New currents: EFC Chief Executive Delphine Moralis on the sea-change in European philanthropy

Last summer, the European Foundation Centre (EFC) announced a change in leadership. Long-time CEO Gerry Salole would be stepping down after 15 years and succeeding him would be Delphine Moralis – then the Secretary General of Terre des Hommes International Federation – would be stepping up. She would be the organisation’s first female Chief Executive.

Delphine Moralis in London at Alliance magazine’s 25th anniversary event at the Aga Khan Foundation. Photo: Annmarie McQueen/Alliance

It was mere months after the Covid-19 pandemic’s outbreak and weeks after the global outcry for racial justice following George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis. Taking up her position in September 2020 – a month marked by wildfires in the American West so great the skies in California glowed orange for days, reminding everyone that the crises that had dominated the headlines so far that year were not the only ones deserving attention – the world Moralis would inherit in her new role was one crying out for help.

In a statement at the time, Moralis said: ‘We are living in challenging times, and philanthropy – with all its diversity and strengths – has a vital role to play.’

But how did European philanthropy do last year? We caught up with Moralis in London before our 25th anniversary event to find out. At our first in-person interview since before Covid, we talked about Moralis’ first year at the EFC, preparing for the EFC’s first big conference since the pandemic began, a policy future for the organisation, and the long-awaited convergence of the EFC and Dafne.

Alliance magazine: You’ve now been at the EFC for a year. What were you imagining going into the role, and what are some reflections you have on it now?

Delphine Moralis: My motivation to join philanthropy, and then ultimately the EFC, was mostly to contribute to the big societal issues I have been working on before, but with a different potential for impact. Having worked in the NGO and INGO sector for about 15 years left me pensive. NGOs and INGOs are asking themselves difficult questions about their role, power balance, legitimacy, how to work with the people that they serve. They are also increasingly forging collaborations and understand you need to work together to have greater impact. But all this work often stops when it comes to funding. First, because NGOs and INGOs don’t find sources of funding for bold and creative action, and second, because ultimately, they are struggling for their survival. And I had this conviction that we could be doing so much more if we were to have a dialogue at a different level, among others with foundations.

I went into this motivated to contribute to philanthropy’s endeavours and explore matters that have been close to my heart in my previous role but from another angle. But of course, when I look back, because of the pandemic, the year has been quite a bit different than what I first expected, even just personally – with homeworking, with not meeting your colleagues, with childcare. And with the EFC, as an organisation, a lot of what we do is to put people together in a room, and we were no longer allowed to do that. The fundamentals of what the EFC could offer to its members suddenly turned upside-down, and that was a difficult situation for us. It has however been hugely inspiring to see our membership respond with such agility to the crisis, and I am eager for us to continue building on the momentum.

Speaking of putting people together in a room, we’re coming up to the EFC’s annual conference, which will be in-person for the first time since 2019. What are your hopes for this event?

Attendees at the 2019 EFC conference. Photo credit: EFC

I hope we’ll be able to reconnect people. You can really feel that hunger for getting back in touch and looking each other in the eye without a screen in-between you. The people we work with really care about that human connection, because it’s also the glue that you need to build trust, to feel safe, to innovate, and so I think that that’s very important that we’re able to do that. But I’m also really hoping that we’re making use of that conference to take stock of where we are in the world, what our role is as philanthropy, and how we’re going to address the challenges of our future.

You are the EFC’s first female CEO. How does the EFC ensure that its leadership and its decision-makers come from diverse backgrounds – not just gender, but also race, class, etc.?

To be honest, I’ve been the first female secretary general at my two previous organisations, and it was never such a big deal. It seems to have been a big deal at the EFC, and it’s been such a big deal also for other women who have come in this position recently in the sector. To me, that means within philanthropy, it was high time for us to find it normal that a woman could come in and be the CEO. I didn’t apply for the role of Female CEO, I just applied for the role of CEO, you know? And I hope that I was chosen on behalf of the qualities I bring.

But within the EFC – and also certainly in the new organisation that we’re creating with Dafne – diversity will continue to be one of the lenses through which we will continue to look at recruitment and roles. I think recruitment and who sits in which position alone is however not enough. It’s about creating a culture in which you’re able to have different opinions; you can have healthy, difficult conversations; and you can stimulate that approach of different people from different backgrounds who are able to share their thoughts openly and safely. I think that, if you have the recruitment and selection policy but not the culture, it’s not going to work. For me, the investment in culture is at least as important.

