Based in São Paulo, Brazil, the Fundaçao Maria Cecília Souto Vidigal describes itself as an ‘intelligence organization’, helping to produce and disseminate ideas and information on solutions to Brazil’s social problems. Olga Alexeeva talked to Regina Vidigal Guarita, its president and daughter of the founder, about how, as a donor, she sees her responsibility to society and whether being involved in philanthropy produces a greater sense of that responsibility.
Is there such a thing as donor responsibility to society? I’m talking here about private donors, not company donors.
Ours has always been a family foundation, but it’s interesting to observe how it’s changed through the years. Our foundation began with my father in 1965. Since he died in 2003, it’s very clear that there has been a big maturation in our society and people are now more aware of their responsibility. The members of our family who run the foundation are prepared for it and it is a kind of a career. If you have an endowment you have to take care of it, and when you see the next generation preparing to do that, it is very rewarding.
What do you think has changed in the last say 10 to 15 years that has made you change the foundation?
I think the change has happened not just in Brazil but in the whole world. It’s not just a matter of social responsibility; in a sense it’s almost the closing of the industrial era and the beginning of a new one. We are all getting ready to work for society in general. The change is affecting us in Brazil in that we used to have very few family foundations, but now they are beginning to be established and, like ours, are professionalizing and approaching their work very seriously.
Has anything changed in the programmes or causes that your foundation supports in the last 10 years?
Things have changed a lot because formerly philanthropy here in Brazil was a matter of giving money to remedy immediate social problems and that was all. Nowadays it’s all completely different: we have programmes and we look to today, tomorrow and 10 and 20 years ahead. We understand what our identity as donors is and make conscious decisions about where to put our money and where we should pay attention and we build a programme for the long term.
The big word today is assessment, which is a word that used not to exist at all. Today we carry out an ongoing assessment process, and this tells us what is going well or not going well and how and when to correct things to obtain good results. Also, we want commitment, we want commitment all the time; this is also something very new, which didn’t exist in our society at one time.
Has this approach allowed foundations like yours to influence public policy, to influence government policy for the first time?
Yes, we look for this all the time because it’s a very good result for the foundation. You understand that what you’re working for will continue if it has become public policy, an obligation of government. So this is a success, the biggest success we could have, and it’s what we look for.
We also look to work with enterprises as well as government, what we call the second sector. In our sector, the third sector, we look for partnerships all the time – this is another characteristic of our time. Before, nobody was worried about getting partners and today we understand that this is an obligation. You work well and get good outcomes if you have partners. Again, this is not only in Brazil, it’s all around the world. Another characteristic of the philanthropy scene today is that the world is a very small one.
It may seem surprising, but we don’t have very good connections with other foundations in South America. Generally, when we try to build a new relationship, we look to Europe and to the United States. Building closer relationships with other foundations in the region is something we need to do better. We are in fact trying to do this, but in a very small way because we are just one foundation.
Our first programme is directed to early childhood development and we have run two workshops. For the first one, we wanted to bring together people from all around the world, including South Americans, who could give us information about this subject. The second one focused on assessment and we had people from South America there too, who were invited to talk about different models. This year we are doing another workshop, on the importance of communication. Again, we are inviting people from South America, the United States and Europe to enlarge our discussions. So this may be the beginning of a way to build relationships in South America.
Do you think foundations should fund what are called difficult causes, like human rights protection, for example, or problems that don’t have wide public support?
We already have foundations and institutions in Brazil that work on these issues, because we are very aware of this kind of problem – though I wouldn’t say that this sort of work should be undertaken by family or private foundations, more by public institutions or corporate foundations. But programmes do exist and they are very successful.
Do you think the concept of private social responsibility should extend beyond philanthropy? For example, should families engaged in philanthropy also apply the principles that underlie it to their own lives – to how they deal with employees, tenants, etc?
In our family, we know that our responsibility is to educate our children and we are sure this will be easier because we have philanthropy in our family. Other families I’ve talked to who are involved in philanthropy feel the same – it’s a way of education for life. For adults and for children, even small children, if their parents are involved in philanthropy, then they are aware of social problems and society in general. The parents pass their knowledge and values on to the child and the child grows up and becomes involved, too.
Do you think that philanthropy helps to bridge class and racial divides in Brazilian society?
I’m sure of it, because if you are a philanthropist, you understand it is the individual you are taking care of, the human being. So race or colour or religion or politics, none of that matters, that’s not philanthropy. You are looking at the individual human being. So I believe it’s a bridge, it’s a huge bridge, and I believe that the world is opening up because of this, which makes me very happy.
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