The scene was the first large-scale conference on family philanthropy in Spain. 160 hand-picked attendees with ties to significant family businesses were in the audience. What did I see from behind the podium as I spoke? Families, curiosity and tradition.
I’m at home in Spain, my business partner is Spanish and I have worked in Spain’s philanthropic sector for years. But I cut my teeth on philanthropy in the US, so I can’t help but have something of an outsider’s perspective. There may be other examples out there, but three things stood out for me last week.
Families. Families are front and centre in almost every aspect of Spanish society and culture, and philanthropy is no exception. The audience was made up of groups of sisters, aristocratic-looking grandfathers and mothers who had insisted on their grown children accompanying them, as well as dressed businessmen and couples of all ages. In contrast with family philanthropy conferences I’ve attended in the US, there were very few (if any) non-family professional foundation staff in the audience.
In Spain, ‘strengthening the family’ is one of the most common motivations for a family to move from spontaneous and generous, but often ad-hoc, individual giving to a philanthropic process that is more structured and thoughtful. Family harmony and continuity in the family business are at the forefront of everyone’s mind and there’s an increasing recognition that philanthropy can be a vehicle that brings the family together around their shared values.
After the formal programme, audience members from different generations talked to me about the importance of family harmony and how they could adapt some of the examples I related in my talk to their particular situations, whether the issue was an omnipresent family patriarch or siblings who were constantly at odds over control of the family business.
Curiosity. Almost everyone I talked to at the event was convinced that Spain was in the early (often very early) stage of developing a culture of philanthropy. This perception was so widespread it occasionally eclipsed the fact that there are a number of important private foundations in Spain, and that some of them have been operating for more than 50 years.
The audience was eager for examples from other families that owned large companies and for insights into how to do philanthropy well. They wanted to hear from us about the latest trends, about strategic philanthropy, impact investing, venture philanthropy, innovative private-public collaborations, etc, and believed there were things they could learn from the US, the UK and other parts of Europe. They were also intrigued by the idea of doing philanthropy in a businesslike way – evaluating results, looking for efficiency and ‘return’, etc.
Tradition and cultural norms. However, Spaniards are also very quick to point out the many important cultural factors that influence giving in their country.
The nation’s history and the strong role of the state and the church have meant that private philanthropy has been secondary and much less needed in many areas. For decades the state has taken care of social services and health. It also takes the lead in international development, art and culture, preservation of historical monuments, parks, etc. For centuries the Catholic church has also played a very important, if not always high-profile, role in almost every area as well: education, social assistance, humanitarian aid, youth development, the list goes on. For wealthy individuals, the de facto channel for good works has been initiatives with roots in the church. There is a vibrant non-profit sector in Spain, one that is often ahead of local philanthropists in terms of its sophistication. But it’s still only 30 some years old.
Religious teachings have also influenced how philanthropy has developed in Spain. Giving is something you do, for example, but you don’t talk about it. There’s a biblical saying that ‘your right hand shouldn’t know what the left hand is doing’. This modesty is impressive, but it makes Spaniards think twice about trying to lead by example, or sharing what they have experienced with other would-be philanthropists.
Finally, skepticism about the trustworthiness of recipients of funding is also deeply woven in the culture. Spaniards with a philanthropic bent are more likely to launch their own programmes than to fund existing non-profit organizations, because they don’t yet fully trust that NGOs are not lining their pockets. This situation is even more complex because the legal structure of a foundation (fundación) in Spain includes both grantmaking foundations and operating ‘foundations’ which raise and spend their money each year, just like typical non-profits in the US.
It’s an honour to be in on the ground floor of the fast-evolving world of philanthropy in Spain. Philanthropic Intelligence is collaborating on multiple initiatives to encourage thoughtful giving among high net worth individuals and families. The result will be uniquely Spanish, and I suspect it will also be uniquely satisfying for everyone involved.
Kristin Majeska is partner at Philanthropic Intelligence.