Turkish philanthropy: straddling the old and the new

Liana Varon

Turkey has a long history of philanthropy. Along with many other developments in the social and economic arena, however, the role of philanthropy and foundations has changed in Turkey since the days of the Ottoman Empire, when foundations played a major role in supporting a wide range of social institutions that provided for basic social needs. Today, Turkish foundations are taking a more active role in dealing with a variety of social challenges through different programmes and policy interventions. Faced with the complex challenges of our day, the philanthropic sector in Turkey is undertaking new responsibilities and discovering new ways to support social change.

As of 2016, there are 5,075 new foundations (ie established after the Republic) operating in Turkey. These foundations are active mainly in the areas of education, solidarity and health; a limited number operate in the field of law, human rights and democracy. A similar trend is also visible in the giving behaviour of philanthropists: it is quite common to see philanthropists establish foundations, which operate in a range of areas. Philanthropic giving, however, mostly involves awarding scholarships, establishing schools, building hospitals and providing social services. Grantmaking meanwhile is still a new and often neglected practice for Turkish foundations and philanthropic institutions at large. Despite the traditional character of the sector, existing and emerging philanthropists are looking for new ways to scale up their operations, adopt innovative approaches, promote systemic change and achieve greater social impact.

Ankara, Turkey.

Although philanthropy is deeply rooted in Turkish history and tradition, policymaking has never been one of its main concerns. The underlying reason for this lack of interest is the perceived role of the state as the provider of social services, and the reluctance of philanthropists to challenge the role that the state imposes on them. In other words, philanthropy has been seen and accepted as complementary to the state’s work in providing social services. In reality the philanthropy sector has the means and capacity to help develop new practices and policies, promote multi-sectoral partnerships and take an active role in influencing policymaking in the country. It is important to note that the legal framework and political environment of the country have also contributed to this understanding of philanthropy’s role vis-à-vis the state.

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