The river runs through it … notes from Germany’s Foundation Day


Michael Alberg-Seberich

Michael Alberg-Seberich

Michael Alberg-Seberich

Let’s start with some trivia for the philanthropy junkie: The largest gathering of foundations in Europe just took place in Hamburg, Germany (21-23 May). The motto of the conference was ‘Foundations: In the middle of the river and against the stream’. It derived from the location of this year’s conference in one of Europe’s largest harbour cities on the river Elbe.

Over the last couple of years the annual conference of the German Association of Foundations has grown into a networking event of astonishing size. It is a pretty big shoal that swims in the river. More than 2,000 participants were able to choose from over 80 workshops, talks, networking meetings, etc.

The topics covered a wide range of issues: transparency, collective impact, youth participation, school reform, women in philanthropy, sports, archives of foundations, Europe … The programme is a kaleidoscope of what foundations care about these days. It is also proof of how philanthropy swims with or against the stream. It documents the role of foundations, as drivers of innovation, but also as conveners, enablers and reliable partners of change. This was underlined in the opening speech by the German Federal President Joachim Gauck.

One of my observations is that foundations talked less about searching for their role in society than they have done in the recent past. It looks like the sector has a growing understanding and confidence about where it can contribute to social improvement and how this can be done. This is supported by a more diverse landscape of research on philanthropy and the third sector. To navigate through the currents is still not easy for grantmakers, but workshops on project transfer, scaling or impact reporting show that the exchange of experiences, analysis and methods has gained momentum.

Two issues that ‘stranded’ on the banks of the river are the investment of foundation endowments and fundraising. In the end I counted around 25 presentations on the most careful, best, strategic way to invest the foundation endowment – not including other events sponsored by banks. Yes, this is an important question for foundations these days. Yes, many foundations would not even exist without the profitable management of their endowment. Yes, banks are reliable sponsors for such a gathering. Nevertheless, it seems to be time to reflect on the role of banks in such events. They are important for the sector, but really at this level?

Fundraising is the other flotsam of our time. German foundations are exploring their options as fundraisers. The motivations are manifold: building up an endowment, low interest rates, inheritance management, being a fundraising NGO with the legal entity of a foundation … The number of players that are seeing fundraising as one option to finance their good deeds seems to be increasing. It will be interesting to see how these efforts to further professionalize fundraising will change the German foundation sector in the next few years. It may sound like a naive question, but what will be the difference between a fundraising NGO and foundation in the future?

Some readers may now ask, what’s really new? What can we learn from this snapshot of the German foundation community? Maybe it is just that the world of foundations is in flux, a flux that has a strong professionalization current. Maybe it is just that the river runs through it. It is a process that hardly changes the landscape on a day-to-day basis but a lot over time.

Michael Alberg-Seberich is managing partner of Active Philanthropy.

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