Capacity building – it’s in the EFC’s DNA
Happy 30th Birthday EFC!
Thirty years have passed since the start. Any signs of a 30-year crisis?? You know, doubts about the past, questions about the future, reflections on your identity. Torment over what has been achieved, about what could have been done differently, or better. Wondering if you are too settled. Or feeling like you should focus less upon what has been built and start seeing life as continuous discoveries and achievements, and how they are managed. The start of the 30s for organisations as well as people are often a time of reflection, challenge and change.
My first contact with the EFC goes back to spring 2007. This means I have experienced the organisation for more than a third of its existence. It may seem like a long time, but in a foundation context it is not that remarkable at all. Many of those I met back then had already at that time experienced ten years or more of the EFC’s history. And today, I still meet some of those people from the early days. Maybe working for a foundation strengthens your health!
Long experience in the foundation sector can of course be very important. However fresh ideas, which may mean limited experience, are just as important. I have felt that the increasing mobility and the inflow of young people over the past decade, and people with diverse backgrounds, have made the EFC more exciting. Without such a development foundations run an obvious risk of becoming inward-looking and complacent. The EFC has already played an important role in enabling the sharing of good practice within the sector, and certainly more should be done.
Foundations seldom have the tradition or aptitude of collaboration with peers, i.e. other foundations. As representatives of our foundations we often seem to be uncertain whether we would like more collaboration or not: “Other foundations are so different from us, so introvert and complicated.” On this matter I have a strong opinion, founded on solid, lived experience: Everybody wants development, but nobody likes the thought of change!
Now and then I return to the irreverent thought that a good crisis would benefit European foundations! A decade after the last financial crisis, foundations in many European countries once again have plenty of resources. In this situation I can observe a certain appetite for supporting the establishment of new organisations. I admit willingly my inability to see the need of more structures. Less is often more, not only in aesthetic contexts. With fewer resources it would instead have been necessary to prioritise, reorganise and actively seek collaboration. But that Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s law and the principles of so-called “comitology” are valid also within the foundation sector shouldn’t be a big surprise to any of us.
The EFC is as an extraordinary meeting place, has been for 30 years, and has the potential to remain so for the coming decades. It was here my interest for modern philanthropy was awakened. It was here many of us learned to respect and to trust each other! I especially appreciate the work carried out in, and by, the many very committed Thematic Networks within the EFC. They represent a grass-roots movement and serve as platforms for peer-learning and exchange of experience. They are actively engaged in joining forces and increasing the visibility of the work carried out. The EFC’s networks are of growing importance and members seem to like doings things together. I’m very pleased to see that the networks are given ample room in the programme of the EFC annual conference.
What particularly impressed me in 2007 was the gentlemen’s agreement between a number of leading foundations to take a special responsibility for the future funding of the EFC; that is say, to guarantee the necessary infrastructure for the European foundation sector. The fulfilment of this commitment has since then proved to be complicated. But back in 2007 one could still feel that the EFC was inspired by the euphoria during the days following the fall of the Berlin Wall and Europe started its long journey towards some kind of unity. Unfortunately we see less enthusiasm for the European project nowadays, but we mustn’t despair!
The opportunities to meet foundation representatives from outside Europe have been the real reward of my experience with the EFC, whether as my time with its governing bodies or with during the many conferences, assemblies and network meetings. I can’t think of the EFC without the remarkable loyalty demonstrated by US foundations toward European colleagues coming to mind. Without the financial support and ideological inspiration from Mott and Ford foundations it would have been very difficult, not to say impossible, for the EFC to develop as positively as it has. I sincerely hope that the future leadership of the EFC and its member organisations realise and take seriously this inheritance. This includes the obligation to continue the development of the foundation sector, to support voluntary work for the benefit of the entire society, and to contribute to capacity building in the parts of the world where the foundation sector is less developed. I hope this task will continue to be an important part of the future identity and DNA of the EFC.