venue in Rueschlikon, the excellent food, and the amicable atmosphere, we all enjoyed a well-organized and interesting conference. You will find further impressions and the discussion with Stephan Schmidheiny online ( & We are all looking forward to next year’s symposium which will take place 11 May 2016 in Biel.

Heiko Specking, founder and partner of specking+partners ltd.

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