Philanthropy needs imagination

by Vivian Paulissen (Knowledge Manager at the European Cultural Foundation)

Idea Camp 2017, photo by César Lucas Abreu

Idea Camp 2017, photo by César Lucas Abreu

It is exciting and it is needed. Why not consider philanthropy as a lab in which we can learn from our mistakes and advance our work by working together on a profound level with partners and grantees? One community of practice in which we share a concern and learn how to do it better as we interact regularly.(1) 

A true civic-philanthropic collaboration… Is it that difficult to imagine?

To begin with, we have to get rid of the paradigm of philanthropy as a culture of ‘giving’ that is equal to a gesture of altruism (2). This is a problematic stance. Selflessness is the concern for the welfare of others. To characterise philanthropic giving as the selfless return of capital to society for the welfare of others just feeds ongoing paternalism. It implies goodwill by the one who cares to give and a dependency on it for the one who needs the care; it unites them by an obligation in the sense that the one owes the other something. What it does not imply is any other reciprocity in the relationship beyond the giving and the receiving.

This donor-versus-recipient doctrine marks a strict boundary between philanthropic players on the one side and their grantees on the other side. It is an unhelpful perspective, held actually both by philanthropy as well as by the civil society actors it supports. If we continue to think along the divide between the ones with power because they have financial resources to give and the others who are merely receiving, we will not make any progress. We have to come up with a new scenario and narrative.

We simply have to imagine a We. A daring, genuine attempt to build a mutual philanthropic-civic collaboration model (or better even, ultimately a collaboration between philanthropy, civil society and public institutions). This model will face many challenges, for sure, but through it various types of resources should be acknowledged and shared with equal value attached to them. A model in which time, talent, knowledge and money are exchanged across the involved stakeholders of foundations and civil society actors/grantees in a non-dichotomist dynamic. Such a model should be based on more peer-to-peer interaction and should also embrace a peripheral focus rather than frontal one. Sure, this is a provocation, but we should at least try to imagine it together as foundations in a shared community of practice towards social change. Philosopher Marina Garcés writes in Un Mundo Común (A Common World): “The sum of you and me is not two. It is a between where any of us may appear. A world between us has emerged.” (3)

What would it take us to get there? It requires guts by the philanthropic community to recognise the limits of the current system of which it is a product itself. “In its quest to promote deep progressive change within society, philanthropy is often blamed for addressing the symptoms rather than the roots of problems. In other words, we seem to promote short-term and single-issue strategies, transactional reforms and techno-fixes that eventually reinforce the logic of the dominant system instead of attempting to build a new one. The current system, of course, is the ubiquitous market paradigm, which step-by-step has transformed citizens into consumers and the common good into a utopian fantasy of infinite economic growth.”(4)

It is certainly true that foundations hold an inordinate amount of leverage in any grantmaker-grantee relationship. This imbalance forces many organisations that are funded, for example, to focus on projects rather than on processes, as they have more visible impact and measurement potential. Consequently, philanthropic foundations can narrate more easily stories of success that help them in their own accountability towards their boards and the public. Slow change-making processes are less ‘sexy’ for foundations that need to demonstrate how wisely they are spending their money. However, philanthropy could catalyse change much more effectively by shifting more resources to processes, organisational support and seeding experiments.

Building movements takes time and a lot of effort. Support for the building of strong connections between actors of different movements working on climate, social justice or culture is even more crucial for a deep structural change. If we as philanthropic foundations join forces, we can provide an overview of the various key agents and movements in the wider ecosystem and play a meaningful role in connecting them across silos and to public institutions in the policy-making arena.

There is an inspiring testing ground developing where funders and grantees are collaborating as like-minded peers sharing a similar theory of change. A growing number of progressive foundations are coming together under the global network of EDGE (Engaged Donors for Global Equity) with European and USA branches.5 The motto of the alliance is to work with movements in a safe learning and collaborative space to support real progress and systemic change. In EDGE we learn about the diversity of philanthropy networks and approaches in order to understand how collectively we could take more risks and move out of our comfort zone. “Even as ‘progressives’, we are very far from living day-to-day what we are preaching. It’s not only about funding transformative change instead of business as usual solutions. It’s also changing ourselves as foundations: how we manage and invest capital, internal governance, the power dynamics with the grantees, etc.” (6)

An EDGE working group on the Commons looks at how its discourse and concept can be an inspiring tool for renewal of philanthropy. Commons entail a huge cultural shift in values. Inclusive participation, cooperation and collaboration are at the forefront of its vision of humanity. ECF’s grantees, such as participants in Idea Camps over the past four years, offer interesting case studies and alternatives with a Commons lens that help us to imagine how to share and govern resources and how to work in a peer-to-peer way.

