Public trust in European foundations is generally sound, but the sector must still make efforts to raise the bar on its standards of transparency. This was the key message from some 35 European foundation leaders recently convened by the EFC and the Wellcome Trust in London.
The knee-jerk reaction of foundations to questions of legitimacy tends to be defensive or silent, believing that such questions stem from public mistrust. However, participants at the meeting noted that scrutiny is generally triggered not by suspicion but by a natural interest to know about the activities of a sector that works in the public space and benefits from generous tax benefits. The rise in public attention is also in part due to the tightening of the purse strings of national governments that are looking for ways to fill the funding gaps. Only a small part of public scrutiny stems from negative media accounts of a few ‘bad apples’.
Foundations have a responsibility to have a clear mission and vision that is revisited regularly, strong financial stewardship and governance, and high-quality staff. It was agreed that these characteristics, when clearly communicated and implemented with integrity, strategic vision and common sense, should reinforce a sense of trust in the sector’s role as valuable partners in bettering societies. However, participants cautioned against complacency in the sector. Self-regulatory frameworks and standards must be reviewed, improved and implemented, participants argued, to ensure even greater transparency and, most importantly, to avoid unwanted additional legal regulatory red tape.
The topic of public and self-regulation governing the transparency of foundations was also debated at the EFC’s Autumn Assembly on 7 November, which brought together some 150 participants and provided the opportunity to discuss a recent DAFNE/EFC study on transparency and accountability. There was a common consensus that the EFC should review its Principles of Good Practice, illustrating how they are adhered to by its members.
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