Nordea-fonden expands its focus to promote civic participation

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This article has been adapted from the original in Danish by Sune Holm Pedersen and includes key lessons learned

Denmark has a strong democratic tradition. That is precisely why the time is right to further promote young people’s civic participation. That is the argument of Henrik Lehmann Andersen, CEO of the Danish foundation Nordea-fonden, who looks forward to supporting even more young people’s civic engagement in the coming years.

Civic participation is a trending topic. The Danish term ‘dialogue coffee’ (meaning to meet face to face for a peaceful conversation with people one disagrees strongly with) has been included in the official Danish dictionary; DR (Danish Broadcasting Corporation) promotes the debate concept ‘Disagreeing together’; and the Danish broadsheet Politiken seeks to promote dialogue among EU citizens under the heading ‘Europe talks’ in cooperation with a number of European newspapers.

The interest in strengthening our democracy is an essential trend in contemporary society, says Henrik Lehmann Andersen, CEO of Nordea-fonden. And it is a trend the foundation wishes to support with a gentle nudge under the theme ‘Joining In’ as outlined in the foundation’s updated grant strategy.

‘Since 2015 we have had a focus on inspiring more young people to engage actively in society, and we have supported a number of projects that revolve around engaging, debating and developing opinions. These projects clearly showed that this is an exciting topic that many people are passionate about. And since then, the general interest in civic engagement has only grown,’ says Henrik Lehmann Andersen.

One example of this type of project is Røst [Voice]. With a grant from Nordea-fonden of DKK 8.5 million in 2015, KØS museum of public spaces in Køge and the folk high school Vallekilde Højskole engaged in a joint effort with the NGO Ungdomsbureauet (Youth Agency). The purpose was to give young people the experience of influencing society by adding their voice to the public debate. Among other activities, the project has staged a speakers’ festival, a folk high school course and a website with manuscript techniques and an archive of speeches.

‘Røst [Voice] has the capacity to bring young people together in a real-life conversation, which makes for a more nuanced interaction and promotes mutual understanding. This is an important project, because trying to engage in conversations about democracy and politics in the virtual world can have an alienating effect. And that presents a challenge. With “Joining In” we seek to latch on to some of the trends that we in the foundation have noticed in recent years: what is on the rise, and what are the main tendencies in contemporary society?’ says Henrik Lehmann Andersen.

European challenges

The growing interest in democracy is also evident in Danish universities. In 2016, Danish youth was ranked in the world elite in the so-called International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS), which tested civic knowledge among more than 94,000 schoolchildren in 24 countries. In the study, Danish eighth-year students topped the scoreboard when it came to knowledge about politics, democracy and civics.

– Part of your new strategy is to promote democratic participation among Danish youth. But Denmark already has a strong democratic tradition, does it not?

‘Yes, and we’d like to keep it that way. But that is only going to happen if the population at large has a clear understanding that democracy can only stay strong if we continue to participate and engage. As soon as we begin to take things for granted, they risk falling apart,’ says Henrik Lehmann Andersen.

Nordea-fonden’s focus on democratic participation is not inspired exclusively by Danish political conditions.

Controversial developments in several other European countries have caused alarm, particularly in charitable foundations in other countries that have a stronger focus on actively promoting democratic impulses, for example in Hungary and Poland, under the auspices of EFC, the pan-European Foundation Centre:

‘Our focus on democracy is also inspired by conversations and network meetings within our European foundations network. Some EU countries face specific challenges to democracy. Foundations take note of this and seek to enhance the debates by making information available. In Denmark, Norway and Sweden, where the situation is good, and the level of civic participation is high, we need to appreciate democracy and seek continually to develop and improve it,’ Henrik Lehmann Andersen explains.

However, although Andersen and Nordea-fonden are aware of the European challenges to civic and citizenship values, the foundation’s support is not driven by activist foreign policy ambitions:

‘We have no desire to intervene in other countries’ internal affairs. Our goal is to listen to and learn from what is happening and to consider how we might translate that to a Danish context in order to enhance the conversation and, thus, democracy,’ says Henrik Lehmann Andersen.

Democracy is fundamental to a good life

The guiding value motivating all grants made by Nordea-fonden is a good life. To Henrik Lehmann Andersen, there is an intimate link between the foundation’s efforts to promote young people’s civic engagement and a good life.

‘To a citizen in a country such as Denmark, a good life and civic engagement are two sides of the same coin: the ability to participate in and build a society, whether it involves coaching in the local soccer club or being active in politics, a small-town bridge club or an all-year outdoor swimming community. The notion that each citizen has part of the responsibility for society is a fundamental element of a good life, which is absolutely essential,’ he explains.

Demand determines supply

The theme of ‘Joining In’ is one element in Nordea-fonden’s updated grant strategy, which has young children and outdoor living as its principal focus areas. Under this strategy, the foundation expects to hand out close to DKK 1.5 billion to charitable purposes over the next three years. The precise share of this that will be allocated to young people’s civic participation has not yet been determined:

‘It depends on demand. But even if we anticipate allocating most of our grants to purposes related to young children and outdoor living, that still leaves a significant amount. Ultimately, it depends on what comes up. Our task is to make sure that all the relevant actors out there are aware of this opportunity and of our strategic ambition,’ says Henrik Lehmann Andersen and notes in conclusion:

‘It’s evident to us that something is happening. Many people have begun to work with civic participation who have an interest in the field and lots of interesting ideas for how we can improve our conversation with each other.’

Lessons learned by grantees and Nordea-fonden from reaching out to Danish youth:

  1. Provide ’alternative’ platforms for expression, for example in the form of art or cultural activities
  2. Generate commitment and community by building ownership
  3. Give young people ownership of their projects, and provide assistance with administrative tasks
  4. Make demands on young people – and give them recognition and elbow room
  5. The social aspect is crucial for young people’s participation in activities and may serve as a free space for them
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