2021 Vienna

Over 400 key figures from the world of philanthropy gathered for the first time in over two year’s at the EFC’s 31st Annual Conference on 18-20 October May 2021 in Vienna, hosted by the ERSTE Stiftung and several other leading philanthropic organisations from the region.

After two years apart and a global pandemic that has had an unparalleled impact on the fabric of the world as we know it, the conference offered a chance to explore how philanthropy can build on the momentum of the innovations of the past two years to help accelerate real sustainable change, not in the distant future, but right here and now.

The conference played host to 2 plenary sessions, 16 parallel sessions, and 17 Coffee House Talks showcasing some of the very best examples of philanthropy in action, in and around Vienna.

Conference Highlights

Across the plenaries, sessions and discussions during the conference, several themes emerged again and again. Participants recognised the critical need for diversity within the sector to bring new ideas and different imaginations to the table. They called on philanthropies to “shift the power” through more participatory grantmaking and increased engagement with local movements and people on the ground. Delegates embraced the concept of intersectionality, emphasising an ecosystem approach involving a range of partners from all sectors. Finally, running through the three days was a feeling that now more than ever philanthropy needs to walk the talk – time is simply running out, especially when it comes to climate change.

“Coming out of the lockdown phase of the Covid crisis, and meeting face-to-face for our annual conference for the first time in over two years, gave us a real sense of urgency in tackling the issues confronting us – from the climate to societal issues to threats to democracy,” said Delphine Moralis, EFC Chief Executive. “But there was also a palpable sense of hope, of agency over these three days, a sense that working together we can, on a real and practical level, unleash the full potential of philanthropy at this critical time.”

Key messages from the plenary speakers

Plenary speakers challenged delegates to be brave and think and act differently. Kumi Naidoo, Global Ambassador of Africans Rising for Justice, referred to Martin Luther King’s notion of creating a “movement of maladjustment”, urging philanthropy to be courageous and refuse to adjust to a world in which social and economic injustice are acceptable. When it comes to the challenges we face, especially the climate crisis, he said philanthropy must not repeat the mistakes made in the context of the 2008 financial crisis. Then the focus was on systems recovery and maintenance. What is needed now is wholesale systems redesign starting with listening to and involving people on the ground. The power and agency of ordinary people is far greater than any amount of money controlled by philanthropy.

Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of LEGO Foundation, highlighted that the NGO, philanthropy, corporate and political sectors share many values. Joining up those value sets as partners is essential to solving the problems we face as a society. Albrectsen pointed out the vast untapped potential of philanthropy as providers of risk capital, urging delegates to be the risk-takers that are so needed now. She stressed that, to achieve their missions, philanthropic organisations must embrace diversity, both internally and when it comes to partners and stakeholders, bringing in and seeking out voices and viewpoints other than the ones that have traditionally typified the philanthropic sector.

Andreas Treichl, President of ERSTE Stiftung, called on all sectors of society to make the climate crisis their top priority. To make the changes needed, there will be unavoidable social and economic consequences. But philanthropy can step in to mitigate this damage. Treichl said that the corporate world must be made to understand its responsibility for the environment and toward society, and philanthropy must engage with the corporate sector on climate, as each sector alone is not strong enough to tackle the climate crisis.

EFC Chair Angel Font pointed out that the conference could only take place face-to-face due to the development of Covid vaccines, and that a few small but critical grants from foundations in the early days of research on mRNA vaccines made this possible. He stressed this as a prime example of the catalytic effect that philanthropy can have, and as an example of the fundamental importance of cross-sectoral partnerships in bringing real solutions. He urged delegates to find those points of impact where targeted, strategic funding can bring true change down the road.

Boris Marte, CEO of ERSTE Stiftung, picked up on the theme of risk, saying that the privilege enjoyed by philanthropic sector brings a responsibility to take risks. He urged delegates to not fear taking risks and failing, rather to embrace the learning that emerges.

4 tracks – Climate, Democracy, Philanthropy and Society

The discussions throughout the three days of the conference took place along four conference tracks: Climate, Democracy, Philanthropy, and Society. Sessions touched on topics from the fashion industry’s impact on climate and society; to digitalisation; to the importance of independent media in an age of disinformation and democratic erosion; to empowering people and grass-roots movements, among many others.


Liz McKeon, Portfolio Lead Climate Action at IKEA Foundation, moderated this track, which aimed to engage, motivate and rally around the possible in this decisive decade where actions taken by markets, governments and citizens will determine liveability on our planet for the next century. At the start of the conference, McKeon framed the discussions along three lines:

  • How can the philanthropic sector do better than channelling only 2% of its funding toward climate issues, a statistic revealed by a recent EFC mapping on environmental funding in Europe?
  • How can foundations connect the dots, in an intentional way, between climate and all of the other issues we face, including refugee issues, homelessness, nutrition, children’s rights, among many others?
  • How do can philanthropy ease “climate anxiety” among the young, and harness the creativity, stewardship and resilience of the young to tackle climate change?

Wrapping up the track at the Closing Plenary, McKeon stressed the importance of recognising how interconnected we all are, and how we cannot make progress alone. She urged participants to take forward the collaborative energy shown over the conference and become sensemakers that are not afraid to be bold.

