Last week saw the publication of the European Philanthropy Manifesto. Put forward by two foundation umbrella bodies, the Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe (DAFNE) and the European Foundation Centre (EFC), the Manifesto advocates a single European market for philanthropy. To this end, it makes four recommendations: recognition of, and engagement with, philanthropy; facilitation of cross-border philanthropy; support for, and protection of, philanthropy, and; strengthening joint grantmaking and co-investment opportunities.
Generally speaking, the underlying interest in a more integrated and coherent approach to philanthropy and foundations across Europe is unremarkable, and a previously pursued path. Particularly, the Manifesto’s argument that ‘politicians should consider developing a supranational legal form for organised philanthropy’ appears to be a revisiting and reanimation of ideas surrounding a feasibility study towards a European Foundation Statute that was conducted just over a decade ago. Nonetheless, the views and rhetoric of the Manifesto raise a number of issues worth reflecting on.
Although the Manifesto mixes the language of philanthropy, individual donors and foundations, it is the latter lens, that of foundations, through which the Manifesto has come forward and through which it thus needs to be explored. Theoretically, the specific organisational nature of foundations – including their legally, culturally and socially authorised independence, and immunity to external pressures – enables them to operate in areas where the private and public sectors have not been able to, did not want to be, or could not be seen to be, operating. This has provided foundations with the freedom and innovative capacity to pursue philanthropy rather than charity – the former focuses on solutions and is geared towards addressing root causes, the latter towards alleviating symptoms. Since the 1990s, however, this emphasis has shifted.
Driven by the application of neoliberal ideas and ideals, philanthropy has increasingly become marketised and financialised: business principles and practices as well as financial tools and instruments have been transferred, often unreflectively, to the field. The result has been an emphasis on efficiency and effectiveness. This has reached its logical conclusion in the effective altruism movement with its argument that only the most effective ways to benefit others are worthy of support. Paradoxically, such a focus also leads to risk-aversion, the prioritisation of ‘safe’ investments, and an accentuation of easy to reach targets, thereby curbing the risk-taking and innovative appetite and potential of philanthropy. If we consider a manifesto in its broader etymological sense of not just being ‘a public declaration’ but also as ‘proof’ or ‘a piece of evidence’, the Manifesto’s market rhetoric seems to indicate that wider critiques of such an approach remain unheard.
Foundations’ lack of engagement with critically reflective academic discourse is, however, nothing new. Scepticism about the value of academic research and resistance to its findings are recurring themes. Even senior foundation representatives recognise this and have commented thereon. Within the context of the European Philanthropy Manifesto, one has to wonder whether more explicit engagement with foundation critiques might have led to more nuanced rhetoric that would be supportive of, rather than opening doors for criticising, the Manifesto. For example, academic discourse points to a canon of recurring concerns about foundations. This includes: questions about the origins and size of foundation funds, foundations’ unelected and undemocratic nature, their elite composition and influence, and the cultural imperialism and dominance that have been associated with foundations’ activities. Bearing these in mind, the Manifesto’s arguing for ‘unleashing’ philanthropy’s full potential, for ‘decreasing today’s barriers for philanthropy in order to leverage the impact of donors’ and foundations’ spending’ seems unreflective of the popular socio-political challenges that foundations face. It seems to play straight into the hands of populist critics. Given that foundations as the organisational expressions of philanthropy have been eyed with suspicion since at least Roman times, this might be worth reflecting on.
There is no doubt that foundations have the potential to make unique contributions to society. The extent, whether and how, they do so does, however, remain uncertain from an academic perspective. A recent global mapping concluded that existing information ‘is often anecdotal, incomplete and sometimes inconsistent’. Thus, the Manifesto’s repeat reference to philanthropy’s and foundations’ unique contributions warrants further unpacking and exploration. What actually appears to shine through more prominently in the Manifesto are foundations’ insecurities, their need for love and appreciation.
Commentators have repeatedly pointed to foundations’ anxieties: like ‘teenagers at the dance’ they are unsure what to do, like a ‘child’ they need protection. Whether appropriate or not, the Manifesto’s explicit articulation of a need to be ‘cherished, stimulated and rewarded persistently’ and that ‘[r]ecognition by politicians and by governments is crucial’ raises questions about the field’s self-esteem. Furthermore, it also makes one wonder whether this is really what the sector wants: political recognition and attention can easily come with stronger political steerage, outside control and direction instead of autonomy. These in turn would challenge, and run counter to, foundations’ own need for independence and self-determination.
There are further, specific, questions that the Manifesto raises. These relate to the underpinning perspectives on foundations’ position vis-à-vis broader civil society, responsibilities for the philanthropy field, the meaning and side-effects of a single market for philanthropy, as well as the practicalities and impact of pursuing the Manifesto’s ideas. Leaving these aside, from a critical overarching reading the Manifesto appears to be a missed opportunity to incorporate wider debates and tackle key issues that could offer a more robust basis on which to proceed. The idea of a European Philanthropy Manifesto is laudable, the way it currently comes across appears lacking. This coming from respected, authoritative, sources makes it particularly surprising unless there are further, underlying, ideas that are yet to be explored.
Tobias Jung is Director at Centre for the Study of Philanthropy & Public Good School of Management at University of St. Andrews