Interview – Gerry Salole

Why were you interested in the job of CEO at the European Foundation Centre?

I believe there’s a moment now for European foundations to engage with citizens in a way that they haven’t done before that needs to be grasped. I applied for the job because I thought that it might be rewarding to be involved in European philanthropy at this critical moment.

You’ve been working in South Africa for a US foundation. Will it be a big challenge to come to grips with what’s going on in Europe?

There are, of course, a lot of things that I don’t know, but there are also a lot of things that are very familiar. I’ve been on the board of several membership associations and grantmaker associations in southern Africa and elsewhere. I’m British, and spent the formative part of my youth in the UK, but I’ve lived in Norway and Italy, I’ve worked in the Netherlands for the Bernard van Leer Foundation, and I’ve been staying pretty much in touch with the European foundation scene. I think philanthropy is going to be confronted by much the same challenges worldwide.

What do you see as the priorities over the next few years?

I think there are three principal challenges. First, we have to beef up our work on the European Union front. We do a good job and we have some fantastic work on the fiscal and tax issues, but I think we can do even more. About 60 per cent of legislation that’s going to affect philanthropic institutions is being generated in Brussels, and we need to be better at reading it, communicating it to the members, and responding to it. The EFC made what I think was a very good, very quick response to the suggested anti-terrorism legislation. It’s the kind of thing we need to do more and publicize more.

The second challenge is the relationship with the national associations of donors (NADs) in the countries we work in. Where associations haven’t coalesced, I think we need to help them. Where there are established ones – in the UK, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands, for example – we need a partnership based on mutual respect, where we use each other’s resources and engage with each other in a way that makes sense.

How many members does the EFC have?

The EFC is still a small association – we have to aim to become bigger. We have about 200 full members and associates and we have a relationship with the NADs as well as some 350 community philanthropy initiatives. All in all, we engage with about 5,000 institutions, mostly in Europe and the US.

The third challenge is the relationship with the member states in Europe and the new neighbours – those countries that are now contiguous with the EU. I anticipate that there will be less of a separation between what we do in Western Europe around taxation and fiscal legislation and what SEAL has been publishing on Eastern Europe. I’d like to see more active engagement of foundations from all member states at the EFC.

Increasing giving to developing countries has been a big push in the EFC recently, particularly through Europe in the World. Do you think the need to work with the new neighbour countries is going to get in the way of moving forward on the wider global front?

No, I don’t think so. In fact, in some ways those aspects of our work are complementary. I think there’s enough energy and diversity in the membership to do both. Europe has yet to show its muscle – there’s huge potential there. People are, for example, startled to hear that a couple of the Italian foundations have a similar asset base to the Ford Foundation.

Some of our members have a strong history of grantmaking outside Europe. I think the question is how we can encourage foundations to do more. Even when their mandate obliges them to spend their resources domestically, there are ways they could further an international agenda, for example through their own universities and research institutions, and that’s something I’d like to explore.

How do you see the code of practice for EFC members developing?

A much more thorough code of practice is imminent. It’s currently being updated by a working group. New members will have to accept it as a condition of membership, and existing members will have to explicitly agree to it. The notion of a code of practice underpinning the role of European foundations is a fundamental building block for European grantmakers.

Do you see any conflict between taking on a self-regulation role for the sector and being a membership organization and catering for your members’ needs?

No, we have a responsibility to our members to develop benchmarks and standards and to anticipate what the sector needs to do before we’re pushed into a situation where we are obliged to comply with standards not designed by us. The obvious advantage of doing this well in advance and under our own steam is that we can have much more control over what eventually emerges.

At the moment the EFC receives about 35 per cent of its funding from the US, mainly in the form of project grants. Would you like to see the EFC getting more of its funding from European sources?

I do want much more European funding for European projects, and I do believe the resources are there within Europe. The fact that a European membership association is so dependent on US funding of its programmes is a challenge for me. Do we still want US funding? Yes, if there is a mutuality of interest. I’d certainly like to keep that door open. What I would very much like to see is European funding for projects matching or exceeding funding from our US members.

Given the wealth that exists in Europe, doesn’t it seem strange that a membership organization for European foundations needs money from the US?

I’m not sure it is a question of ‘needing’ money from the US. Part of the answer is that US foundations are full members of the EFC and they have grantmaking aspirations in Europe. For instance, when the Berlin Wall fell, US foundations had an interest in what happened in Eastern Europe, so they joined a membership organization in Europe as a way of piloting programmes. Similarly, I could imagine that if European foundations wanted to explore some aspect of deprivation in the US – say, the crisis after Hurricane Katrina – they might talk to the Council on Foundations about it and put some resources in. So I’d like to see us working across the Atlantic in both directions.

What do you see as the EFC’s major achievements so far?

It’s a small organization, with an annual budget of about €3 million, but you look at what it produces – the annual meeting, the publications, the website – and you see that it is really punching above its weight. My job has to be to recognize what’s already there and help the institution to take another look at what it’s doing. And maybe to give it a second boost, but frankly the first boost was very powerful. The staff really own the programmes, their blood and their sweat is in the organization. One of the big challenges is how to keep that energy and enthusiasm, reward it and push it forward. I hope I’m up to the challenge.

Gerry Salole became CEO of the European Foundation Centre at the beginning of September. He was Representative at the Ford Foundation Southern Africa Office from 1999 to 2005. He can be contacted at


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