On the new organisation with EFC and Dafne, it has been in the works for a while. Is there anything you can share with us about how the process is going?

It’s going really well, and it’s been very intense. We have very much tried for the process to be participatory and inclusive, which means that we have conducted surveys, interviews, created workshops and spent a lot of time listening to each other in finding the way forward. We want to understand where the fears lie, but also the hopes and the ambition that we have together. And you know, we’re pretty much there. I think we’re in the final stages of polishing what will be our new organisation. We still will need the formal agreements within both organisations to put the stamp on it and have all of it moulded into the legal framework that is required. But I think that we’ve really managed to create something that will be more than the sum of its parts and that both Dafne and EFC are super excited with the opportunity it brings. So yes, we’re nearly there and you’ll have more soon!

I think climate is definitely one of the key topics that do keep our members awake at night and it should.

Do you think at the new organisation with Dafne there will be more opportunities for working in the policy sphere?

I think so. That’s one of the opportunities that comes with this convergence. European policymaking is not something that happens only in Brussels, but in every capital in Europe now. The fact that we now have the national associations and individual foundations together will give us much more opportunity to be strategic and move the needle when it comes to policy. And a lot of our policy work will continue on the basis of what we’ve done together successfully with Dafne so far in the context of the Philanthropy Advocacy initiative – really trying to create an enabling environment for philanthropy.

What sort of policy priorities will the new organisation have?

So, there’s already the work in creating an enabling environment for philanthropy, which is something that really unites all of us and matters to so many organisations. I think as an infrastructure organisation, that is one of the areas in which we’ll very much continue to invest. But beyond that, it’s the themes that keep members awake at night – so climate, democracy, equity and equality. Those are some of the big themes that will definitely be part of the work that we’ll do, maybe through policy engagement, but very much also through other parts of support that we provide to our members.

With these big issues, what do you see as your role as an infrastructure body? Your partners will of course be working on climate change, racial justice, democracy, digital transformation – but what is the role of the EFC?

For an infrastructure body, it’s always about finding the balance between serving your members and being a thought leader for the sector. My experience is if you do too much of one you become presumptuous and pretentious, and nobody will follow you and be interested in participating. But if you do too much of the other you become a little bit boring and there is no space to be challenged or to have different opinions come together and try to collectively think bigger picture. So, for me, I see the role of the EFC a little bit like the undertow in the ocean. The waves are on top and they’re the ones you see that generate the most tangible action, but there is a current where it comes together and you’re able to leverage the different elements in a way that is helpful and support them in finding the collective direction needed.

I’ve been the first female secretary general at my two previous organisations, and it was never such a big deal… To me, that means within philanthropy, it was high time for us to find it normal that a woman could come in and be the CEO. I didn’t apply for the role of Female CEO, I just applied for the role of CEO, you know?

How challenging is it to do that given how diverse European philanthropy is?

I’ve always worked in associations – I mean all of my jobs have been in federations, international associations, international secretariats – and I think it’s always challenging. It requires you to, on the one hand, really listen to your members and understand what is unique and specifically important for them individually, which is different from anybody else; while, on the other hand, always looking at the bigger picture and seeing how you can connect the diverse individual members to something collective, that is a bit of that current. It’s perhaps not as concrete as what you can do with an organisation that has its own distinct and singular mission, but it is there, and it does help capitalise on individual members’ actions and generate a bigger sectorial impact. I think that’s the role of infrastructure and it requires patience, and it requires accepting that you’re going to mostly move two steps forward and one step back, but that’s okay. As long as it’s going in the right direction that’s fine.

There are other issues that affect every member, in fact, everyone who’s alive like climate. Could you see that as an issue which the EFC can organise around and push the sector?

I think so. I think climate is definitely one of the key topics that do keep our members awake at night and it should, for all the right reasons. As an infrastructure organisation, we also must connect the dots between the different conversations that we have. What I’m seeing now within the EFC is that ultimately climate is somehow discussed in different networks and different communities, but that those are conversations happening within a specific context, and I’d be really interested in bringing all that together and seeing how there is a thread between all of these conversations. How can they inform each other and build towards something that is stronger than what we’re able to do within the individual conversations?

There are issues like climate that affect everyone, no matter where in the world you are. Photo credit: Unsplash.

