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Reflections on ECFI phase 1

Photo: Boris Strečanský
Photo: Boris Strečanský

ECFI organized two study visits (to Germany and the UK) and three thematic meetings, facilitated by Boris Strečanský, from the Center for Philanthropy in Bratislava and Julia Szanton, ECFI peer-learning experts. The first thematic meeting took place in Paretz, Germany and focused on Community Foundation Support Organization (CFSO) challenges and needs. The second was held in Brussels and considered the political, technological, environmental and socio-economic trends and challenges that impact our communities and how European community foundations and other community philanthropy initiatives may respond to them. The third in Messina, Italy focused on the Community Philanthropy’s response to Refugees and Asylum Seekers. Reports on the Study Visits can be found here and on the Thematic Meetings can be found here. The comment below encapsulates their value ‘The networking, learning and sharing opportunities were of particular benefit to me. In addition the practical examples of other foundations work and ideas on how foundations could have a role in today’s rapidly changing world were very useful’.

Photo: Beata Hirt

ECFI supported six exchanges between CFs or CFSOs in Europe. Beata Hirt, Healthy City Community Foundation, Banská Bystrica, Slovakia, encapsulated the value of a CF2CF exchange with the Ukrainian Podilska Hromada Community Foundation in her comment ‘I hope that we, as a somewhat “older sister,“ were able to offer some experience and useful models. At the same time, we learned a lot, more than we expected. We also enjoyed the enormous enthusiasm, creativity, and energy of our younger colleagues. I am sure that our relationships will continue beyond the project’.

Photo: Jonathan Duckworth

A highlight in 2017 was the first European CF Conference hosted by UKCF in Cardiff, involving 101 participants from 17 European countries and representatives from Australia, Canada, Palestine and South Africa. Reflections on the conference can be found here. Despite the enormous cultural and contextual diversity one challenge in common was recognized – the need to establish trust, consistent with the theme ‘Building Bridges For Local Good’.

In September the European Community Foundations Initiative (ECFI) invited foundation representatives to the ‘Building Bridges for Local Good’ conference – the very first European foundation conference of this kind. How much the community had been waiting for such a convention already became obvious during the registration phase: 107 actors wanted to participate. In the end only 100 of them could be admitted – a first reason why such an event must be repeated before long. The group that finally convened in the magnificent historic town hall of Cardiff, Wales, had come from 22 different countries and spoke 18 different mother tongues. Even so, all participants found a common word to describe the mood that was prevalent during the two conference days: inspiring.

This word describes not only the workshops and lectures but, especially, the encounters among people from all over Europe. It quickly became apparent how diverse the general political conditions in the participating countries are and how many community foundations are therefore compelled to deviate from the traditional community foundation model. Instead, they adjust to the pertinent cultural, economic and political setting in a creative and rebellious way. Thus, a positive consequence of these challenges and difficulties is an actual community foundation movement – many small, country-specific foundations that attempt to create the best possible conditions for their communities. Barry Knight of the Global Fund for Community Foundations explained this in his conference lecture as follows: Community foundations are carried by different central ideas in different parts of the world. While in some regions the main focus is on establishing a culture of giving, others have to fight for being able to identify potential donors to begin with.

Despite these different focal points, a problem was quickly singled out at the conference that all countries share: establishing trust. Whether it concerns collecting donations, collaborating with partners and civic actors or the actual impact of the work of the community foundations on the communities – trust was an issue that entered into all discussions. It quickly became clear how remarkably creative the various foundations are in their approach to this issue. For example, Ansis Berzins from the Valmiera Region Community Foundation in Latvia shared his experiences in a country that has been a democracy for only 25 years: ‘Trust is a major problem in Latvia – among institutions, among people – at all levels.’ To overcome this mistrust, the community foundations there try to gain visibility in their communities and dissolve the traditional labels of ‘donor’ and ‘recipient’. Gergana Kutseva from the Bulgarian Fund for Women reported similar experiences during the panel on philanthropy. The concept is so uncommon in her country, she explained, that only 10% of Bulgarians are actually willing to make donations – and only for people in immediate danger or when natural disasters have occurred.

The conference revealed: deep mistrust seems to be the credo of modern society. Jenny Hodgson, executive director of the Global Fund for Community Foundations, came to this conclusion in a discussion: ‘We are not on a neutral ground of truth.’ The tenor of the conference, she said, was the importance for the community foundations in Europe to keep making contacts – among donors and donation recipients, but also among different community foundations. And so Felix Oldenburg, the executive director of the Association of German Foundations, summarized the result of the event concisely when he said in his lecture that philanthropy should be more a place than a group of competing networks.

Even though it became clear during the course of the event that the conference could only be a beginning and many further exchange meetings are needed, it is precisely this place which Felix Oldenburg described and which ECFI has physically created for the first time with ‘Building Bridges For Local Good’. For the first time the many actors on the map of European philanthropy have been successfully brought together – to form a large joint network.

Madeleine Hoffmann (October 2017)

ECFI published three Community Foundation Guides, one about European CFs and two devoted to specific countries: Germany and the UK. Guides for Italy and Romania are in production. The Guides are used to complement expand information on the field, and were used in Study Visits, the conference and one of the thematic meetings.

Anja Boellhoff

Co-ordinating Director