Acupuncture and swimming pools: A helicopter’s view of foundations and policy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Gerry Salole

In advance of its annual EuroPhilantopics event, which brings together philanthropists and EU policymakers to address the opportunities and challenges facing Europe in the next decade, the EFC’s Chief Executive Gerry Salole argues that foundations’ niche is playing the role of skilled acupuncturist.

By Gerry Salole, European Foundation Centre Chief Executive Officer

It is a truism to speak of times as being particularly ‘ripe for change’. And yet, this particular point in Europe’s history, with mounting scepticism of the unravelling economy, appalling employment and livelihood prospects and a growing and palpable dissatisfaction with singularly uninspiring and hapless leadership, offers civil society a unique opportunity for policy engagement.

Foundations are extremely conscious that they only possess what amounts to swimming-pool money, as compared to the seemingly bottomless sea water money commanded by the state and bi-laterals. Moreover, expectations that foundations would even contemplate utilising their precious, scarce and finite resources to substitute dwindling (and unimaginative use of?) public resources are wholly unrealistic.  Foundations are not money-bags looking for something (anything!) to fund. The role that foundations must play, especially in these changeable times, is that of the skilled acupuncturist, who adeptly makes the right incisions in precisely the right place at precisely the right time.  Indeed, acupuncture is at its most effective when the rest of the body accepts the needles and the job they are trying to do.

Thus, institutional philanthropy is presented with a real existential challenge: technology, geopolitics and social trends, with their unforeseen outcomes and consequences, all now blend into a spiral of instability that shapes our world. In such times, the charge is to reinvent our role, to make sense of the emergent landscape, to prototype ideas that provide an additive value: in short, to position foundations to make use of their specific and unique advantages in ways that are authentically connected to the efforts of other players.

This requires a better understanding and explanation of the toolkits that we have at our disposal.  A fresh and radically different attitude towards close collaboration with decision makers and functionaries so that these acupuncture needles we have perfected so carefully can be really effective.  The art of making the acupuncture intervention an integral part of everyday policy is the most important challenge we face going forward.

Foundations invest in all stages of the lifecycles of citizens, in the communities of which they are part, and in the places those communities inhabit. They test new ways of financing infrastructure and services, and of engaging with governments to shape and influence policy. Taking an approach that centres on leveraging the assets already in communities’ hands, be these social, cultural, financial, or skills-based, foundations can apply philanthropy as an enabler of existing resources, rather than reinventing the wheel, and can simultaneously play to their own strengths as independent funders with capacity for risk and flexibility. The impact of foundations’ collaboration with communities can be multiplied through engagement with policy and decision-makers at all levels. The agility, independence and freedom of foundations allows them to get into the areas that governments cannot, to find and analyse new opportunities of facilitating change in an world in which private and public money must converge, and at a time when so much is being questioned about the mandate and the means to bring about positive and permanent societal change.

As a sector we face questions that go right to the heart of who we are and what we seek to achieve: questions around our legitimacy, our impact, how we manage our investments, and how we contribute to building sustainable institutions and advancing systemic change. We are also seeing the rapid emergence of an array of new philanthropic forms and models of working that sometimes challenge established foundation practice and sometimes sound like they are merely advocating old wine in new bottles.

These are all policy areas that demand critical reflection and action from foundations. It is central to the EFC’s purpose as an association to provoke discussion and enable the articulation of alternative voices and discourse on these issues.

Thus, we are seeking to strengthen our capability in collective intelligence building, pin-pointing opportunities, and catalysing philanthropic collaboration, on both wider societal challenges and the well-being of our sector.  A flag for foundations planted firmly on the Brussels map, the EFC raises the visibility and voice of foundations in Europe’s policy and legislative capital, showcases their work to broad and influential audiences, and facilitates dialogue with the European and international institutions whose agendas affect us all.


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