Foundations for Peace and Social Justice

Last week I attended a public lecture in the magnificent York Minster, the great cathedral in northern England.  I felt as if I was in the heart of the English establishment, with all the wrappings of church and state.  The lecture was given by the Director of Christian Aid in Scotland.  Her day job is concerned with global poverty and how to promote development in the global south. 

Her lecture on this occasion, though, focussed attention on what is happening in the UK.  She spoke about the real impact of austerity policies on the poor.  She asked some fundamental questions about the direction our society is going.  What now are the values which govern our behaviour?  What is our response to the growing gap between rich and poor in the UK and Europe?  Is it right that those who are suffering most during the current economic crisis are the poor?   What hope do our young people have, who are struggling to find meaningful work?  Do we really want a society where more and more people feel excluded and have little stake in a shared future, and where xenophobia is growing?   Is it right that our corporations and businesses organise their finances so as to contribute as little as they can to the public purse through taxation?

The response from her mainly prosperous and elderly audience revealed that there is a deep sense of unease about the direction of travel amongst people of all social and political persuasions.  I am confident that the same is true in Spain.  I know from the recent Caritas Europa report[i] that similar questions are being asked in Spain, which is suffering in much the same way, and perhaps to an even worse degree.  And a concern for all of us must be that the underlying economic changes that are sweeping Europe may well be longstanding.  There is no certainty that we will return to the good days of the past.  In fact there is a greater likelihood that we won’t.    

The question is – what can be done?  The crisis we are living through raises particular questions for philanthropy.  What are foundations for?  What is their role in society?  How can they best use their special position of independence?  These are questions that we rarely ask in the busyness of our daily lives, trying to spend our foundations’ money in effective ways.  They are questions which become more important, however, when we are faced with an environment like the one we are in.    We can go about our work of making society a better place to live in by alleviating the worst of the social problems that we witness.  Or we can ask some deeper questions about the underlying causes of the problems. 

Foundations are never going to be big enough or influential enough to change society – we have to leave this to those who govern us.  What we can do is to help show the way.   We can use our independence to convene players from different parts of society to think about difficult issues.  We can help articulate a vision for the future and demonstrate that there are ways to move towards that vision.  We can support work aiming to influence the policies of our governments and the corporate sector.  This can be done if you are a small foundation operating in one local community or a large foundation operating globally.  It is such an important role to play. 

But are we well equipped to play that role?  The evidence suggests that many of us want to.  A recent study of foundation leaders from across Europe found a real interest in stepping up to the plate at this time of need.  It also found that foundations lack confidence in knowing what to do.   Barry Knight, the report’s author wrote:

One interesting strand of argument is the lack of effective tools among foundations – to manage the complexity of what is needed to address change, to tackle the EU system in all its Kafkaesque nature, to strengthen civil society, or to mobilise populations to engage with these issues. There is a strong sense of powerlessness among respondents, and this often manifests itself 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.  There is no cadre of donors working together on these issues to address them. Some mentioned the lack of good evaluation tools to measure their success.[ii]

In 2007 the Ford Foundation launched an initiative to support foundation leaders interested in deepening their practice in the pursuit of social justice and peace.  Several of the initial group came from Europe.  We are now interested in reaching out to find others interested in the pursuit.  We want to stimulate a conversation about the role of foundations in today’s Europe and to offer mutual support to those who are interested in:

  • looking analytically at the underlying problems,
  • reflecting on different approaches to tackling the problems
  • seeking to make a greater impact on the current difficult environment.

Are you interested in joining in this conversation?  If you are then please let us know.  We are planning to hold a European gathering in Brussels in the autumn, which will focus on work that has been developed by the Belgium based Evans Foundation on the values which underpin our modern European democracies and how, as foundations, we might orientate our work to strengthen these. Our aim is to find ways to support European colleagues in philanthropy interested in looking at the underlying causes of the problems we face, and to explore how we can work together to overcome the hurdles we all face. 

This article first appeared in Spanish in the April 2014 issue of Cuadernos, the newsletter of the Spanish Association of Foundations. You can read the article in Spanish here.

Stephen Pittam        (

Contact for the Philanthropy for Social Justice & Peace Network:

Chandrika Sahai     (

[i] The European Crisis and Its Human Cost: Caritas Europa March 2014

[ii] European Survey on Social Justice & Peace: Centris, March 2014