« Everyone’s a philanthropist»

Peter Buss wants to bring the philanthropic and charitable sector closer together with a new digital platform. He sees the print magazine as an invitation to discover this digital world. In this interview, he explains why charities should strive for transparency and where the risks lie for the sector.

The Philanthropist: Peter Buss, are you parti­cu­larly attrac­ted to hope­l­ess causes?

Peter Buss: What a ques­tion! What do you mean by that?

News­pa­pers are dying out all around us; circu­la­tion figu­res for prin­ted publi­ca­ti­ons are shrin­king on a daily basis. Yet you’ve deci­ded to launch a new print-based product in spite of this?

It does seem a bit crazy, if I’m honest. But no, there’ll always be a reader­ship for well-produ­ced specia­list maga­zi­nes – and there’ll always be compa­nies wanting to adver­tise in them because their target audi­ence is well-defi­ned. It’s the perfect pairing of readers and advertisers.

How did you come up with the idea?

My wife says that a news­pa­per always mana­ges to crop up where­ver I am and where­ver I play a role in making decis­i­ons. She’s comple­tely right: commu­ni­ca­tion has been close to my heart at every company I’ve led. In years gone by, we only had access to print media, not the inter­net. And when we recently asked oursel­ves how we could reach out to people in the chari­ta­ble sector, it was clear to us that we needed a specia­list magazine.

But do you need a prin­ted magazine?

Defi­ni­tely. To me, the online sphere is still a bit like a theatre where the play is being perfor­med behind a curtain: lots of people have no idea what’s going on. That’s espe­ci­ally the case for members of boards of trus­tees from the older gene­ra­tion who don’t have their mobi­les glued to their hand 24/7. We need to reach out to them in the print sphere, and our maga­zine invi­tes them to take a look behind the curtain. Tactile aspects are hugely important in this: it needs to be able to lie on a table, and people need to be able to take it at its word in the truest sense. Print media have a much stron­ger impact in this regard than vola­tile, digi­tal jour­na­lism floa­ting in the cloud.

Credi­bi­lity is key to ensu­ring that this works. The digi­tal plat­form StiftungSchweiz.com is behind the maga­zine: is The Philanthropist an adver­ti­sing publication?

Yes, of course it is. But it’s adver­ti­sing an idea, not a product. We want to make our readers aware of the digi­tal world by provi­ding content that shows people how digi­ta­li­sa­tion can bene­fit phil­an­thropy – but also by reve­al­ing its nega­tive side. I hope that our content makes people think and helps our readers to realise that you can use digi­tal tools to do phil­an­thro­pic deeds in a diffe­rent way. It would be wonderful if the maga­zine played a role in helping the sector grow toge­ther and work more effi­ci­ently, too.

Digi­ta­li­sa­tion is opening up all kinds of new oppor­tu­ni­ties for phil­an­thropy and it could really help make things more efficient. 

Peter Buss

You laun­ched Stiftungschweiz.ch at the end of Septem­ber. Is the maga­zine linked to the platform?

There is a link, of course, but the maga­zine opera­tes inde­pendently of the plat­form, both in terms of the tech­no­logy and commu­ni­ca­ti­ons. And the subscrip­tion fee for the maga­zine is included within the subscrip­tion fee for the platform.

Why do we actually need a digi­tal plat­form like StiftungSchweiz.ch that encom­pas­ses the entire phil­an­thro­pic sector?

I think that there is a huge gulf at play. As far as charity is concer­ned, we have the luxury of innu­me­ra­ble indi­vi­dual areas of acti­vity that func­tion side by side while being utterly sepa­rate. As a result, everyone’s a philanthropist – or at least, they could be. We’ve got various opti­ons at our dispo­sal. It’s proba­bly less noti­ceable when I make a small private dona­tion of 50 Swiss francs, say, than when someone gives three million Swiss francs, but the moti­va­tion behind it could be the same. Chari­ties with their own funds to play with need project owners just as much as they need spon­sors: nobody can have an effect on their own. And despite this, there’s often a lack of mutual compre­hen­sion. That’s why we want to break down these barriers and empha­sise the shared aspects of phil­an­thropy. This will boost the chari­ta­ble sector as a whole and, above all, show that it’s fun to get invol­ved in it.

How can the plat­form help with this?