 

There have been a number of climate commitments that have been pioneered by European philanthropy bodies in the UK, France, Spain and now Italy. Do you have an estimate of how many of the EFC members are now signed up to these commitments?

We have quite a few of our members[1] that are signing up to these commitments, and we also want to mobilise them to do so. The interesting thing about the climate commitments is it’s not only about organisations that are already keenly committed to climate, it’s about organisations that aren’t but know they should be doing something and want to do something but are overwhelmed by the vast, complex, and difficult nature of the work.

It has been hugely inspiring to see our membership respond with such agility to the [Covid] crisis, and I am eager for us to continue building on the momentum.

With the climate commitments, they set out these big, lofty goals but often lack specific measures for accountability. Do you think there’s space for the EFC, or infrastructure bodies, in general, to encourage accountability with these commitments?

I very much hope so. I think big, lofty goals are good because you need to have an idea of where you want to go. But it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t follow up and follow through. And I do think that as infrastructure we have a role to play in that – not in terms of policing our membership (I mean it doesn’t work with my children, it probably doesn’t work with the members either), but in creating the opportunity and safe space needed for mutual accountability and learning together and being inspired by practices that are done by others, and I’m convinced that we would be able to do that as well.

Do you think there should be an external body that does police foundations? Governments are policed by Climate Action Tracker, funded by philanthropy to measure government action towards climate commitments. Should there be an equivalent body for philanthropy?

I’ve been thinking about that. I don’t have a full answer. I’ve seen systems that work in other fields where you don’t necessarily have an external body but a membership approach towards accountability. For example, with child safeguarding, we’ve seen the different types of crises in this context. In response, entities have been set up that provide a service whereby you can be audited in terms of your policies, your principles, your practices, and you can be helped and guided towards doing better. For philanthropy, it could be something between a self-regulation system and external accountability, but one that you co-own so you feel more committed and safe working in the right direction. Ultimately, I think that works better than full policing.

The EFC has partnerships, dialogues, and collaborations with China, India, and Russia. How does the EFC engage with global philanthropy when it comes to these big worldwide issues?

I think our membership very much understands the global framework of all the areas of work. We did some research in 2019 where 84 per cent of our members said that global context was a reason for them to want to work internationally. And one of the members in this survey responded – and I really like this –that ultimately the global challenges we’re facing, whether it’s immigration or climate change, are felt most strongly at the local level. Which is true, this is where it hits, right? I think that’s in a way how foundations are operating. And at the EFC as well we have that keen interest in learning together through the learning journeys that we have with Russia, with India, with China, and we’ll continue to do those. They have been hugely beneficial in many ways, also including for us to put ourselves in a different context. It also gives us the insight of a membership that’s not exclusively European – we have US members, African members, Russian members. They add a lot of opportunities to connect the dots and think bigger picture, and we’re quite eager to continue collaborating across regions. But also, with issues like climate as we’ve mentioned, it’s pretty obvious that we’re just not going to be solving them alone. The global efforts and initiatives that we’ve seen from WINGS with the support of Dafne for instance have been fantastic in this field and we’re definitely very much in favour of playing our part and being a trustworthy, credible partner that helps and supports where it can.

What hopes do you have for European philanthropy?

My first hope is that philanthropy is aware of the privileged responsibility that it has. When I first joined, I spoke with all the members of our Governing Council and one of them said that if you’re very strong you must also be very kind, and I think that’s so true for philanthropy too. We are, in a way, really privileged and strong, and it brings a huge responsibility on us to do so well in the big scheme of things and to really help and contribute where we can. That attitude is something I’m hopeful to see continue. A second hope that I have is that we will continue to strengthen our ability of creating solutions in conversations and dialogue with each other, but just as importantly with other sectors. And a third hope I have for philanthropy is that we’re able to unite in diversity, contributing each from the different perspectives we bring, while not losing sight of the bigger issues like climate, democracy, equality, to look in the same direction and with that mobilise each other to look upwards and out rather than inwards and down.

This conversation was condensed and edited for clarity.

The EFC conference is taking place this year from 18-20 October. Alliance magazine will be providing coverage of the event. Subscribe today so you don’t miss any of it.

Elika Roohi is Digital Editor at Alliance magazine, and Charles Keidan is Executive Editor.


Footnotes

  1. ^ Editor’s note: The EFC confirmed after this interview that 19 of its members are signed up to climate commitments. The organisation has 245 members across 33 countries according to its website.

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