On the edge of the abyss, what can foundations do?


Caroline Hartnell

Caroline Hartnell

Caroline Hartnell

The official title of the recent EFC conference, held in Copenhagen 30 May to 1 June, was ‘Sustainable Cities: Foundations and Our Urban Future’. Any conference focused on sustainability and our future, urban or otherwise, is bound to approach the abysses of climate change, economic uncertainty and rampant inequality.

Rachel Kyte of the World Bank delivered a chilling warning that if we carry on as usual, we are on course for 4 degrees of warming. This means South East Asian coastal cities overwhelmed by rising ocean levels and people in cities in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa suffering temperatures of 55 degrees (‘we will need to build fridges for people to live in ovens’). Jordi Vaquer, from the Open Society Initiative for Europe, focused on the dark side of the economic and political crisis – including xenophobia, racism and hostility towards migrants.

In the face of such challenges, what can foundations do? As Alliance blogger Walter Veirs of the Mott Foundation put it: ‘I left Copenhagen with a renewed sense of urgency on a range of issues. But now what? We are foundations. Whether grantmaking or operational, we start small and work over the long term to bring about deeper change. We learn at conference session after conference session that good philanthropy is marked by careful, patient, people-centred approaches, with some risk-taking and innovation thrown in for good measure. But in the face of the world’s rather grim circumstances, what good is all that?’

There was no shortage of answers from conference panellists, all stressing what they perceived to be foundations’ particular advantages. Rachel Kyte urged foundations to think out of the box and use patient capital to show things are possible. The trillions of dollars needed to invest in the development of climate plans for the world’s 500 fastest-growing cities is in the system, she insisted, but ‘it needs to be unlocked’. Providing guarantees is one way of doing this. ‘Please, please foundations. Guarantees don’t often lose capital.’ At the same time, foundations can afford to take a 20-year view and ‘invest in the partnerships that will underlie progress’.

On similar lines, Jay Carson of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group urged foundations, as organizations that aren’t up for re-election, to support trial projects, to fund the political risk that elected politicians can’t take. He also encouraged foundations to support what works: ‘if you see a programme that’s working, put more money in it to bring it to scale. Support the programme run by another; don’t create parallel programmes.’

Sadly I was unable to attend the opening plenary, where architect Jan Gehl encouraged foundations to change mindsets. This was echoed by Mark Kramer of FSG the following day. Changing mindsets rather than funding projects is the nature of catalytic philanthropy, he said. He cited the C40 as a great example of catalytic philanthropy, of which he is of course the leading advocate, with foundations playing the role of trusted neutral convenor to connect the cities and funding people’s ability to clarify goals, develop shared measurement, and learn from each other to meet goals. Controversially, he encouraged foundations to go home and throw out all grant proposals. ‘Pick a problem you want to solve and bring together the people involved and allow them to come up with solutions.’

Jordi Vaquer took a broader view of foundations’ roles, stressing that long term and short term are two advantages of philanthropy. In an economic crisis foundations can make quick interventions – act as a stitch in the wound – to defuse crises at the same time as fostering a long-term vision for the future that can create resilience and help to keep cities with huge problems from exploding. As an example of a quick intervention, he cited free distribution of drug needles in several countries where this has been withdrawn, leading to great suffering and long-term cost. At the same time, he said, ‘We must look to the rosy future and defend what we have, the future of Europe.’

It was this long-term vision that seemed to be forefront in the minds of three young Europeans, part of FutureLab Europe, who featured in the closing plenary alongside Vaquer. Civil society has to stand for the long term, said one. It needs to stand for values, said another. But Alliance blogger Halima Mahomed of Trust Africa picked up on the dual vision, suggesting that foundations should act as ‘flammable agents, fanning critical issues that have sparked but which need support to spread; as minesweepers, detecting the things that, if they go wrong, could severely alter the debate or the situation on the ground; as defenders, constantly mindful of supporting work that defends hard won gains or prevents them from rolling back; and as responsive strategists, understanding that it is not about long-term vs short-term or “band-aid” vs sustainability, but about being responsive to context as a value in itself?’

What about Walter Veirs, whose dilemmas we started with? Like many others, he was inspired by Jan Gehl’s ‘simple suggestion to focus on “changing mindsets”’ – and also by an evening visit to Christiana, ‘Copenhagen’s self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood of about 850 residents that has its own rules on property ownership and decision-making’. In his view, this shows ‘that Denmark is open and tolerant, ready to entertain alternative ways of thinking and living. This idea of carving out spaces for “alternative” and creative thinking, especially at the community level, is something we in philanthropy need to keep in mind.’

Paul Evans of Barrow Cadbury Trust, also blogging for Alliance, likewise stressed the importance of carving out spaces for dialogue. ‘Growing public hostility to established civic and democratic institutions is what makes such initiatives so necessary,’ he writes, ‘finding shared space and providing communities with new means of discourse about the structures and decisions that govern our lives.’

The final word must rest with Rien van Gendt, winner of the Compass Philanthropy Prize, awarded only occasionally ‘to recognize the navigators who steer the European philanthropy sector’. First, he chided foundations for their often rather limited insight into who their clients are. ‘We like to refer to ourselves as social investors – it gives us as endowed foundations a progressive aura – but the reality is that an average investor in a private market context would have much more insight into his clients than foundations have. What do we really know about the problems, challenges and expectations of our grantees?’ He went on to criticize what he called ‘the cultural arrogance of the foundation community’, giving as one example ‘the fact that foundations still favour project funding, while many NGOs  are in dire need of institutional funding… we keep NGOs on a short leash and force them to run frantically around in search of institutional money, while we want to be associated with the sexy stuff: the projects.’ Wise words, as we have come to expect!

Caroline Hartnell is editor of Alliance magazine

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