Interview – Pier Mario Vello

‘It’s true that you need more time, but this is not a minus, it’s a plus, because at the beginning it makes you spend time going deeply into the missions and objectives of the project and so on.’

In 2008, four major Italian foundations (Compagnia di San Paolo, Fondazione Cariparma, Fondazione Cariplo and Monte dei Paschi di Siena) joined forces to form Fondazioni4Africa, with the aim of improving strategic intervention and maximizing the effectiveness of their work. Caroline Hartnell spoke to Pier Mario Vello, secretary general of Fondazione Cariplo, about the initiative.

Fondazioni4Africa is the first attempt at a systematic collaborative approach among Italian banking foundations. What have you learned about collaboration from the experience so far?

In this period of economic crisis, with the public sector cutting back, I think that setting up partnerships among foundations or other organizations is the key for the future in the third sector. In many cases it can create positive leverage, and it reduces the waste of money and time. With our Intercultural Districts project, for example, we are giving €20 million, but we have brought in another €45 million from other organizations – local organizations, culture groups and even the public sector. This gives us a pool of resources and much better leverage for our money.

I see the same phenomenon with Fondazioni4Africa – at the beginning four foundations came together, but later we were joined by Umano Progresso, a private foundation that will be involved for three years, and Fondazione De Agostini, a corporate foundation that has given us a one-off grant. I think pooling resources is a good answer to the economic crisis.

If I was going to play devil’s advocate I would say that those resources have come from somewhere else – you’ve pulled them to your project, but what would they have been doing otherwise?

True, but we have an added value due to the concentration of resources in a project that is well managed and strategic. Many foundations are coming together and discussing how to use the money without wasting it.

You say that it saves time and money but one criticism of collaboration is that it takes time to negotiate with your partners and that needs to be weighed against the value of the collaboration – what do you feel about that?

It’s true that you need more time, but this is not a minus, it’s a plus, because at the beginning it makes you spend time going deeply into the missions and objectives of the project and so on. I think it’s a mistake to take short cuts. The right approach is to spend enough time at the beginning of a project discussing the division of work and sharing the vision and goals of the project. When you have several foundations around the table of course you need more time, but this saves mistakes later and also gives more strength to the project. It’s more difficult but it’s worth doing.

While you are discussing the vision with the other foundations, do you feel you have to make any compromises over Cariplo’s vision?

Yes, of course you have to do some compromising. You have to be flexible and not impose your way of doing things. But all these foundations are doing the same job, more or less, and we speak the same language, so I think it’s possible. In the Intercultural Districts project, we are partnering with J P Morgan Philanthropy. They require some specific constraints, so we have to be a bit flexible. If this is done with transparency and without violating the rules of philanthropy it’s OK.

What sort of constraints are you talking about with J P Morgan Philanthropy?

Well, for example, mostly we have foundations putting their money in a pool and this will finance a number of projects. In this case, they asked to finance specific projects because they want to have a real sense of the situation of their projects. Generally we don’t do this, but in this case we can change our rules because it’s in the interests of transparency. Having said that, we must have some steady rules, for example about the administrative audit and transparency. If the project is audited or monitored the result should be transparent and control should be possible by any organization.

Another potential difficulty of collaboration is the lack of attribution – you can’t be sure what your foundation contributed. If, like Cariplo, you believe in assessing your results, is that a problem?

No, I don’t think so because if you are partners you have to discuss the whole project and follow it during its different phases. Rather than each partner being responsible for only one or two deliverables, you are responsible for the whole project. The steering committee should be overseeing it, so it’s not difficult at all.

So in the development and two years of operation of Fondazioni4Africa, have there been any difficulties?

Yes, of course we have seen some difficulties. For example, with the project in the real field of action in Africa and us located here, the organization is a bit more complicated, and it’s really important to have continuous feedback from the ground. We also have several evaluation processes going on: we have two other organizations, Fondazione.Sud and the University Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, which are responsible for monitoring north Uganda and Senegal, and we have Ernst & Young, which looks after the auditing process. I think that a project as complicated as ours should have this type of monitoring though, because it’s really important that the steering committee have regular updates on how the project is performing.

But that is a difficulty of the project being in Africa and being an ambitious project, rather than a difficulty of working in a collaborative. Have you had any difficulties arising out of the process of trying to do things with three other big Italian foundations?

Not at all. As I said before, it is just a little more complicated. If you are setting up a project alone you don’t have a steering committee, you are the project leader and can make decisions yourself. In a partnership, you must discuss more, you must share the vision and the goals. This is the only complication I see at the moment. But generally we find among foundations a good spirit of philanthropy that should help to make partnerships work.

Are the programme managers based in Italy or in Africa?

There is a project manager based in Italy who coordinates the whole project and this cost is shared among the participating foundations. In Africa we have two areas – Senegal and north Uganda – so we decided among the steering committee to divide the project leadership so that Cariplo leads the Uganda activities and Compagnia de San Paolo leads the Senegal activities. But of course we report to the steering committee together.

One issue I’ve come across with other collaborations is maintaining interest and buy-in in the leadership of the foundations. The programme managers are running the collaborative project, but if the president or director of the foundation loses interest then that becomes a difficulty. Has that been an issue at all?

That could be a weakness because foundations come in with different ideas. For example, Umano Progresso has an ongoing commitment, but Fondazione De Agostini decided to support the Uganda work with a one-off grant. So there could be a problem with maintaining the commitment of foundations for the project … but this is a risk for every project, I would say.

Based on your Fondazioni4Africa experience, what would you say to another foundation leader who was thinking of going into a collaborative project like this? What advice would you give them?

Yes! Do it – why not? Everyone can have a part to play. For example in our Intercultural Districts project, alongside those who are helping with finance we also have Bertelsmann Stiftung, which is not paying but helping us on the knowledge side. It’s great, it works.

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