Plenary summaries

Philanthropy showing courage in re-embracing solidarity

Some 600 philanthropic leaders and practitioners from around Europe and the world came together in Warsaw to reinvigorate solidarity in Europe during the EFC’s 28th Annual General Assembly and Conference entitled, “Courage to re-embrace solidarity in Europe – Can philanthropy take the lead?”. The event took place from 31 May to 2 June 2017.

Anchoring the 20+ conference sessions and multiple side events were three plenary sessions that featured speakers from the philanthropic, political and academic sectors. The plenaries explored:

  • How Polish solidarity both past and present has been and continues to be crucial in strengthening fundamental values in politics and policies. 
  • What shifts in attitude and ways of working need to happen for philanthropy to engage in closer collaboration with our many partners to foster truly tangible solidarity. 
  • How philanthropy’s contribution to solidarity around the world is best summed up as building bridges, not walls. 

Speakers across the three plenaries unpacked the concept of solidarity and how it interacts with philanthropy. They identified the values underlying solidarity and philanthropy, finding commonalities and specifying potential areas of convergence. A sense of urgency pervaded the sessions, brought on by the growing shadow of the closing space for civil society in regions across the world; the volatile political and economic contexts philanthropy is operating in, including the many stresses on democracy we are seeing; as well as the very real threats to solidarity posed by rising inequality.

Throughout these plenary sessions there was a real desire to identify concrete ways for philanthropy to take the lead in re-embracing and revitalising solidarity. The launch at the conference of the Philanthropic Alliance for Solidarity and Democracy in Europe was one major example of direct action philanthropic organisations are taking. The Alliance is a group of foundations concerned both with the operating environment for civil society and, more broadly, with the urgency to respond to the violation of democratic values such as human dignity, freedom, justice, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.


“The conference is over but the work is not, and I hope of all us will  leave Warsaw reassured that we have to keep finding the courage for solidarity in the days to come. Old challenges remain, new challenges will emerge, but one thing is certain – they won’t be overcome if we do not stick  together.  Keep up the conversation on hashtag #Courage4Solidarity!” – Ewa Kulik-Bielińska, Executive Director of the Stefan Batory Foundation and Conference Chair


Opening plenary

The Polish Journey − Finding solid(arity) ground in times of shifting sands

Kicking off the conference, Ewa Kulik-Bielińska – the chair of the conference and the EFC – welcomed participants to the Opening Plenary and introduced the theme of the conference, solidarity. Solidarity as the conference theme was an obvious choice as Poland is iconic in the history of mass solidarity movements. In addition, solidarity – among other themes such as respect, freedom, democracy and human rights – is deemed as one of the cornerstones of the EU project. To combat the multiple challenges currently facing foundations and society at large, Ewa called for a switch to “solidarity-mode” and stressed the requirement for a change in mind-set.   

Distinguished keynote speaker Professor Jerzy Buzek, former Prime Minister of Poland and former President of the European Parliament, followed Ewa’s introduction and highlighted the link between solidarity and philanthropy. He emphasised that philanthropy is based on values and beliefs – of which solidarity is an important one – and that it is through these values that communities are built and ready to act together, regardless of any differences between them. In order to ensure that solidarity, and thus philanthropy, remains alive it is imperative to create concrete tools to face global challenges and give witness to the strength of solidarity in the past as a way to strengthen it today.

Kuba Wygnański, solidarity activist and founder of the Unit for Social Innovation and Research “Shipyard”, reinforced the importance of solidarity as a value and concrete social practice. He also perceived it as the third element of the famous triad – liberty, equality and fraternity. The last element fraternity – or solidarity – is equally as important as the first two, but is too often missing in the course of recent history. To counteract this recent lack of solidarity, Kuba encouraged the audience to defend democracy, to not give in to the concept of civil society as obsolete and to remember that while Europe was created as an economic plan, it has grown into a spiritual project that must be believed in if it is to survive.  Click here for his full presentation.

The second half of the opening plenary involved a panel discussion with speakers Katarzyna Batko from Watchdog Poland, Elżbieta Korolczuk from Akcja Demokracja, Karolina Stubińska from the Centre for Support and Integration of Immigrants, Katarzyna Szymielewicz from Panoptykon Foundation, Karolina Wigura from Kultura Liberalna and moderator Dorota Warakomska from Congress of Women.

