In Anthony Tomei’s brilliant piece on ‘Changing roles in a changing world’ in the June issue of Alliance, he makes the point, among others, that given the defining characteristic of foundations – their independence – their role in partnerships should not consist merely of acquiescing and writing cheques. Rather, they should aim to be bolder and to ensure that civil society holds governments to account. While this accountability is perhaps needed in both emerging and established economies now more than ever, Tomei rightly points out that as NGO budgets continue to diminish and state funding becomes a crutch, it is increasingly difficult for NGOs to perform this vital function.
Foundations must therefore be more willing to engage seriously with other civil society actors to ensure that robust post-austerity partnerships are more able to speak truth to power. For our sector, the need to take on this challenging and questioning role could likely be the most significant single consequence of the global financial crisis. If we cannot emerge from this crisis with a clear commitment to a more coherent and discernible civil society presence in policymaking, we will be failing in our custodial responsibilities.
Another defining characteristic of foundations should, in my view, be ‘experimental’. I wish more foundations would see it as their duty – exactly because of their independence – to more confidently and creatively challenge, change and improve the world around them. But it is important to remember that foundation resources are finite, and the difference in scale between withdrawing state funding and potential funding from the entire philanthropic sector, even if it were to be combined, is like comparing a sea to a swimming pool. Too often this fact is forgotten, overlooked or even arrogantly ignored.
Sometimes while swimming in a pool it may feel like a huge amount of water, but it is important to keep perspective. I felt it unfortunate, therefore, that Tomei’s piece ended with a reference to the ‘deep pockets’ of foundations and the need for our partners to look beyond these. Foundations’ pockets, alas, are very shallow and will, moreover, likely continue to be used in an uncoordinated fashion. Foundations need to remain independent, and by all means they should be prudent with their pool water, but at the same time they must become more comfortable in partnerships, and guard this independence less jealously.
I hope foundations can adapt and occupy this avant-garde space more confidently because, returning to the swimming pool and relying on a familiar Bob Dylan quote: ‘You better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone for the times they are a-changin’.’
Chief executive, European Foundation Centre