Maja Spanu, Fondation de France

Beyond borders and boun­da­ries: enhan­cing Euro­pean phil­an­thropy through dialo­gue and pluralism

This spring, 25 leaders of major European foundations discussed key issues facing the philanthropic sector at the first European Academy of Strategic Philanthropy (EASP). In this interview, Maja Spanu shares some of the key insights from the event whilst providing her own take on philanthropy in Europe. Maja Spanu is head of philanthropy and international affairs at the Fondation de France, co-organiser of EASP together with the Centre for Philanthropy of the University of Geneva, and affiliated lecturer in international relations at the University of Cambridge.

You held the first Euro­pean Academy of Stra­te­gic Phil­an­thropy this Spring. What was the goal of this event?

Maja Spanu: The Euro­pean Academy of Stra­te­gic Phil­an­thropy which took place in April 2022 is the result of a close colla­bo­ra­tion between Fonda­tion de France – a phil­an­thro­pic insti­tu­tion – and the Geneva Centre for Phil­an­thropy of the Univer­sity of Geneva – an acade­mic one. The ratio­nale behind our part­ner­ship and more speci­fi­cally behind this event has been twofold. On the one hand, we have wanted to bridge acade­mics’ and prac­ti­tio­ners’ perspec­ti­ves and foster inter­di­sci­pli­nary dialo­gue. On the other hand, we have sought to bring toge­ther a group of leading Euro­pean foun­da­ti­ons to reflect on and discuss the present and future of Euro­pean phil­an­thropy. 25 CEOs and leaders from diffe­rent Euro­pean count­ries atten­ded the Academy. The idea behind having a rela­tively small group was precis­ely to keep the conver­sa­tion meaningful and enri­ching. Having said that, we really hope that the EASP can comple­ment exis­ting Euro­pean discus­sions and initia­ti­ves that may be going on ad hoc bases – for instance as part of speci­fic part­ner­ships – or other wider events — such as the Philea’s annual congress. 

What were the major themes and topics that were discussed?

The Academy lasted almost three days and the exch­an­ges were extre­mely dense and enri­ching. A wide array of themes and topics were discus­sed. I’d say that these can be grou­ped around three core areas of concern. First, we discus­sed Foun­da­ti­ons ‘inter­nal’ stra­te­gies in terms of leader­ship, rela­ti­ons with boards, decis­ion-making proces­ses, and time­lines. Second, we discus­sed foun­da­ti­ons’ rela­ti­ons towards outside part­ners – be these part­ner foun­da­ti­ons or other actors from acade­mia, civil society and so forth. In the context of growing enga­ge­ment with syste­mic approa­ches, funding, trust, the length, and nature of part­ner­ships were also discus­sed. The third area of concern rela­ted to the social and poli­ti­cal context in which foun­da­ti­ons exist and work. Foun­da­ti­ons do not exist in a vacuum. We thus discus­sed the role of Euro­pean foun­da­ti­ons whether about social justice issues, the inva­sion of Ukraine, the health-rela­ted crisis, the envi­ron­ment, or the rise of the far-right in nume­rous demo­cra­tic states. What is more, phil­an­thropy is curr­ently facing important criti­cisms that the sector needs to confront with open­ness and trans­pa­rency. Ques­ti­ons of legi­ti­macy of phil­an­thropy were also addres­sed. Acade­mic contri­bu­ti­ons were parti­cu­larly useful in brin­ging an in-depth perspec­tive along with analy­ti­cal tools to these matters and topics. 

Foun­da­ti­ons do not exist in a vacuum.

Maja Spanu

Would you say that there’s one common voice for Euro­pean phil­an­thropy, or multi­ple ones?

This is an inte­res­t­ing ques­tion. I can certainly say that there are clearly joint concerns rela­ting to the very func­tio­ning of foun­da­ti­ons that include issues such as the estab­lish­ment of part­ner­ships, rela­ti­ons with donors, the civil society and govern­ment, risk-taking, trans­pa­rency. Also, for major foun­da­ti­ons based in Europe, there seems to be, largely, some sort of common under­stan­ding as to what the major socie­tal and envi­ron­men­tal stakes that need to be tack­led are. That being said, there is a great variety in answers as to how these should be addres­sed and in the very under­stan­ding and concep­tua­li­sa­tion of the causes that phil­an­thropy supports. This, though, I believe, is not so surprising. 


Foun­da­ti­ons have diffe­rent histo­ries, focu­ses, manage­ment and func­tio­ning systems, as well as posi­ti­ons on given issues of concern and, ulti­m­ately, diffe­rent resour­ces and ways of hand­ling them. They are also loca­ted in diffe­rent geogra­phi­cal, socio-poli­ti­cal, and cultu­ral contexts, thus reflec­ting diffe­ring reali­ties. A foun­da­tion based in the Western Balkans or in Eastern Europe will not have the same daily preoc­cu­pa­ti­ons as a French or Swiss-based one. While this may sound obvious, it is an important point to be remem­be­red. Precis­ely because of these reasons, moments of exch­ange and common reflec­tion are the right places to build a common ground for joint action and common perspec­ti­ves whilst main­tai­ning a diver­sity of voices.

Would you say that this diver­sity of voices and perspec­ti­ves is a strength, or a weak­ness for Euro­pean philanthropy? 

I would say that the answer is neither or, but rather a combi­na­tion of both. 

Please explain.

