Interview – Rien van Gendt

Everybody’s talking about the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Resolutions, reports, declarations – rhetoric from all sides, including the foundation world. The European Foundation Centre (EFC), for one, has expressed its support for the MDGs on a number of occasions over the past two years. But, as everyone knows, talk is cheap. Meeting the MDGs, by contrast, will involve vast sums of money.

Is there anything beyond the rhetoric? And in view of the scale of resources involved, can foundations serve any useful purpose in respect of the MDGs? Should they not rather leave the field to governments and multilaterals? ‘Yes’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’, respectively, says Rien van Gendt of the Van Leer Group Foundation. Alliance asked him why, and what, in his view, foundations ought to be doing.

The flow of words has certainly been impressive. In May 2003, the EFC’s International Committee issued a declaration expressing their intention ‘to play an increasing and effective role in delivering The Goals set out by the Secretary General of the United Nations at The Millennium’. The latest issue of the EFC’s newsletter EFC Newsline uses the expression ‘working within the framework of the MDGs’ three times on the first page. As Chairman of the International Committee, van Gendt was instrumental in forming the EFC’s declared commitment – ‘though I’m not generally much in favour of declarations’.

Clearly, though, it’s one thing to say and another to do. How helpful are public statements? If declarations remain simply as rhetoric, he acknowledges, then obviously they would not be useful, but ‘there are some concrete activities taking place that are worthwhile’. He gives as an instance the meeting that foundations had following the World Economic Forum to discuss what foundations were already doing with respect to the MDGs and what else they could do. ‘If foundations are prepared to put their work in the framework of the MDGs and then establish relationships with UN organizations, that is relevant for the UN and for those foundations.’

Warts and all

He readily admits that the MDGs themselves are far from perfect. One of his grounds for criticism is what he describes as their ‘reductionist approach’. ‘What is not mentioned is not seen as important.’ He gives the example of early childhood development – the focus of the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s (BvLF’s) work. Primary education for all is one of the MDGs but it is seen mainly in terms of formal schooling, ‘so we still have to make the case constantly that learning starts at birth’. In general, it is in the nature of the MDGs to see child welfare in terms of things that can be reduced to statistics, whereas BvLF is not looking so much at ‘issues like mortality or malnutrition, we are more looking at potential, resilience, strength. That’s difficult to cast in the Millennium Development Goals.’

The MDGs also bring too much emphasis on simple fulfilment of what are after all meant to be minimal targets. ‘The danger always is that people feel that that’s it. The same thing can be said of regulations: we try to comply, and then we feel that we are there, and we lose sight of performance.’

Another criticism he has is that ‘you can reach the Millennium Development Goals and still miss out on the poorest people’ because disparity issues are not being addressed. These criticisms notwithstanding, he feels that foundations should get behind the MDGs. But they should also be critical, ‘speaking out on them and at the same time seeing how they can serve us in pursuing our objectives’.

Where foundations come in

Not all foundations would agree with embracing the MDGs. Leaving aside the question of their ‘reductionist’ approach, some feel that they are simply irrelevant to their work. Van Gendt produces a number of reasons for disagreeing. He concedes that as far as material resources go, governments and multilaterals have to be the main contributors. ‘Too often we are approached because there are funding possibilities.’ Given the scale that achievement of the MDGs demands, foundation resources are insignificant – with perhaps one notable exception. ‘The Gates Foundation has such significant resources that it can play a role like the government.’

However, there are two areas, he feels, where foundations could play a crucial role. They are better equipped than either governments or multilaterals to reach and engage civil society organizations: ‘It would give the UN and governments more credibility, in my opinion, if you could unlock civil society organizations in various countries, and foundations can be helpful with that. Our partners are mostly NGOs rather than the parastatals or government agencies. Mostly we work with grassroots community-based organizations. A partnership with foundations on the MDGs should have an advantage for the UN in that it will give them access to civil society.’

There is also a possible ripple effect. It is not just a question of forging links with those organizations that foundations support directly. Internationally operating foundations have extensive networks of contacts. These might include, for instance, NGO umbrella organizations, which the foundation might even have been instrumental in helping set up. Foundations could play a brokerage role, linking larger development agencies to such networks.

Qualitative not quantitative

A second vital contribution, he argues, is that foundations can concentrate on the qualitative rather than quantitative aspects of the MDGs. The MDGs are ‘often phrased in terms of quantitative targets’. Citing as an example the work of European funders on HIV/AIDS, he feels what foundations have to offer is ‘not so much … how can our money contribute to the achievements of those quantitative targets but, more, what are interesting models? Where is the innovation? What is emerging locally? What can we strengthen?’


