Beyond membership, impact change
In 1989, when the Berlin wall fell – and the EFC was created – I was 16.
I belong to the first generation of Italian young people who became massively passionate for Europe. Feeling a strong bond of solidarity, we discovered Hungary, Poland, Russia, backpacking with InterRail on a student budget. We were the first Italian generation studying abroad benefitting from the Erasmus programme and coming back to Italy with a profound awareness of the richness and diversity of the European culture and a deep-seated feeling of belonging.
In 1989, there were no “modern” philanthropic foundations in Italy. Using traditional taxonomy, family foundations in Italy developed in the past 20 years, as well as foundations of banking origin and community foundations, while corporate foundations developed in Italy in the last 10 years. Of course, in Italy we have a millennial old culture of giving and examples of five century old institutional philanthropy – with the richest families in towns like Florence, Brescia, Turin, and Naples giving money, real estate, art works, and jewellery to endow philanthropic entities to help the poor. But the concept of private foundations doing “strategic philanthropy” is – for several different reasons – relatively new and emerging in Italy.
It was in this kind of philanthropic context that Assifero was created in 2003 as a national membership association of family, corporate and community foundations in Italy. For the first 10 years of its life, Assifero was a traditional membership association providing legal and fiscal services and some sort of “upon invitation only, low-cost club” in Milan.
It was in 2014-2015 when Assifero, now ready to plan the impact that it wanted to make, that we started making a lot of use of the EFC, DAFNE, WINGS, ARIADNE, the GFCF, ECFI and other support organisations.
Assifero wanted to make a difference by strengthening Italian foundations’ ability to contribute to the common good and by making them more informed, more connected and more effective to better use their private resources to impact change. We wanted to lead Italian foundations beyond grant-making and the linear model of giving a grant to a non-profit, to making them aware of the distinctive role they could play in the complexity of today’s challenges and society. We wanted to move Assifero to the next phase of its development, transforming it from a membership association to a leadership organisation, able to plan and also assess its own impact.
The EFC was key for us over the past five years. The EFC is much more than a network for us; it is a sounding board and a touchstone, a platform to connect with best practices and common concerns, complementing our work at national level with an international one. The EFC has given Assifero and its members an extraordinary added value in terms of backing, power, space for exchange, peer learning, dissemination of innovative solutions, development of new thinking, capacity building, and creation of quality standards.
The EFC’s joint work with DAFNE on the development of a European Philanthropy Manifesto is so timely and valuable in terms of influence and legitimacy for philanthropy in Europe that no individual foundation, not even the biggest one, could ever have any comparable advocacy reach. The Manifesto is the most powerful call ever to policymakers in Europe to work towards “a Single Market for Philanthropy” which would have a major long-term positive impact on our sector by giving philanthropy the recognition it deserves, reducing barriers to cross-border philanthropy and building an enabling environment for philanthropy in Europe.
For 30 years, the EFC – together with other philanthropy support organisations – has played a very important role in Europe in making private foundations understand their distinctive mission vis-à-vis public donors, individual donors and other civil society organisations, to build a common, inclusive and dynamic identity of European funders. This has enabled the sector to speed up the learning process, avoiding starting from scratch every time.
But, in recent years, the world has changed and is continuing to change dramatically and at a rapid pace. Today, humanity faces complex and intersectional challenges and Europe needs us more than ever: threatens to democracy, populism, racism, xenophobia, integralism and violence as well as climate change and growing economic and social inequalities both at domestic and European level are right in front of us. The space for civil society in under attack in many European countries and different European governments are using fiscal and banking regulations to undermine civil society organisations.
At the same time, today we have new, powerful knowledge and skills available and new tools, for example in terms of technology, to achieve impact above and beyond what we ever could have imagined only a few years ago.
Foundations have become more relevant and more visible. There has been a rapid growth in the number and types of foundations and today they are an important stakeholder, even though questions about the legitimacy of using private money (particularly when there is a tax break) for the public good are also raised.
In this new, completely changed context within which philanthropy is operating, what is then today the role of European philanthropy support organisations? Are we still just networks, membership associations, infrastructure, support organisations to individual foundations? Are we just supporting our members in achieving their individual results? Or, 30 years from now, do we want to be part of a broader impact in terms of social change? Do we want to be part of the solution? Is it not time for us to re-imagine ourselves? How can we move to the next level?
As domestic, regional and global so called “philanthropy support organisations” we have all the power and capacity to do this but have to re-imagine ourselves moving from an input-focus to an outcome /impact-focus. We can directly contribute to a new model of sustainable development whose cornerstones are local hubs with more local ownership and more collaboration across sectors at domestic and international levels.
We are uniquely placed to make a long-lasting difference by increasing the volume, improving the sustainability, encouraging more strategic philanthropy, facilitating the adoption of professional practices, generating better knowledge, promoting more collaboration and strategic partnerships, improving the ability of philanthropy to influence policy, raising public awareness of the value and impact of philanthropy, and bridging it to influential “system actors”, including governments, private sector actors and the media.
We can make a real difference in unlocking the huge potential that lies in private resources, including strategic non-monetary support. In a vision of systemic change, we are much more than networks, membership associations, infrastructure, we can be agents of change, developers, enablers, accelerators, multipliers of social change to achieve sustainable development and strengthening civil society and democracy.
It is a terrible mistake to differentiate the “real philanthropic work” of the foundations from the “network work”. It is a mistake to see the system of fees as overheads and costs; they are instead shares in a strategic investment. Even for an issue-focused foundation today, it is essential to consider the wider scenario and participate to build systemic change, investing in the philanthropy developers, enablers, accelerators, multipliers.
In the next 30 years we need more EFC and more European philanthropy developers, accelerators and multipliers to fulfil this new strategic vision. Last month at the WINGS meeting in Jamaica “Driving Philanthropy for the Future: creating the networks we need”, Barry Knight said that “egos and silos are our enemies”. Coming from a country of prima donna, we know how philanthropic foundations can be aloof, self-contained, solipsistic and how much philanthropy support organisations can sometimes be like an “egosystem”. Today the challenge is to prevent silos and mono-stakeholder bubbles and move from individual institutions to vision, to cross-sector collaboration and multi-stakeholders’ strategic partnerships. We have to take the lead in re-imagining our role, improving our capacity to plan, assess and communicate our impact. We are not competitors competing for the same limited membership fees. Each of us can play a distinctive and unique role as key agent of change.
See #LiftUpPhilanthropy campaign https://www.wingsweb.org/page/LiftUpPhilanthropy
 See WINGS and DAFNE 4Cs -Capacity, Connections, Capability and Credibility: A Framework to Help Your Organization Identify and Demonstrate its Worth.