Thoughts from Philea


Charles Keidan


Today, Croatia, a country which lies at the crossroads of central and southeast Europe, and once part of the former Yugoslavia, is in the EU, in the Eurozone and in Schengen – allowing freedom of movement across much of Europe.

It was against this optimistic outlook that the National Foundation for Civil Society Development in Croatia joined forces with Philea, Europe’s leading philanthropy support organisation, to host its annual gathering of philanthropic elites, national networks and member associations.

My early arrival allowed me to witness the buzz of activity as hard-working staff teams toured the complex and completed set up preparations.

This year’s Forum took place at a purpose-built conference park set alongside a private stretch of beach just a few minutes’ drive from the city of Sibenik and 45 minutes from Split’s dazzling, newly renovated, airport.

As a visitor to Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro several times between 2000 and 2003 – just a few years after the cessation of conflict – I was struck by the country’s modernisation and apparent shift of identity as a Mediterranean rather than Balkan destination.

Croatia’s renewed identity in Mediterranean Europe was on display in the first meeting I attended, a pre-conference session with diplomats from fellow EU countries France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Slovenia. Titled ‘working together for the Mediterranean’, the meeting was opened by National Foundation CEO, Cvjetana Plavsa-Matic and Philea’s CEO Delphine Moralis. Participants noted philanthropy’s value to the wider social economy and raised issues of mutual concern including the ecological impact of forest fires, the warming of the Mediterranean Sea, and the need for sustainable tourism.

Another preconference session I joined looked at the enabling environment for philanthropy. Hosted by WINGS, it opened with a characteristically detailed analysis by Philea’s resident policy expert, Hanna Surmatz. She discussed the regulatory environment for philanthropy and ongoing work to address long-running issues associated with the anti-money laundering Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and its problematic application in the philanthropy sphere.

Other pre meetings were taking place around the same time – grantees will be happy to hear that a sizeable number of foundation leaders had gathered to discuss funding for organisational development. Meanwhile, excitable reunions of national association types all contributed to the pre-conference buzz.

It was therefore somewhat of a disappointment that the opening plenary did not reach the high bar set by the intensity and provocation of the opening in Vienna back in 2021– the last one I attended. This plenary leaned on technology to gain instant reaction and small group chats to discuss feedback. That was helpful but the session was longer, the debate was flatter, and the direction less clear. Some appeared relieved to get to lunch and the restroom after a session lasting well over two hours.

However, what was notable was Bertelsmann Foundation polling showing real divergence in views between the European population at large and foundation practitioners in the room. For example, 88% of Philea members felt that the EU was not doing enough to address climate change compared to 61% of the general population.

This divergence raised an interesting question: should foundations align with public priorities or pursue their own preferences? That depends on ‘positionality’ observed Adama Sammeh, the thoughtful CEO and founder of the Italy based Moleskine Foundation, who happened to be sitting next to me at the back of the hall.

The most interesting part of the plenary was a contribution from Vesna Teršelič of Documenta – the Centre for Dealing with the Past. Teršelič, who has been working on a fact-finding commission into the Yugoslav wars, and campaigning to establish the facts about war crimes and human rights violations committed in former Yugoslavia from 1991 to 2001, gave a historically informed perspective on Croatia’s recent history. She suggested that an important measure of democracy is to support minority voices – something that foundations are well placed to do. Talking to me afterwards, Teršelič pointed out that ‘Foundations are not under as much pressure from public opinion’ and should ‘absolutely’ consider directing resources in support of minorities. Teršelič also warned that Croatia has ‘plenty of work to do’ to come to terms with the legacy of the second world war, post-war executions and the violence of the 90’s. Without going into details, she added that ‘large problems’ exist in regard to the rule of law and respecting verdicts of international war crimes trials.

It would have been interesting to hear more about whether and the ways in which Croatian foundations and philanthropists were responding to these challenges – perhaps something which will be more squarely on the agenda at Philea’s more eastern focused Konektor gathering in Sarajevo in September.


The afternoon of the first day presented an array of breakout sessions with standout topics including philanthropy’s response to climate justice, supporting the resilience of Ukrainian civil society and a dialogue between European and African philanthropy.

But I went off the beaten track and headed to some other sessions.

The first, organised by Fondation CRT, looked at reducing educational poverty and included descriptions of its educational programmes. We were presented with data showing how poorer children in Italy suffered more during the Covid pandemic and how the foundation tried to offer educational opportunities which would have otherwise been denied. We were also introduced to a Moleskine Foundation funded project to support young Roma through music – and the power of the choir to give children protection and strength.

Later, an artist-led session highlighted a collaboration between Portuguese and Brazilian foundations – Fundacao Cecilia Zino and Fondacio Iniciativa – giving voice to children in foster care systems through the lens of therapeutic story-telling. We were then invited to complete a similar exercise. As a writer, I enjoyed the invitation to revisit a memorable day in my life and to imagine my ideal world though it felt like this session was only peripherally connected to the major philanthropic challenges of the day.

Walking across the sub-terranean corridor, I caught the last half of a session which felt more concrete. It was a discussion about ‘how we fund’ led by the US based Center for Effective Philanthropy and featuring senior figures from the Oak, Laudes and Paul Hamlyn foundations – all well known for their inclination towards a more progressive approach to funding. Textbook funding practice questions were being hotly debated as I walked in: what criteria do we use for funding? Which exit strategies avoid dependence? How do we build strategic alignment with grantees? How do relationships change with core funding? Can we shift to verbal reports and go up to five year grants cycles? The large number of attendees and engaged questioning suggested an encouraging appetite for more.

Another ripe topic on the agenda was collaboration not just within but also between sectors – what is now known as 4P’s – private, public, philanthropic partnerships. One prominent example was explored at a side lunch hosted by the IKEA Foundation. The Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet (GEAPP) is a major climate initiative to accelerate a transition to clean energy. Launched at COP 26 and backed by $1.5 billion in anchor funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, Bezos Earth Fund and the IKEA Foundation, the multi-sector collaboration aims to help at least 13 countries transition to renewable energy – an example of systems change climate philanthropy writ large.

My time at this year’s Philea ended on a poignant note joining an early morning reception to recognise the contribution of Melissa Berman, retiring from her role as the founding President and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Philea CEO Delphine Moralis paid tribute to Berman’s expertise and mentorship to so many in the philanthropy field and – on a personal level – highlighted how Berman had been a ‘role model’ to her and a growing number of women assuming leadership roles today. Berman seemed genuinely moved by the praise. And the applause which greeted her short response was the equivalent of a standing ovation – both testimony to the respect she commands from her peers and appreciation of her immense contribution to the sector.

Charles Keidan is Executive Editor of Alliance magazine

Tagged in: Editors' comment Philea Forum 2023

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