A time for thinking

Caroline Hartnell

I have just returned from the European Foundation Centre conference in Rome (14-16 May) where I facilitated a panel looking at spending in an economic crisis. While much of the discussion focused on the pressing issue that faces most foundations – how to meet urgent needs and honour spending commitments despite huge falls in asset values – what also emerged clearly was the need for more fundamental long-term thinking about what foundations are and what they should do.

Above all, the need to think about what happens if this year’s losses continue in future years and we turn out to be looking at a real paradigm shift rather than a return to the status quo a few years hence. Luc Tayart de Borms of the King Baudouin Foundation talked of the balancing act between carrying on today and preparing for an unrecognizably different tomorrow. Mergers and part mergers between foundations working in the same area and the possibility of spending down were among the longer-term options that came up.

Discussions like this are going on everywhere. ‘It’s time for humble philanthropy’ says the conservative US commentator William Schambra in the 9 April Chronicle of Philanthropy. ‘Tough times require change throughout philanthropy’ writes Atlantic Philanthropies president Gara LaMarche in the same issue of the Chronicle, while his article in this issue of Alliance is a clear call for foundations to rethink their role in relation to other sectors of society and other contributors to the public good.

In times of recession, subscription budgets seem like an easy cut. In any case, some might feel, a crisis is a time for doing and not for luxuries like thinking and reading. Not so. As the examples above suggest, a crisis must be a time for fundamental thinking, and Alliance intends to be part of this process. The September issue of Alliance, with Matthew Bishop as guest editor, will focus on ‘discontinuous thinking’ in response to the crisis.

But this is not just about specific responses to the present situation; it is also about continuing to look critically at how funders go about their work and how things could be done better. The role I see for Alliance is that of a ‘critical friend’. We are part of the philanthropy sector, but willing to ask the difficult questions. Never have such friends been more needed!

PS: To add value and help signpost readers through all Alliance has to offer – letters, opinion pieces, articles, the special feature, book reviews, conference reports and more – we have introduced full colour throughout the magazine. We want to make Alliance as attractive and accessible as possible in order to better play our part as a critical friend to philanthropy. Readers’ feedback, as always, very welcome.

Caroline Hartnell, Editor, Alliance


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