How can the foundation sector become more attractive to future generations? A laboratory is aiming to inspire them with transparent communication and experiments.
There are no figures for the future. In fact, the future couldn’t be more uncertain. This is how the Jacobs Foundation puts it in the summary of its Future Skills study from 2020: ‘Climate change, geopolitical power shifts, the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic – many current trends make the future highly uncertain.’ The past and present are known; we learn from experience. But what skills will we, our children and our grandchildren need 30 years from now? The study concludes that there are three basic skills which enable children and young people to shape the future: knowing, wanting and doing. Konrad Weber, Theresa Gehringer and Sandro Alvarez-Hummel have asked themselves similar questions about the foundation sector.
What can be done if the sector isn’t progressing? They point out that, although we are aware of many issues, the sector often doesn’t move forward boldly enough. Furthermore, the main players in the sector tend to keep to themselves. ‘We are keen to help shape the foundation sector because we still see a lot of potential here,’ says Alvarez-Hummel. ‘We would like to contribute, and the idea of a foundation lab is a first real step towards this. It is an experiment intended to last 1000 days.’
Konrad Wager (left), Sandro Alvarez Hummel and Theresa Gehringer are getting things going with 1000 days of the foundation lab.
The three young initiators, all millennials, mostly communicated through digital channels during the foundation lab’s concept development phase, which lasted one and a half years. They all come from different business backgrounds and have a wealth of experience in their fields. Konrad Weber is a strategy consultant and New Work specialist with extensive journalism experience. Theresa Gehringer is a foundation expert with a PhD and has worked for various foundations and nonprofit organisations. Sandro Alvarez-Hummel, a crowdfunding and campaign expert, is involved with Wemakeit and is writing a dissertation on collaboration strategies of foundations. Gehringer and Alvarez-Hummel also serve the interests of the sector on the board of the Vereinigung junger Stiftungsexpert:innen, the association of young foundation experts. Between them, the three initiators can fall back on a wealth of experience and a broad repertoire of methods.
It’s not about a new solution intended to exist for decades, nor is it about creating new structures. Rather, it is a kind of playing field that the three of them are making available to the sector. It is meant to be fun, with the participants working on specific support measures, ideas, stimuli and inspiration in an enjoyable way. ‘As a digital experimental space, the foundation lab fosters a spirit of innovation and hones the digital skills of members from the sector,’ explains Weber. ‘Creative minds can work together in the laboratory on developing new solutions to complex real-world challenges. This not only gives rise to new solutions but also promotes critical and analytical thinking and emotional intelligence among members of the foundation sector.’
1000 days of experiments
The initiators are curious to see what the 1000 days of the foundation lab will bring. Theresa Gehringer says: ‘We are excited to see what we can achieve with our fellow thinkers in these 1000 days.’ It should be enough time to gather and consolidate existing knowledge but also come up with new ideas: the team is convinced of this. To ensure that all employees of an organisation benefit equally, it makes a lot of sense to involve everyone at all levels – which means the barriers to involvement must be low. They don’t just want to bring together people from within the sector but also those associated with it. Alvarez-Hummel: ‘We consider “approaching and listening to each other” to be a future skill.’ He adds: ‘The foundation lab is a digital experimental space with a stage for the Swiss foundation sector. It is meant to encourage doing rather than thinking.’
With brain, heart and muscles
Brain: the lab is an experimental space for collaborative thinking. Selected questions are brought to the lab table, where they are scrutinised to develop highly practical solutions in collaboration with a voluntary online community. Nothing happens behind closed doors, with potential solutions being presented and debated. Anyone can get involved.
Heart: the experiments in the lab are meant to be fun. People with different expertise are brought together via New Work approaches. And the time is ripe for it: faced with ever-changing social challenges, many people are eager to collaborate and work on new solutions.
Muscles: there is strength in numbers, especially when people collaborate. The three experts are leveraging this strength for the sector, breaking down management hierarchies by opening the lab to everyone. They are not competing with anyone and are sharing their knowledge and methodological expertise.
