A sense of excitement, urgency, self-reflection, and possibility pulsed through the 2016 EFC AGA and Conference held 26-28 May 2016 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The message permeating the sessions and site visits throughout the event was the need for philanthropic organisations to listen, to innovate, and to work together.
It all starts with listening
At the Opening Plenary of the conference, Lyse Doucet OBE, the BBC’s Chief International Correspondent, brought with her messages from children on the frontlines of the war in Syria and the migration crisis about what they need from those who are trying to help them. She underlined that philanthropic organisations and governments need to shift from an approach of first strategising on their own then acting to an approach that puts listening to what is needed as the first step.
In a special plenary on day 2 of the conference, HRH Princess Laurentien echoed Ms. Doucet, imploring philanthropy to bring the outside world in and listen carefully to what is needed. A foundation should take an approach to grantees that says, “It’s not about what I want, it’s about what you need.” The Princess has helped over 60 organisations set up “Kids Councils” to bring youth voices into the work of these organisations. She called them “the Trojan horses of change”.
Ruby Johnson, Co-Director of FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund, described her foundation’s process of participatory grantmaking which puts the power of deciding who receives grants into the hands of the grant applicants themselves. Distilling the message into a powerful metaphor, Ms Johnson said, “Youth should not just be on the menu, they should be at the table.”
At the closing plenary, a group of young reporters from the Erasmus Centre for Strategic Philanthropy gave their impressions of the conference. A common refrain was that learning is a two-way street: Young people can indeed learn much from the experience of older people, but equally, older people need to listen to youth, embracing what they have to offer.
Innovation – It’s time to walk the talk
A key message across the conference was that old ways of working will simply not lead to solutions urgently needed today in a world whose institutional systems are either being heavily tested or are broken outright. In a powerful speech at the opening plenary, Kristalina Georgieva, European Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources, said: “It is the responsibility of politicians and leaders to have the bravery and honesty to say ‘we live in a world that has changed’.” Speaking directly to the hundreds of representatives of philanthropy gathered before her, she said, “You have chosen to work for good. Now you need to have the bravery to take it forward.”
At the closing plenary, Peter Bakker, President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, echoed this message when he said, “The economy as we currently run it is unsustainable.” He advised philanthropic organisations to look to the SDGs as a good starting point for framing their efforts towards systemic change.
HRH Princess Laurentien said in the day 2 plenary that in philanthropy, the linear model of conceiving, testing then launching an initiative is outdated. In the rapidly-changing world we live in, we need to “have the courage to scale up when projects are not yet fully developed.” The Princess told delegates that she saw in them powerful organisations that had a true desire – and ability – to transform from oil tankers to sailboats.
Bharat Mehta, Chief Executive of the Trust for London, conceded during the plenary on day 2 that his foundation is having a hard time getting out of the traditional models of grantmaking: “However innovative our targets are, the system and processes of grantmaking are stale.”
The power of collaboration
The need to work together surfaced again and again at the conference. During the closing plenary, Teresa Ribera, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), pointed to the intervention of civil society as key to the success of the development of the SDGs and the Paris agreement in late 2015, with the real breakthrough being the confidence to work together to change economic development patterns.
Wrapping up the conference was Katherine Watson who presented a statement on behalf of all delegates that called upon their peers in the philanthropic community to join forces to tackle forced migration, one of today’s greatest challenges.
Read on for more on how delegates explored listening, innovation and collaboration in our detailed summaries of the conference plenaries and sessions.