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DAFNE Winter meeting: Lifting up philanthropy in Europe

In this blog, ACF Chief Executive Carol Mack reflects on a recent meeting of European philanthropy support organisations, drawing out some of the key questions for foundations – and for ACF.

Last month I attended the winter meeting of DAFNE; the European network of PSOs, or ‘philanthropy support organisations’. ‘PSOs’, like ACF, are membership organisations that support institutional philanthropy. The total collective membership of DAFNE members includes over 10,000 foundations in 26 countries. 

We met in Dublin, hosted by the Department of Foreign Affairs, an indication of the importance attached to philanthropy by the government of Ireland. Our discussions generated, as ever, more questions than answers. Some of these included:

How can foundations respond to the well-publicised decline in public trust? The trend is global, but the way in which it manifests varies across Europe. We heard from representatives across the continent that the community fabric between people is broken. Our Bulgarian colleagues cited startling evidence that there the decline in trust starts early with children in First Grade reporting a lack of trust in their classroom companions. What role can foundations play in the urgent search for solutions to the trust deficit? What are the opportunities for foundations to nurture behaviour that rebuilds trust in an increasingly polarised society? How can foundations reach across and through the barriers that divide us to foster a sense of solidarity?

Why do foundations so rarely turn the ‘innovation lens’ - so readily applied to the work of others - consciously onto their own practice? There is much innovation by and between foundations, why is it so rarely acknowledged as such? And given the evidence that it is networks that allow rapid adoption of new practice, why is it that for many foundations, building connections is seen as a ‘nice to have’, rather than as a core activity, essential to mission?

DAFNE itself is a network of networks and the agenda for the meeting was focused squarely on the role of PSOs themselves, rather than our perhaps more glamorous members. We heard about the global #LiftUpPhilanthropy campaign, which aims to shine a light on what ‘philanthropy support ecosystems’ can do to unlock the potential of philanthropy.

In the words of Walter Viers, of Mott Foundation, a longtime funder of PSOs; “Philanthropy infrastructure is not a problem to be fixed, it is a task to engage with". But what is that task? What role do PSOs themselves, perhaps the closest and most intimate friends of foundations, have to play in enabling the sector we serve to collectively raise its game? To engage with questions about foundations’ legitimacy and mandate? How do we measure our own impact as distinct from that of our members?

I took away from the meeting a renewed sense of urgency about ACF’s mission; to support foundations to be ambitious and effective in the way that they use their resources. And a conviction that the issues that concern British foundations are part of a global debate about the role of private resources in achieving social good.

Carol Mack
Chief Executive, ACF

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