Push and pull
‘It’s not about bulldozing into the sector and shaking things up,’ emphasises Sandro Alvarez-Hummel. ‘Instead, we want to actively contribute to action areas that have already been identified.’ Together with representatives from the foundation sector, they are planning to establish an advisory board to gather insights and build on them in a co-creative process. And in addition to just identifying action areas, they want to encourage involvement, set their own agenda and collaborate with existing laboratories such as staatslabor and Klimalabor, too.
What skills are needed?
Switzerland is a country of foundations and associations. There are around 70,000 foundation board members and as many as 90,000 association board members throughout the country. There is enormous potential – but only a fraction of these strategic decision-makers are reached at the annual association symposia.
While the foundation lab focuses on future skills such as innovation methods, New Work, active listening, data competency, empathy, cultural sensitivity and the willingness to learn new things, Dominic Lüthi, founder and CEO of StiftungsratsMandat.com, a platform for finding suitable members for foundations’ boards of trustees, believes it is more important to have an individual and tailored mix of skills.
The composition is crucial, says Lüthi, the initiator of the matchmaking platform for board members and foundations. ‘In terms of diversity, we recommend having a mix of different generations, genders, philosophies and ethnic backgrounds on boards of trustees,’ he says. But there also needs to be a coherent connection and identification with the foundation’s purpose, as well as a long-term vision, team spirit and expertise in areas such as marketing and communication, governance and compliance, law, digitalisation, fundraising and finance. Hands-on skills are also very important. ‘There should be a good mix of practice and theory on the board of trustees, so that projects and challenges can be tackled effectively with feasible and solution-oriented measures,’ emphasises Lüthi. After being introduced to the idea of the foundation lab, he immediately agreed to get involved as an expert.
Motivating young people
Diversity on boards of trustees is a recurring topic in the foundation sector – especially with regard to the lack of involvement on the part of younger generations. The Board for Good foundation is aiming to address this issue with its NextGen programme. The goal is to inspire young people to get involved in the foundation sector and provide them with a specific qualification for serving on boards of trustees. 164 young people have applied for initiative’s scholarships since the programme was launched in autumn 2021. So far, 47 individuals have benefited from a scholarship in six seminars. ‘Demand is consistently high, reflecting the growing need for new trustees with different perspectives,’ says Theresa Gehringer, President of the Board for Good foundation. The foundation’s advisory board has therefore decided to extend the programme for a further three years. Over this period, the initiative wants to help even more young people to establish a foothold on boards of trustees, working with the foundation sector to identify ways of achieving this rejuvenation. Like the Board for Good foundation, the foundation lab also wants to reach a younger and, above all, more diverse audience. It is keen to show how vibrant, diverse and exciting the sector is.
The question of money
Bringing about change within the sector requires more than just ideas – capacities and resources are also needed. This is the juncture at which Konrad Weber, Theresa Gehringer and Sandro Alvarez-Hummel find themselves. They are already stretched thin. ‘After a year and a half, the concept development phase is now complete,’ says Weber. ‘We are ready to go!’ What they need now are resources, namely money. The initial funding should be secured by the end of the year. The team are planning to then reduce their current commitments to focus on providing high-quality work on a mandate basis during the 1000 days. You need basic professional structures but, above all, money to showcase the project in the early stages. The initiators estimate that around half a million Swiss francs will be required to run the foundation lab for 1000 days; they are hoping to raise these funds in collaboration with the foundation sector and other supporters.
No such thing as failure
In today’s foundation sector, the vast majority of players share best practices and insightful findings with each other. At the same time, there is no such thing as failure, because, as the saying goes, ‘failure is the best teacher’. ‘We intentionally want to carry out experiments that might fail, with the aim of learning from them,’ say Theresa Gehringer and Sandro Alvarez-Hummel. ‘We’re not just striving for absolutely brilliant, innovative and highly successful experiments.’ ‘We are young, motivated and already working across different sectors and disciplines,’ adds Konrad Weber. The foundation lab team will kick things off and pass the ball to the numerous stakeholders in the foundation world, involve people, build a community and leverage the full benefits of digitalisation. The time is ripe for change.