Obviously, foundations explore these questions informally and independently of any high-profile international development agenda – ‘the European network of HIV/AIDS funders should exist anyhow apart from the MDGs’ – but there is some merit in it happening formally as well, that is, within some partnership with the UN. ‘Cooperation with the UN,’ he suggests, ‘has an advantage for us as foundations, that it gives us a possibility to reach out to governments in a more structured way.’

To sum up his view of this aspect of the MDGs: ‘I see them really as an instrument to create partnerships.’ Nor is it just a matter of foundations working with the UN. As he suggests above, there are instances of foundations beginning to collaborate among themselves.

Promoting international grantmaking

This is not just partnership for partnership’s sake. It is a way of promoting international grantmaking, something which both Europe in the World (see and the EFC International Committee aim to do. He gives as an example the possibility of creating a community foundation in Thailand. The tsunami has provided both a motor and a focus for this, he says. He has approached ‘foundations in Europe that had never been involved in international giving, or had never worked in Asia, and they said yes, we would like to do this’. The tsunami has thus provided a suitable opportunity for him to approach other grantmakers at a time when the magnitude of the cause has engaged their compassion. He feels that the MDGs can provide the same sort of trigger; they can be ‘an instrument to give a boost to international grantmaking’.

The rhetoric, too, plays its part here ‘if it is repeated, and if you see that what starts with a declaration leads to engaging people from the UN in the programme committees of the next EFC meeting’. There are times, he believes, when it is possible to shift the parameters. As with the tsunami, people can be inspired to go beyond their mandate, and this is a starting point for a more structured discussion of that mandate. So, in spite of their flaws, he says: ‘I saw the fact that the Millennium Development Goals could stimulate organizations to think more about global issues.’

Internally, within foundations, too, they can provide a lever for increased international giving: ‘I think if you go to your board, and can point not just at other foundations doing this and the possibilities of partnerships with them but at the fact that your own government has adopted the MDGs, I think that makes an easier case to push the envelope of international giving.’

Foundations as lobbyists

He also feels there is an important part for foundations to play in bringing national governments up to scratch in the matter of making good their promises of support for the MDGs, making sure that they ‘walk the talk’. ‘There are major conferences where people make pledges and don’t live up to them, so the question is how can you mobilize in those countries.’ Foundations can provide a focus of public opinion to bring pressure to bear on national governments.

One of the difficulties in this, he acknowledges, is that foundations have not traditionally been very effective in an advocacy role themselves (as distinct from, say, supporting groups that are). Again, the MDGs provide an opportunity for foundations to make their own voices heard. At the Bernard van Leer Foundation, he says, ‘it was felt that it is an interesting instrument that we’re not using. What is the role of the Van Leer Foundation in the Netherlands and how can we be in dialogue with the government? The MDGs provide us with a very legitimate way to do so.’

The role of the private sector

Private sector involvement in development, he feels, should be quite different from what foundations do. Involvement should not be through corporate social responsibility, ‘but should be seen more in terms of innovative business models to reach out to, as people say, the bottom of the pyramid. Given the scale of the problems, I don’t think that a corporation should come in as if they were a foundation. The really exciting work,’ he believes, ‘is done more through the regular business, looking at how to make products and services accessible, how to design them in relation to local people. And they eventually see it as a market opportunity.’

But isn’t there a danger that companies will simply see this as a marketing opportunity, making goods accessible to poorer consumers and not providing any benefit to the community? Of course there is a possibility of biasing the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ approach towards the company’s self-interest, van Gendt admits, especially if you don’t have some sort of approach to retaining some of the wealth that is created within those communities. But the same is true of corporate social responsibility, certain elements of which, he feels, are ‘closer to marketing and sponsoring’. But, he insists, there are also some very thoughtful and genuine approaches ‘if you are in a position to combine international R&D with local knowledge, so it is not about simply making consumer products more accessible’.

Time for action

So it’s not just empty rhetoric. Rien van Gendt sees signs of movement in the foundation world and in foundation-UN relations. He also sees opportunities for foundations to act as opinion-formers and make their voices heard and their influence felt more widely. Perhaps most important of all, he sees the MDGs as a crucial opportunity to shift the foundation world and its resources more decisively in the direction of international grantmaking.

He is aware, though, how easy it is for rhetoric to remain simply rhetoric: ‘Looking at the EFC, I think we are on the verge of going from awareness raising to giving it hands and feet and becoming more specific … I think the time has passed for another annual meeting of the EFC at the level of general commitment. Either you have to stop talking or you have to take it a step further, to look at what you can do together.’

Rien van Gendt is Executive Director of the Van Leer Group Foundation and former Chair of the International Committee of the EFC. He can be contacted at

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