European Values – Promoting Solidarity at a Time of Austerity. What Role can Philanthropy Play?

On Oct 7-8, 2014 the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace (PSJP) in collaboration with the Network of European Foundations and the Even’s Foundation (Antwerp) organised a convening entitled “European Values – Promoting Solidarity at a Time of Austerity. What Role can Philanthropy Play?” The convening brought together a small group of individuals, from foundations and networks of foundations in Europe, interested in looking analytically at the underlying problems, reflecting on different approaches to tackling the problems and seeking to make a greater impact on the current difficult environment.

The meeting was conceived and designed based on findings of a survey carried out by the Working Group in 2013- 2014, which pointed to “a lack of effective tools among European Foundations to manage the complexity of what is needed to address change, to tackle the EU system, to strengthen civil society, or to mobilize populations to engage with these issues.” The survey further revealed a “strong sense of powerlessness among respondents, … in the sense that they feel alone with too few resources to tackle the depths of the problems properly. People complain of the lack of a widespread vision about what could be different.”

Understanding the Context

Keynote speaker Jordi Vaquer, Executive Director of the Open Society Initiatives for Europe helped to layout the context of the crisis facing Europe today and provoked a discussion around the challenges and opportunities for foundations. Vaquer spoke of three crisis in Europe:

  • the economic crisis which is manifesting as “unemployment and welfare cuts in the south, resilient poverty in the east, uncertainty for the future in the west”
  • crisis in democratic governance wherein Europe is witnessing a “weakening of the links between citizens and power” manifesting as declining trust in political institutions, resentment against elites, in particular political elites
  • and the crisis in open society values whereby “basic values underpinning liberal democracy are questioned in theory and practice”

Vaquer pointed to some of the contradictions in the three crisis, for example the “resilience of values in Ireland, Portugal and Spain, despite deep economic and democracy crisis; intolerance in countries that have suffered less, like UK, the Netherlands and France…” and how the worst affected groups (such asmigrants, younger generation, people in rural areas) “are in some places driving the regression in values and the frustration with institutions but not in others”.

For philanthropy in particular this calls for a deep analysis of the current crisis and an understanding of all its dimensions. Given the complex nature of the crisis, Vaquer warned foundations against making assumptions and against thinking that we know what vulnerable groups need better than they do, or to define problems for them.

Implications and opportunities for philanthropy:       

  • Status quo vs social change: Vaquer suggested (and this was much discussed) that foundations  are often  “trapped as status quo actors”.  Are foundations happy with the status quo?  Is there an appetite for progressive social change?  Even if there is an appetite, sometimes the heritage of foundations makes it difficult for them to be viewed as part of a new and emerging social order.  
  • Local vs. European:  Participants searched for a deeper understanding of the relevance of positioning their work for impact at a European level when the pressures of the crisis were so evident at the local level. While emphasis in this regard was on “being curious” and responding to the needs of the community locally, it was acknowledged that it would be strategic to have “Europe” on the Foundations’ agenda despite working locally. “If you don’t have it, you’ll be farther and farther away. If you have it, you will assess it, think about it.”
  • Contested understanding of “European values”: Both in Vaquer’s presentation as well as an exercise conducted by the Even’s Foundation to reflect on the values as understood by the citizens of Europe and by foundations themselves, it emerged that there was a need for us to be careful in understanding and applying the concept of ‘European Values’ as its interpretation was not only shifting according to context but also contested among various stakeholders.  And yet universal values are an essential aspect of work for progressive social change.
  • Resilient Societies:  Supporting resilience in communities and in wider society are important aspects of the way forward. Vaquer pointed out that despite the hardships, there had been no serious violence, even in Greece and Spain. Additionally foundations could support and build on family coping mechanisms, local solidarities and existing welfare structures that were bouncing back to cope with the crisis.
  • New wave of social movements:  Attention was drawn to a new generation of activism that is bringing in new energy and dealing with new issues as well as old ones. There was a call for foundations to find such social movements and support them.

Further, participants explored the shared experience in the room around what have they done differently to address the challenges facing Europe today, what new ways of working exist or are needed for greater impact of philanthropy on the current crisis.

Some of the existing strategies that participants found effective:

  1. Influencing social policy innovation
  2. Look to civil society actors and grantees for a positive vision
  3. Listen to grantees working on the ground in terms of what skills they need
  4. Movement building i.e. creating and supporting processes which educate a new generation of activists
  5. Offer core, flexible and long term funding
  6. Practice participative grant making, giving voice to small groups

In order to increase the impact of philanthropy in the current context, discussions focused on three aspects of foundation work; i.e. who informs us, how we work- collaboratively or in isolation, and how we evaluate.

The Working Group will be reflecting on the way forward but will be taking note of the advice offered at the meeting:

  • there is an thirst for the kind of analysis which Jordi Vaquer offered
  • there is an eagerness for a new narrative for progressive philanthropy
  • workshops at places where people gather (e.g. EFC conference) are greatly appreciated
    more meetings may not be what is needed
  • the Working Group was encouraged to continue to act as a ‘ginger group’ organising events at EFC conferences and at other places where people gather

In the coming weeks a fuller report based on the above sketch of themes emerging from the discussions at the convening will be produced. For more information contact