Christopher G. Oechsli, President and Chief Executive Officer, The Atlantic Philanthropies
Martin Bradley OBE, Chair, Millennium Forum
Michael Murphy, Co-Founder and Executive Director, MASS Design
Jesper Nygård, Chief Executive Officer, Realdania
Daniela Castagno, Head of Institutional Affairs Office, Fondazione con il Sud
Andrew Pinkerton, Project Development Manager, Isle of Luing Trust
‘’Buildings are verbs not nouns’’, the words of Michael Murphy from Mass Design adeptly captured the spirit of the debate at last week’s Inter-Act hosted by EFC in Philanthropy House. The debate addressed the value of capital investment and its potential to catalyse living change in communities. The substance of this debate addressed some critical questions – how investors can ensure capital projects are an asset to a community and not a poison chalice; what can we learn from the triumphs and failures of existing investments? While the majority of foundations herald the notion of ‘community engagement’, what does this mean in practical terms? This led to a frank exchange.
The Atlantic Philanthropies, who co-organised this debate, is a limited life foundation that, by 2016, will have invested $2.8bn into physical infrastructure with a focus on the power of the built environment to bring about community transformation. Christopher Oeschli, President and CEO of Atlantic opened the debate by discussing the foundation’s desire to share its learnings and listen to its partners and grantees as it draws closer to its closure. The foundation aims to ensure this finalising process will form a valuable part of their legacy.
One such grantee was Martin Bradley, Chair of the Millennium Forum, an arts and cultural venue in Derry/Londonderry that received funding from Atlantic beginning in 2001. For Bradley, the Millennium Forum provided a symbol, an apolitical shared space symbolising a new beginning for a city with a troubled past and deep set tensions between Protestant and Catholic communities. But Bradley conceded, a symbol, while powerful, was not enough. In the first year it opened, the forum was on the brink of bankruptcy, an injection of cash was only the beginning and the business plan’s initial forecasts had been unrealistic. The point of learning for them was to have worked with the local community to ensure success and to grow an audience, which required combining the skills set of planning a building and ensuring a strong connection with the people of the city. Flexibility and commitment were required, and fortunately for Derry, the Forum pulled through.
Today, the Forum hosts 250 performances a year and works with local schools on summer projects which have opened access to the arts. Bradley believes this flagship project also opened the door to Derry/Londonderry’s role as the UK city of culture in 2013 which resulted in an investment of €167 million into capital projects in the city over three years. He emphasised that the link between the physical and the psychological should not be underestimated, the city landscape has changed along with the outlook of many of its inhabitants.
What Martin Bradley demonstrated was that a building alone is not enough to ensure success, and without the right understanding buildings can have a negative impact. Michael Murphy, from Mass Design, has, with the help of Atlantic Philanthropies, instigated a project working to assess the systemic impact of capital investments and concretely understand why some buildings work better than others. While it has become the norm to evaluate the environmental impacts of a building, the social impact is often left behind. Mass Designs ‘Impact Assessment’ challenges this, and aims to provide guidelines to help secure the sustainability of future capital projects, with the ultimate goal being to provide what Murphy called a ‘human hand print’ of the built environment.
For funders, ensuring sustainability could mean extending the period of evaluation. This raised the tricky question about where a funder’s responsibility ends, and The Atlantic Philanthropies admitted they had not always effectively managed their eventual disengagement with a project. Though difficult, Martin Bradley proposed strong partnerships are key to a building’s sustainability.
Bradley also stressed that it is tempting to become wrapped up in the enthusiasm around something new rather than considering what comes next. Stronger, sophisticated and more detailed financial modelling was deemed necessary to avoid non-profit buildings overspending. This might mean reconsidering the prevailing norm that a project begins with a big grant. A key challenging question was to ask funders how they work with communities before investing in a building, so as to ensure communities have the power to determine what is actually required and have the opportunity to dream and imagine how their needs might be met.
The debate also highlighted some of the diverse ways foundations are engaging with the built environment across Europe. Pele Lind Bournonville, began by outlining the history of Realdania, a Danish philanthropic membership organisation dedicated to supporting the built environment. Realdania has evolved from a classical project based approach to philanthropy to working from a problem based approach. Today, the organisation has expanded what it considers to fall under the term ‘built environment’ and considers its work to stretch beyond the physical. It also aims to be a convenor; acknowledging that greater impact requires collaboration with businesses and government, Realdania being ‘just one cog in a wheel’.
Daniela Castagno then introduced how the young Italian foundation Fondazione con il Sud’s work is utilising an Italian law to help confiscated capital assets become community owned buildings for social enterprises. The presence of the mafia in southern Italy where the foundation works makes the transferral of these building’s to communities all the more symbolic and the hurdles to their success all the more real. For example in one building, the owners ensured the space was rendered useless through pumping cement through the plumbing system. Still, the social impact when successful is huge, both for breaking mafia consensus and re-building fragmented communities. Social enterprises provide a step to a new economic model. Castagno encouraged participants to imagine this type of asset transferal applied more broadly in Europe. She made a direct connection with the current migrant crises, noting that there are many empty buildings and that those which are confiscated, could be opened up to house migrants. Though the heavy mafia presence is somewhat specific to southern Italy, governments might use the precedent of this Italian law to reconsider how confiscated assets might be better employed.
The final speaker, Andrew Pinkerton, gave example of a bottom up community approach where a local Scottish island community, the Isle of Luing, came together to respond to their needs. The development and ownership of a building further catalysed this community., . This remote Island with a population of just 175 managed to secure (from a hotchpotch of non-governmental funders including the Big Lottery Fund) £1.2 million for the provision of an Island community centre. The centre aims to provide a hub for tourists in summer, with a restaurant and space for arts events, and a social centre for the population during the isolated winters. Pinkerton explained, the capital cost of the project was £950,000, with the remaining funding employed in the 5 years following the build. Like Martin Bradley, Pinkerton emphasised the need for a new set of skills once a building has been created. Managerial training must be provided for a community to work towards sustainability. Challenges are still being faced at the centre, and its ability to adapt in winter will be a challenge, but so far the provision of this building has inspired change.
As the floor opened to more questions, the issue of translating social value to governments was raised. Communicating social impact is still difficult and communities need better tools to make a case for their work, highlighting the importance of Mass Design’s initiative.
Participants who worked with buildings in the heritage sector revealed their frustration with the notion of preservation alone, buildings need to adapt and respond to the changing needs of a community. There is a responsibility to reach out to communities, Fondazione con il Sud does this, taking suggestions and assessing transparently their feasibility with the people it will effect.
Where the built environment is concerned, all present agreed, you can’t always get it right. To build impact and secure sustainability every building will face challenges and just what it takes to secure the social foundations of a project is something funders need to explore further. Dialogues must be varied with contributions from funding ‘giants’ like The Atlantic Philanthropies and local voices valued equally. It is not up to the funders to dictate, but rather to listen to local needs and responsibly share both their assets and unique qualities. Though the community in Luing own a community enterprise and not the island itself, the support from their funders has secured a feeling of ownership around the entire place, and with it a sense of responsibility. This project provides example for funders seeking to achieve better sustainability. How best to listen is the real skill and one that funders must return to and improve upon if they are serious about learning from past mistakes and building the most solid foundations for transformative and lasting change.