A number of topics were covered by the panellists, all of which were significant despite their diversity. Conversation highlights included:

  • The challenges of liberal democracies, and how criticising and demanding more from democracy, liberal elites taking responsibility, and knowing how to accept and work with emotions are all critical in revitalising it
  • The positive and negative impacts of the internet and the need for it to be user-centred
  • The lively protest scene in Polish civil society and how a crisis of democracy is in fact, a crisis of participation
  • The unstoppable global process of migration and how to address the needs, challenges and solutions of refugee integration
  • The importance of investing in and listening to people at the local level

A special feature of this panel did not go unnoticed: In Poland, where women are usually underrepresented in these types of settings, this all-woman panel in the opening plenary of a 600+ participant conference sent a powerful message to the audience.


Middle Plenary

Reviving & re-embracing the spirit of solidarity

The middle plenary was a dynamic session whereby all panellists contributed to a highly energetic debate. One of the main themes on the agenda was “narrative” and moderator Lisa Jordan, from Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace, ignited the discussion by asking, “How can we change our narratives to emphasise solidarity?” Joining Lisa on stage were four distinguished speakers, Brendan Cox from the Jo Cox Foundation, Janis A. Emmanouilidis, Director of Studies at the European Policy Centre, Catherine Fieschi, Executive Director of Counterpoint and Alberto Masetti-Zannini, Strategy Director of Impact Hub. Together they offered their unique perspectives on reviving and re-embracing the spirit of solidarity.

Alberto Masetti-Zannini’s first thought when asked to speak on solidarity was liberty, equality and fraternity – echoing the thoughts of the previous day’s plenary speaker Kuba Wygnański. He unpacked the well-known trio of values by exposing a moral issue in its framework and explained how liberty and equality are individual values, while fraternity is communal. He suggested that this ideological clash has weakened these principles. Ideally when putting liberty, equality and fraternity in context, Alberto spoke of the need for liberty to be the aim, equality to be the principal and fraternity as the means.

Continuing the discussion on context, Brendan Cox discussed how France is currently in a complex environment. The lack of trust in France – whereby 80% of the population do not trust others – has led to a crisis of fraternity. Brendan highlighted that society seems to fixate on acts of hatred and cowardice and neglect the fact that when a person commits one act of evil, there are thousands of acts of solidarity in response. It is vital that these stories are told in order to make sure that acts of evil don’t dominate the narrative and diminish society’s spirit of solidarity. In addition, Brendan spoke of the need to embrace and build a sense of inclusive patriotism that encourages inclusive stories.

Janis Emmanouilidis strengthened the case for inclusive societies as he stressed that we need to concentrate less on the “other” and more on identifying what is uniting us. Furthermore, it is not only about creating the “us” in our own spheres, but creating the “us” beyond borders. Janis reminded the audience that they were taking part in the European Foundation Centre Conference and therefore were presented with a perfect opportunity to begin building trust beyond borders. Janis also introduced the concept of solidarity as enlightened self-interest, whereby you help the other to help yourself; not only out of kindness, but out of your own personal interest. He provided the example of Germany helping to bail Greece out of its debt crisis; Germany offered financial aid, however it was more that they were providing assistance in their own interest so as to stop a potential negative domino effect in the region.

Throughout the panel discussion, a number of audio-visual materials were used to enhance the ideas that were being presented. A video of the Porte de Vincennes supermarket siege was shown, as well as videos on refugee integration in Canada (Refugee Hub) and a TV commercial on all that we share (TV2 Denmark). One interesting graphic was of the distribution of votes in the United Kingdom for Brexit and the first round of the Presidential Election in France. Catherine Fieschi discussed the two maps and explained that they both leave out many aspects of the narrative. They are both a lot more complex than at first glance and she stressed that people are much more than voters. She warned the audience about using these tools as she argued that both maps fail to incorporate our thoughts on solidarity and hinder our imagination.

To conclude the plenary, Lisa Jordan asked the panellists to offer concrete tools that philanthropy can use to revive and re-embrace the spirit of solidarity, with highlights including:

  • “Let’s build an ecosystem and support people who are reaching out beyond their own echo-chamber”
  • “Don’t fund stuff that doesn’t matter!”
  • “Let’s fund infrastructure and not projects!”


Closing Plenary

Building bridges not walls − Philanthropy’s contribution to solidarity around the world

In an interactive and lively session that wrapped up the three-day event, conference participants gathered to hear a discussion on “Building bridges not walls − Philanthropy’s contribution to solidarity around the world”. Irũngũ Houghton, Chair of Kilimani Project Foundation; Bolor Legjeem, Programme Director of the Mongolian Women’s Fund (MONES); Amitabh Behar, Executive Director of the National Foundation for India; and Felecia Lucky, Executive Director of the Black Belt Community Foundation, shared their experiences and opinions on philanthropy contributing to solidarity in their respective corners of the world. Jenny Hodgson, from the Global Fund for Community Foundations, moderated the discussion.

