Photo: Kostas Maros

A new gene­ra­tion is emerging

The strength of the sector

Aline Frei­burg­haus became head of the Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons office in the French-spea­king part of Switz­er­land last June. Direc­ted towards the chari­ta­ble sector by a fort­u­nate set of circum­s­tances, she is parti­cu­larly impres­sed by the speed with which chari­ties are able to react to social issues. 

Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons – the umbrella orga­ni­sa­tion for chari­ta­ble foun­da­ti­ons in Switz­er­land – is cele­bra­ting its 20th anni­ver­sary this year. What plans are there to mark the occasion?

It’s an unusual year. We’re facing a lot of uncer­tainty, but we have a young, respon­sive team. We will be publi­shing the fourth edition of the Swiss Foun­da­tion Code, our sympo­sium will take place on 1 and 2 June, and we will conti­nue to deve­lop projects for and with our members as part of the #Foun­da­ti­on­For­Fu­ture concept.

You have been head of the Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons office in French-spea­king Switz­er­land since June 2020. Does the charity land­scape in that part of the coun­try differ from that of German-spea­king Switzerland?

There is no major divide between Eastern and Western Switz­er­land within the charity sector. That being said, there are regio­nal diffe­ren­ces, of course – Basel and Zurich have diffe­rent cultu­ral back­grounds, for exam­ple. But these diffe­ren­ces don’t hinder our ability to work toge­ther. Chari­ties colla­bo­rate on key topics. This has been proven during the current public-health crisis.

What is special about the charity sector in Geneva?

Its inter­na­tio­nal influence, I would say. Geneva has histo­ri­cally been a birth­place of chari­ta­ble endea­vours, with insti­tu­ti­ons like the Inter­na­tio­nal Commit­tee of the Red Cross, which was foun­ded in 1863. The charity sector in the Lake Geneva region is very dyna­mic and inter­na­tio­nally oriented.

Does its proxi­mity to France have a strong influence?

The Geneva spirit and the major inter­na­tio­nal orga­ni­sa­ti­ons have more of an impact on the sector than its French ties. The tradi­tion of the protes­tant fami­lies on the banks of the lake means they have always been heavily invol­ved in promo­ting the common good through important chari­ta­ble work, dedi­ca­ting a signi­fi­cant portion of their family wealth to phil­an­thro­pic acti­vi­ties. It is also worth remem­be­ring that each charity was foun­ded by an indi­vi­dual philanthropist. They have each left their own perso­nal mark on their charity, making it unique within its sphere. There may be regio­nal cultu­ral trends, but each charity has its own identity.

What role do the autho­ri­ties play in Geneva?

The Lake Geneva region has a very dyna­mic chari­ta­ble sector, and the autho­ri­ties help it flou­rish. They are in constant dialo­gue with the chari­ties and make sure the condi­ti­ons are right for them to be able to deve­lop in a posi­tive way. Since 2013, Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons and the State of Geneva have enjoyed a working rela­ti­onship built on mutual trust that has proved to be extre­mely valuable. It has bene­fi­ted the wider public, too. 

How do chari­ties posi­tively impact society?

Venture Kick is a good exam­ple. It is a chari­ta­ble initia­tive foun­ded in 2007 by a private consor­tium. It aims to build bridges between science and entre­pre­neur­ship by support­ing high-impact start-ups. Nume­rous foun­da­ti­ons from diffe­rent regi­ons, such as the Gebert Rüf Stif­tung and Fonda­tion ProTechno, colla­bo­rate within the consor­tium to create more leverage. This means scien­ti­fic advance­ments can be trans­fer­red into the busi­ness world very quickly, which, in turn, bene­fits wider society.

Aline Frei­burg­haus became head of the Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons office in the French-spea­king part of Switz­er­land in June 2020. Along with Katha­rina Guggi and Monts­er­rat Bell­prat, she took on the opera­tio­nal manage­ment of Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons ad inte­rim at the start of 2021, and will conti­nue in this role until the posi­tion is perma­nently filled. Aline Frei­burg­haus star­ted at Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons as a project mana­ger, a post she held from 2015 to 2019. She has two master’s degrees – one in poli­ti­cal science and the other in envi­ron­men­tal science – from the Univer­sity of Geneva.

Photo: Kostas Maros

What are the main concerns and chal­lenges for Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons right now?

Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons was foun­ded in order to help orga­ni­sa­ti­ons in the chari­ta­ble sector share expe­ri­en­ces and become more profes­sio­nal. Trans­pa­rency, colla­bo­ra­tion, impact and trai­ning are the key focus areas for deve­lo­ping the sector. As an active network dedi­ca­ted to inno­va­tion, we also follow poli­ti­cal and social deve­lo­p­ments closely, such as the Sustainable Deve­lo­p­ment Goals (SDGs) and digitalisation. 

The chari­ta­ble sector is lagging behind when it comes to gender equality.

This is also a topic we address at our events. Chari­ties are an inte­gral part of civil society. Studies carried out by the Center for Phil­an­thropy Studies at the Univer­sity of Basel and the Centre for Phil­an­thropy at the Univer­sity of Geneva show that the chari­ta­ble sector still has a lot of work to do when it comes to diver­sity. Women make up less than a third of the members of boards of trus­tees. We don’t want to reduce this topic solely to the ques­tion of gender, howe­ver. When it comes to diver­sity, things like age and social back­ground are also factors. We need to take action in these areas. The chari­ta­ble sector is evol­ving, howe­ver, and a new and dyna­mic gene­ra­tion is emerging.

Women are well repre­sen­ted at Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons. Is this the result of a deli­be­rate strategy?

Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons hasn’t expli­citly sought to hire women. Exper­tise has always been the deci­ding factor in driving profes­sio­na­lism within the sector and beco­ming more inno­va­tive. The fact that our office is curr­ently made up exclu­si­vely of women, and that our execu­tive board has a lot of women on it, is a reflec­tion of Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons’ aware­ness of the topic. Above all, our orga­ni­sa­tion hasn’t put obsta­cles in the way that prevent women from occu­py­ing top positions. 

Is it diffi­cult to find volun­teers to fill certain posi­ti­ons on boards of trus­tees? How can you encou­rage diver­sity in this context?

Remu­ne­ra­tion for board members is a key issue if you want to find capa­ble people with the time and moti­va­tion to get invol­ved. It’s hard to under­take unpaid work, espe­ci­ally for people who may be in a less privi­le­ged finan­cial posi­tion. Of course, members of boards of trus­tees can’t be offe­red sizeable remu­ne­ra­tion, either, owing to the chari­ta­ble nature of their work. Howe­ver, appro­priate compen­sa­tion would simplify the process of appoin­ting new board members and faci­li­tate the inte­gra­tion of mino­rity groups that are curr­ently under-repre­sen­ted, or not repre­sen­ted at all.

Should the charity sector be play­ing a pionee­ring role in the area of gender equality, or should busi­nesses be paving the way?

I think the silo menta­lity is out of date. We need to start thin­king more in terms of ecosys­tems and colla­bo­ra­tion. Busi­ness obviously plays an important role. The chari­ta­ble sector has a lot fewer resour­ces at its dispo­sal by compa­ri­son. On the other hand, chari­ties are able to react very quickly and make large sums available in a short amount of time. They are also not bound by the need to make a profit; they can take risks and occupy niches that are more diffi­cult for busi­nesses to engage with. This is one of the huge advan­ta­ges of charities. 

Are these the kinds of oppor­tu­ni­ties that moti­va­ted you to enter the chari­ta­ble sector?

I comple­ted inter­di­sci­pli­nary studies in envi­ron­men­tal and poli­ti­cal science, and am deligh­ted to be able to put them into prac­tice in my work for Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons. But the fact that I ended up in the chari­ta­ble sector was more the result of a fort­u­nate set of circumstances. 

You star­ted at Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons as a project mana­ger. What made a parti­cu­lar impres­sion on you?

What moti­va­tes me is working for the common good and being able to contri­bute to a better society. When I first joined Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons in 2016, I had the oppor­tu­nity to work with a group of chari­ties in the French-spea­king region that were support­ing unac­com­pa­nied child refu­gees. At the time, there was a huge number of refu­gees flee­ing to Europe from Syria and Eritrea, and their needs were urgent. Nine chari­ties raised half a million francs in two weeks. They were able to help unac­com­pa­nied minors when the govern­ment did not yet have the means to do so. I was impres­sed by how quickly these chari­ties worked toge­ther and by the rele­vance of what they were doing.

Was this speed unusual or is it charac­te­ristic of the sector?

It’s one of the strengths of the sector. Chari­ties are able to act very fast. Most importantly, they are also able to anti­ci­pate future needs. They are not subject to the same econo­mic cons­traints as compa­nies. Chari­ties are able to observe the situa­tion and be proac­tive when complex problems emerge.

‘When it comes to diver­sity, things like age and social back­ground are also factors..’
Aline Frei­burg­haus

You travel­led through South America last winter. Did you disco­ver any inte­res­t­ing chari­ta­ble projects out there?

It wasn’t a work trip. But I was nevert­hel­ess impres­sed by various diffe­rent initia­ti­ves I encoun­te­red, parti­cu­larly as I was travel­ling through the Antar­c­tic. Chari­ties are funding rese­arch by the Swiss Polar Insti­tute, which is dedi­ca­ted to helping conserve the poles and their incre­di­ble biodiversity.

You studied envi­ron­men­tal science.  In your view, what role do chari­ties play in tack­ling the climate crisis?

In order to play a central role, chari­ties need to address cross-cutting issues. The climate crisis is the sum of many parts. For a long time it was redu­ced to its envi­ron­men­tal aspects, but we now know that it also has an impact on health, the economy and society. Chari­ties need to work toge­ther and think in terms of ecosys­tems in order to increase their impact. This also applies to other cross-cutting deve­lo­p­ments, such as digi­tal transformation.

Where do you see the sector in terms of digitalisation?

The sector is fairly tradi­tio­nal, and chari­ties are not typi­cally the most ‘digi­tal’ envi­ron­ments – although some large-scale orga­ni­sa­ti­ons, like Merca­tor and Fonda­tion Lombard Odier, are pioneers in this area. But the sector is chan­ging. Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons is active in this area. We also want to improve the visi­bi­lity of the sector in digi­tal media. 

When you took up your role last June, digi­ta­li­sa­tion must have been a key part of your work?

We were able to do most things online, and our webi­nars in response to the COVID-19 emer­gency were a success. Of course, it’s easier to make a perso­nal connec­tion when you meet someone face to face. On the other hand, online solu­ti­ons do make it easier to colla­bo­rate with people in diffe­rent geogra­phi­cal locations.

Chari­ties and NGOs are curr­ently coming under fire for their enga­ge­ment in poli­ti­cal topics. How do you see the role of chari­ties in this regard?

Any acti­vity that has an impact on society has a poli­ti­cal dimen­sion. Chari­ties are an active part of civil society. They can play a stabi­li­sing role, an anti­ci­pa­tory role and act as an initia­tor of change, all at the same time. Our members do incre­di­ble work in this context, which I think deser­ves to be recognised. 

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