On the one hand, having a stron­ger and united voice on key issues for instance rela­ting to social justice would come as an incre­di­ble force for social change. On the other hand, while we may not be able to talk about a ‘single’ Euro­pean phil­an­thropy, I am convin­ced that the diver­sity of voices and approa­ches is a force for the sector and for demo­cra­tic dialo­gue. Indeed, this diver­sity allows for diffe­rent perspec­ti­ves to be confron­ted, for dialo­gue to take place and for change, then, to occur. What is more, if so many diverse projects and orga­ni­sa­ti­ons with diffe­rent agen­das and ambi­ti­ons are being supported locally, natio­nally, inter­na­tio­nally, this is precis­ely because foun­da­ti­ons have diffe­ring perspec­ti­ves and expe­ri­en­ces that allow cove­ring all spans of social and poli­ti­cal life, the envi­ron­ment and climate-rela­ted issues, arts and culture, rese­arch, educa­tion, and so forth. What matters, then, is for conver­sa­ti­ons and exch­an­ges to keep happe­ning so that phil­an­thropy can conti­nue to adapt to better respond to social reali­ties and exter­nal needs. Moments like the Euro­pean Academy are precious, then, precis­ely for this reason.

During the Euro­pean Academy, were there speci­fic oppor­tu­ni­ties, limits discus­sed, or themes that emer­ged on which Foun­da­ti­ons should draw parti­cu­lar attention? 

Henry Peter, from our part­ne­ring insti­tu­tion, the Univer­sity of Geneva, published a very inte­res­t­ing report of the EASP. In it, he high­ligh­ted six key themes that emer­ged from the Academy: (1) the role and scope of foun­da­ti­ons within demo­cra­tic states for instance in rela­tion to other stake­hol­ders; (2) the way foun­da­ti­ons handle time (long-term action vs. imme­diate respon­ses, dura­tion life of foun­da­ti­ons); (3) risk-taking in phil­an­thropy in terms of projects supported; (4) the importance of part­ner­ships for foun­da­ti­ons; (5) trans­pa­rency and access to data in rela­tion to foun­da­ti­ons’ acti­vi­ties and missi­ons which seems even more important when confron­ted to criti­cisms; (6) the need to support educa­tion and rese­arch on phil­an­thropy and, I would add here, on the various issues foun­da­ti­ons tack­les. One other aspect that could perhaps be mentio­ned which was not directly tack­led during the Academy but that emer­ged as a common thread in all our discus­sions is coherence. 

Laeti­tia Gill, Henry Peter, Axelle Dave­zac, Maja Spanu

What is meant by coherence?

This means making sure to always strive to align foun­da­ti­ons’ exter­nal actions and support for speci­fic values with their inter­nal iden­ti­ties and func­tio­ning. Whether a foun­da­tion is enga­ged on the envi­ron­ment, on diver­sity and inclu­sion, on sustaina­bi­lity, on support­ing know­ledge and educa­tion etc., these are dimen­si­ons that ought to be reflec­ted as much as possi­ble intern­ally too. This, certainly, is a chall­enge, but one on which Euro­pean foun­da­ti­ons clearly want to actively work on to make sure they main­tain both their vita­lity and socie­tal relevance.

You mentio­ned discus­sions taking place on the role of Euro­pean foun­da­ti­ons in the current socio-poli­ti­cal context. Could you tell us more about this part?

I have a parti­cu­lar inte­rest in this ques­tion due to my back­ground in Inter­na­tio­nal Affairs and as this was the topic of a panel I actually chai­red during the Academy. Over the past years, Europe and the world have witnessed nume­rous drama­tic social, poli­ti­cal and health-rela­ted events. From the shocking reali­sa­tion of the envi­ron­men­tal cata­stro­phe surroun­ding us, to the rise of the far-right, from the global pande­mic and it reve­al­ing the deep global inequa­li­ties we live in, to nume­rous conflicts – inclu­ding, in Europe, the current inva­sion of Ukraine. This is not to say that crises, drama­tic events and deep trans­for­ma­ti­ons are novel, far from it. Yet, what was high­ligh­ted in our discus­sions was how Euro­pean foun­da­ti­ons have been adap­ting, and respon­ding to those, both stra­te­gi­cally and soci­ally. It seems to me that during the Academy, three core ques­ti­ons were raised in rela­tion to this major issue of concern. 

Over the past years, Europe and the world have witnessed nume­rous drama­tic social, poli­ti­cal and health-rela­ted events.

Maja Spanu

The first rela­ted to the role of Euro­pean foun­da­ti­ons within and for socie­ties, whether in Europe or in other local and global contexts — and all the ensuing impli­ca­ti­ons that the reco­gni­tion of this role, espe­ci­ally in the Global South, may have. The second ques­tion rela­ted to the scope for action of foun­da­ti­ons within these diffe­rent contexts. The third ques­tion, finally, could be summa­ri­sed as follows: do foun­da­ti­ons carry a special respon­si­bi­lity towards the socie­ties in which / with which they work? These are actually key ques­ti­ons that speak to wider issues of trans­pa­rency, value-setting and sharing, demo­cra­tic parti­ci­pa­tion, legi­ti­macy and cohe­rence. During the Academy, the agree­ment that these are central ques­ti­ons that ought to be addres­sed was gene­ral. The nature of our exch­an­ges then certainly high­ligh­ted the variety of approa­ches and respon­ses in facing them which, again, can only parti­ci­pate to the rich­ness of the phil­an­thro­pic sector in Europe.

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