Irũngũ Houghton began the discussion by pointing out the fact that more often than not, the tallest and strongest walls don’t exist between people, but rather, they exist within our own minds. In a time when context is decisive, is changing rapidly and often defines our work – both Africa and Europe are experiencing polarisation and uncertainty. In the African context, Irũngũ stressed the need for philanthropy to hold the African states as primarily responsible for providing services to their citizens, to fund agile and community-resourced platforms, and to encourage leadership for those who want to shift power. In addition, Irũngũ assured the audience that we can build bridges, but they need to be a new kind, ones which involve knocking down walls within our own mind-sets.

Highlighting the importance of working together in a time when civil society space is closing so rapidly, Bolor Legjeem spoke of the successful work taking place in Mongolia. As the Program Director of the Mongolian Women’s Fund (MONES), Bolor testified that philanthropy supports and fosters solidarity. In 2016 alone, $66 million was raised by MONES and distributed globally to nearly 1,800 different groups. Bolor also spoke of the success of community philanthropy in Mongolia and how it has enabled bridges to be built between a variety of stakeholders. Another panellist, Felecia Lucky, affirmed Bolor’s points by stressing that there is an important role for philanthropy to play in building solidarity among communities. However, she stated that “It must be bold. It must take risks. It must not be afraid to take risks. After all, to fly is to risk falling. So if we are afraid to fall then we will never fly.” Felecia explained how she viewed solidarity as community taking leadership and creating solutions for community problems so that people can live peacefully, build and transform together.

Before offering his insights on the relationship between philanthropy and solidarity, Amitabh Behar expressed his solidarity with the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the Black Lives Matter movement in North America, the campaign to defend civil society in Hungary and the values and ideals for which Jo Cox lived and died. Amitabh then challenged conference participants by problematizing the idea of philanthropy’s contribution to solidarity and its three fundamental tensions. The first tension being that the new liberal political economic model breeds inequality rather than solidarity. With eight people on this planet having more wealth than 50% of the world’s population – inequality is growing.  The second tension is that electoral and representative forms of democracy are polarising communities rather than unifying them, and the third tension being that visible walls – as well as invisible walls, which have always existed in the deeply entrenched hierarchies of race, gender and caste – are beginning to rise. Amitabh argued that until we start addressing questions of indignity and injustice – is it really possible to create substantive solidarity?

Following the main introductions from the panellists, Jenny Hodgson asked conference participants to respond to the statement, “If philanthropy is serious about building solidarity, it must give away some of its own power.” The statement posed not only allowed for interesting debate among the panellists, but it encouraged interactivity among the audience as they were encouraged to go up on stage and voice their opinions. One participant described power as being a circle, and rather than cutting it away and distorting it, it should be shared. Another participant believed that power equals responsibility and is difficult to give away, however those in power must answer for what they do with it. Panellist Irũngũ Houghton contributed to the debate by adding that, “Power is not finite, so we can’t give it away. Instead, we must leverage power to build inclusive communities.”

Ewa Kulik-Bielińska, Executive Director of the Stefan Batory Foundation and then Chair of the EFC, thanked participants for their enthusiasm and involvement during this year’s Annual General Assembly. As it was Ewa’s final year as Chair, she expressed her happiness with the strong local flavour of the conference and that participants were able to discover the history and spirit that is imbued in Warsaw. In addition, Ewa announced the launch of the Philanthropic Alliance for Solidarity and Democracy in Europe. The alliance is made up of a diverse group of foundations concerned with the state of democracy in Europe and committed to pooling together broad-based, varied philanthropic resources to establish a Solidarity Fund in order to support initiatives aimed at strengthening civil society actors and safeguarding democratic values in Europe.

At the closing of the conference, Massimo Lapucci in his first speech as the new EFC Chair, thanked outgoing Chair, Ewa Kulik-Bielinska, for her energy, dedication and engagement to all the initiatives undertaken during her years of tenure and, on behalf of all the members, expressed his deep gratitude for her invaluable work. Lapucci went on to say, “I am very proud of this appointment and I thank the EFC and its membership for the confidence they have shown in electing me. The strength of institutional philanthropy lies in the ability to create value for society. Philanthropy must make its voice heard strongly in order to confront the biggest challenge that we face: to help to create more conscious citizenship in individual countries and across Europe, which keeps the common good at the heart, and knows to always look at the worldwide dimension.”