A concrete example of a Commons-inspired way of working evolves under the umbrella of EDGE Europe. In November 2016, four foundations (ECF, OSIFE, Charles Leopold Mayer Foundation and Guerrilla Foundation) engaged in a joint venture to open up their grant-making with and to change-makers from civil society. Together they convened 30 activists from key European movements to develop a participatory grant-making pilot that became the FundAction platform. Activists have a direct say in who receives financial support and how knowledge is distributed across the movements that are addressing the multiple alarming threats we are facing in Europe. The foundations involved are renewing their operations as part of the adventure. This is manifested in the charter of values that was created by the foundations and the activists together, based on the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organising.7 As foundations, we acknowledge that the philanthropic universe has to be held accountable for its decisions and their impact and has to adopt the same standards of participation that it is asking of institutions, communities and its own grantees. We are committed to expanding access to the resources of philanthropy, be it grants, networks or outreach. At the same time we should acknowledge that our grants, networks and outreach are enhanced by a diverse, skilled and engaged community of activists. (8)

Democracy needs imagination, as the Belgian author Peter Vermeersch claims.9 It does have imagination: democracy is a creative act that engages people in a conversation beyond the ballot box. As a cultural foundation that supports democratic renewal in Europe fuelled by local citizen’s movements, ECF also has to reinvent our own institution so we can practice what we preach. Over the past few years, ECF has been developing various programme pilots with grantees and partners that have been changing our own grant-making and operational mechanisms.10 This was partly successful and partly not and that is exactly the point: trust doesn’t come in a ready-made package. It’s a long breath – it’s quarrelling and fighting over small details that do matter and over big issues that need attention. Working in a very intensive and complex networked way with hubs and their communities, the Idea Camps, the participatory grant-making, Research & Development grants instead of project grants… these all are attempts to work with grantees and other partners in a more direct and reciprocal relationship in which – apart from money – ECF is also facilitating knowledge, time, convening opportunities and networking. It is all one big learning lab: we don’t have the final answers about the best way to do things. It is not as if we are simply peers and that the roles are interchangeable between our foundation and our grantees. We need to be alert at all times and be clear about our roles and our functions in this world that emerges between us, to stay with the words of Marina Garcés. It is not easy to imagine this relationship that, obviously, still holds power imbalances, in a world that is still organised largely around who holds the purse strings.

But if democracy has imagination, then the same is also true for philanthropy. Let us be learning organisations all together: funders with activists, movements, change-makers, idea-makers…. We need to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses to rely on developing a qualitative collaboration. The adagio that foundations should listen more to grantees and learn from them is not enough. Moreover, it would be a mistake if philanthropy thinks this is good because it would ‘help’ partners to do their best work. Instead, we should claim it is good for funders as well as for grantees if we treat each other as equally important players in an ecosystem that is aware of the urgency of the need for systemic change. The essence is to really do it together and to establish a new relationship. Philanthropist Peter Buffet refers to both the system as well as philanthropy when he says that what we have is still an old story – and we really need a new one. “It’s time for a new operating system. Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up. New code. What we have is a crisis of imagination. Foundation dollars should be the best ‘risk capital’ out there.” (11)

Yes, it does require a lot of guts, trial, error, trust and imagination from the ‘philanthropic side’ and from the ‘grantee side’ too. But as one community of practice, we can challenge public discourse and policy making to become a joint advocate for a different era. We can support seeds of change and the much-needed experiments if we only dare to take risks, be open and transparent, be creative and learn how to give and receive in multiple directions. Then we can seize the opportunity in a way that expands our notions of what is possible: we can imagine and create something new! It is exciting! And it is very necessary!


This article is part of a publication that will be released in January 2018: “Communities of Practice towards Social Change – A journey through the Idea Camp (2014-2017)”, published by the European Cultural Foundation and Krytyka Polityczna.



1 The concept of ‘community of practice’(CoP) was first proposed by cognitive anthropologist Jean Lave and educational theorist Étienne Wenger in their book Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). Wenger then significantly expanded on the concept in his 1998 book Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). A CoP can evolve naturally because of the members’ common interest in a particular domain or area, or it can be created deliberately with the goal of gaining knowledge related to a specific field. It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop personally and professionally.

2 Regarding philanthropy and altruism see for example quotes by Falco et al., 1998; Schervish, 1997 : « While philanthropy is an altruistic impulse, it is also a learned behavior”, or M. Todd Henderson & Anup Malani, “Corporate Philanthropy and the Market for Altruism” ( John M. Olin Program in Law and Economics Working Paper No. 399, 2008):”There is a robust market for philanthropic works – which we call the market for altruism – in which non-profit organizations, the government, and for-profit corporations compete to do good works. We describe this market and the role corporations play in satisfying the demand for altruism”.

3 Marina Garcés, Un Mundo Común (Barcelona: Bellaterra, 2013).

4 Heike Löschmann, Nicolas Krausz and Vivian Paulissen,‘The Commons as a Path for Philanthropy to Catalyse System Change’, first published on 28 January 2016 on the European Foundation Centre’s blog:

5 See

6 Nicolas Krausz, Programme Officer of the Charles Leopold Mayer Foundation and co-chair of EDGE in an interview with WINGS for Philanthropy in Focus (

7 The Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing ( were developed during a meeting hosted by Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ), Jemez, New Mexico in December 1996. Forty people of colour and European-American representatives met in Jemez, New Mexico, for the Working Group Meeting on Globalization and Trade. The Jemez meeting was hosted by the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice with the intention of hammering out common understandings between participants from different cultures, politics and organisations.

8 The value charter of FundAction can be found at

9 Peter Vermeersch quoted in ‘Reclaiming Public Space: Democratic Practices Reinvented?’ a debate during the ECF event Imagining Europe in Amsterdam, 5 October 2012.

10 At ECF, the Connected Action for the Commons programme was a logical step towards a shift in our philanthropic approach, which already started with ECF’s Youth and Media Programme and Doc Next Network back in 2009.

11 Peter Buffett, composer and chairman of the NoVo Foundation in ‘The Charitable-Industrial Complex’, New York Times, New York, 26 July 2013.