Watch Liz’s interview with Max von Abendroth, Dafne, on the key takeaways from the conference and more.


Moderated by Lakshmi Sundaram, Executive Director of openDemocracy, the Democracy track gave participants a chance to examine how philanthropy can address the grave challenges facing democracy in the post-Covid world, through widening and deepening civic participation, and tackling the spread of misinformation and the need to support independent media.

At the Opening Plenary, Sundaram highlighted stress factors for democracy today, including attacks on the media, misinformation, politically motivated assassinations and the blocking of civil society efforts, which usually has an outsized impact on marginalised groups. She saw the sessions in this track as an opportunity to discuss ways to push back on these factors and map out how philanthropy can get democracy back on track.

At the end of the conference, Sundaram pushed delegates to infuse a sense of urgency in their actions, and to understand that foundations are political actors, whether they want to be or not. She stressed that philanthropy must approach the issues it works on with a new and deep awareness of how these issues affect marginalised groups differently. Finding ways to translate high-level goals into concrete action is critical.


Lucy Bernholz, Senior Research Scholar and Director Digital Society Lab at Stanford University, guided delegates through the Philanthropy track, which considered philanthropy’s actions at three levels of analysis: Philanthropy’s legitimacy within democracies, its responsibilities regarding closing civic space (especially where digital dependencies play a role), and the behaviours and practices that individual foundations mainstreamed during the pandemic, which offer new opportunities for the future.

Bernholz’s main message to participants at the close of the conference was to be uncomfortable. The pandemic generated a sense of unfamiliarity with things we had taken for granted before. She urged philanthropy to use this discomfort to work and think in new ways. She also stressed the critical importance of facing up to the fact that there are organised and active forces pushing against the change philanthropy wants to make. In all of this, Bernholz said it is essential that foundations go out into the world and get invited to the tables at which they are not currently sitting. They must seek to contribute where change is already happening, where work is already underway, where people are striving to realise the brilliant ideas they have about creating a positive future for themselves. As philanthropists, setting your own table and inviting people to it is the wrong way to go.


Claire Boulanger, Solidarity Expert at Fondation de France, moderated the Society track. As the number of private and corporate foundations across Europe has more than doubled over the last decade, philanthropy is becoming a more prominent actor of social cohesion and social experimentation at national and local level. The Society track explored how foundations can foster dialogue and connection, empower the most vulnerable people and accelerate transition towards more sustainable models.

At the Opening Plenary, Boulanger said the sessions in this track were an opportunity to identify the dividers and connectors in these issues, and how philanthropy can leverage these to build bridges and engage. At the close of the conference, Boulanger emphasised the energy and inspiration over the course of the three days, and urged delegates to take this forward. She stressed the importance of empowerment and participation of partners with lived experience of the issues philanthropy is tackling. Polarisation also emerged across the discussions in this track as an area that needs attention from philanthropy.

Other highlights

Mayors of Budapest and Riga on nurturing democracy in their cities

Two mayors of cities in countries facing challenges to their democracies addressed delegates, linking their views and experiences with the issues and themes of the conference.

The Mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony, spoke of the “Pact of Free Cities”, a cooperation launched in 2019 among the mayors of Prague, Bratislava, Warsaw, and Budapest. This pact, which now has signatories from around the world, confirms the commitment to democracy and the rule of law, and offers a space for exchange on the issues of urban development and mitigation of the effects of climate. Mayor Karácsony pointed to the great potential for philanthropy as a partner to cities, and gave the example of OSF providing free Covid testing to the citizens of Hungary when the federal government refused to do so.

Mārtiņš Staķis, the Mayor of Riga, spoke of his conviction that city administrations are key players when it comes to engaging citizens in the democratic process. He told of how he has restructured the central municipal administration by creating neighbourhood centres with coordinators and their teams working directly with neighbourhood residents. He has also created a new programme to support civil society in the city as he believes that only civically active cities can be prosperous. Regarding climate, he stressed that good urban governance is not possible without attention to climate issues.

A refugee story

Another highlight of the conference came at the Opening Plenary, held at the Gartenbaukino, an iconic Viennese cinema. Conference host Franz Karl Prüller, Senior Advisor at the ERSTE Stiftung, introduced Andreas Treichl, President of ERSTE Stiftung and Kenan al Baredi, an immigrant from Syria and the star of the award-winning trailer for the conference. Kenan told his story of coming to Austria as a refugee, and how he is now finishing up his university degree in biomedical sciences. The ERSTE Foundation has been at the forefront of philanthropic support for immigrants in Austria.

Coffee House Talks

One afternoon of the conference was devoted to 17 “Coffee House Talks”, a chance for delegates to go out into Vienna and experience local initiatives first-hand around social housing, social entrepreneurship, urban development and democratic culture to name a few. All of the talks were led by experts and local actors, and several involved visits to a traditional Viennese coffee house.


What and who really matters

Even when all hope scatters

Because this tragedy surely must be

Our big opportunity

To look beyond what has always been

And build a world that we can all thrive in.

Kumi Naidoo

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