Facing our Greatest Immediate Challenge – The Role of Philanthropy
Reflections on the 9th EVPA Conference
by Etienne Eichenberger
The spectrum of philanthropy is wide and the boundaries between activities are becoming less rigid.
As a philanthropy advisor and leader representing EVPA supporters group of private Swiss foundations, we had two ambitions of the EVPA Conference, Geneva 2013. First, we wanted to expose the Swiss philanthropic scene to the wide spectrum encompassed by venture philanthropy: by bringing the major players to Geneva, we hoped to enthuse Swiss organisations and the media about venture philanthropy and its power to drive social change. We also wanted to have at least 100 local players attending the conference and at the final count we attracted just under 150. So, we achieved our first aim. Our second ambition was to provide an opportunity for the key Swiss players in this field to demonstrate what they do and have done. The conference provided an excellent opportunity for us to present a glimpse of what is happening in Switzerland.
After almost 20 months preparing for the conference they are many stories to share but there are two that come to my mind. The first story is personal. During the conference I had the opportunity to take breakfast with my family, and when I showed them the book we published for conference attendees, Seven Testimonials of Entrepreneurs which describes their philanthropic activities, my daughter, aged 8, was reading the principles of Venture Philanthropy as defined by the EVPA and asked me: “why is it called adventure philanthropy?” Her misreading has a point: philanthropy should be an adventure with risky choices and where both successes and failures feature. We need to be better at learning from both.
The second story involves Rodrigo Jordan, one of the conference keynote speakers. Jordan said “an exceptional team is a combination of purpose, skill and conscious generosity.” By reminding us that helping the others is also about caring for the ones around us, Jordan emphasised what is good about philanthropy. When you lead a team in a foundation or when you are engaged in your family in philanthropy, this is an important element to remember.
Responsible leadership = responsible philanthropy
The principle theme of the conference was responsible leadership. André Hoffmann, Vice President of WWF International, and Kristian Parker, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Oak Foundation, both inspired me. Whilst they both considered responsibility as an important component of their philanthropy, they would not describe themselves as leaders but rather as practitioners. When you know the role and impact that their environmental philanthropy plays, their statement is an excellent call that both humility and ambition is needed as we move forward to address the incredible challenges facing the world. It also says a lot about the momentum that we have in the philanthropic sector. From this perspective, I felt at this years’ conference that the boundaries between venture, strategic and catalytic philanthropy remain vague but there are several principles emerging.
We see a reinforcement of the diversity of the EVPA network. In fact ten years ago, the concept of venture philanthropy was a novelty but now it is considered a common practice and the lines between other philanthropic activities blurs. During this time the network has become more humble. It has recognised that venture philanthropy is a tool in the toolbox and as such it cannot achieve change alone. It needs many partners and many approaches to be successful. When it comes to implement such collaborations, as much as clear leadership is required, we need to recognise the contribution of all our partners in achieving success. This is an important component of partnership, especially within philanthropy, and this is for me an important lesson learnt.
Looking back in November last year
Since the conference I have noticed the following three elements emerging from informal discussions within our network.
As far as grant making foundations are concerned it is important to stress that quite often they tend to react to proposals sent to them. The EVPA has certainly reinforced the importance of making choices on what and how you would like to make a difference. In other words: for grant making foundations to become more proactive.
Even local charities that still receive government support, shared with us the value of the conference to learn more about venture philanthropy and also, more generically, about new funding mechanisms.
Finally I see initiatives such as Sustainable Finance Geneva (http://www.sfgeneva.org/index.php/swiss-market/) who have decided to turn Switzerland’s unique combination of strengths as both a financial sector and a philanthropic hub into six proposals for sustainable finance. Proposals like these are emerging with even more legitimacy today after this large and unique event.