One of the ways it helps is by provi­ding digi­tally guided work proces­ses and a host of useful infor­ma­tion about the sector. Digi­ta­li­sa­tion is opening up all kinds of new oppor­tu­ni­ties for phil­an­thropy and it could really help make things more effi­ci­ent. For exam­ple, we’ve made it easier to pair up project owners looking for dona­ti­ons to finance their work with chari­ties offe­ring funds and private donors who want to finance these projects and orga­ni­sa­ti­ons. And we’ve made it possi­ble for people to request assis­tance online from every single regis­tered charity in Switz­er­land with its own funds at its dispo­sal. We’re working with highly quali­fied part­ners to cons­truct a veri­ta­ble online ecosys­tem. Our commit­ment can be summa­ri­sed as phil­an­thropy that does as much as possi­ble with as little as possi­ble; phil­an­thropy that ever­yone can see and expe­ri­ence, and which makes people happy.

Lots of chari­ties don’t even have a website …

… around 15 percent of chari­ties in Switz­er­land that run on the basis of their own funds have an online presence.

Do you think it’s reali­stic to expect that they’ll make use of a digi­tal service?

It’s a huge oppor­tu­nity for us! Just because a charity doesn’t have a website doesn’t mean that they’ve turned their back on digi­ta­li­sa­tion. Some believe they can’t afford it or fear that they’d receive even more requests for assis­tance if people could find them online. We can use StiftungSchweiz.ch to get the ball rolling on this front. For exam­ple, every charity can use StiftungSchweiz.ch to run their own website, for free, and hugely reduce the number of requests for assis­tance they get as a result if they give people this infor­ma­tion on their microsite.

Every single charity is now repre­sen­ted on the plat­form. Have you had any nega­tive responses?

To date, the feed­back has been excep­tio­nally posi­tive. There have been some ques­ti­ons, too, but nega­tive respon­ses are some­thing we rarely hear. Every charity is free to expand and adapt their page themselves.

But what if a charity doesn’t want to be found at all because they don’t accept any requests for assis­tance whatsoever?

Then they can simply write ‘we do not respond to requests for assis­tance’ on their micro­site. This infor­ma­tion is hugely helpful because project owners know the situa­tion right away, and we can draw the aware­ness of people making these requests to it, as well.

So that means that the plat­form also encou­ra­ges transparency.

Chari­ties need to have an inte­rest in trans­pa­rency, even in a formal sense, given that they operate in a tax-free envi­ron­ment. Their autho­rity comes cour­tesy of their chari­ta­ble status. This is, of course, reviewed by the super­vi­sory autho­rity, but this really isn’t enough. Charity work is a public asset; the public no longer want to be solely repre­sen­ted by the super­vi­sory autho­ri­ties. Plus, there’s a prac­ti­cal reason, too: trans­pa­rency makes their work easier, boosts effi­ci­ency and redu­ces costs. When I explain what I do and why I do it, for exam­ple, this helps us to pair people up better.

And yet some people still have reservations?

Trans­pa­rency redu­ces the power that boards of trus­tees can wield. When they make their decis­i­ons comple­tely off their own bat, they can give one project 100,000 Swiss francs while giving another abso­lut­ely nothing. When their decis­i­ons are trans­pa­rent, they also become traceable, and they need to provide the reasons behind them. This places limits on the decis­i­ons that they can make at their own discre­tion. Of course, when chari­ties are deal­ing with their own funds, it is important that they have a bit of leeway: it’s the only way that they can be an important, effec­tive coun­ter­part to the state. They can kick-start deve­lo­p­ments and initiate things in areas where the state can’t or doesn’t want to get invol­ved. And, in turn, this can create truly important things for society, which is why it’s even more important that this takes place as part of an open dialo­gue with society itself.

Is the plat­form itself a phil­an­thro­pic project?

At the start it is, no doubt. But it should also finance itself one day, of course. That’s the only sensi­ble approach: it lets its users decide what’s necessary.

Peter Buss began his profes­sio­nal career in 1985, as a self-employed lawyer based in Basel. He is foun­der and CEO of Nonpro­Cons AG, Basel, a firm offe­ring manage­ment consul­ting and fund­rai­sing services for non-profit orga­ni­sa­ti­ons, which he has run since 1992. He laun­ched Phil­an­thropy Services AG, Basel, and the first itera­tion of the online plat­form StiftungSchweiz.ch in 2013. This plat­form was re-laun­ched at the end of Septem­ber 2019 as a new version that encom­pas­sed the entire phil­an­thro­pic sector. In addi­tion, Phil­an­thropy Services AG publishes a maga­zine, called The Philanthropist. With more than 30 years of profes­sio­nal expe­ri­ence, Peter Buss is a veri­ta­ble expert on issues rela­ting to mana­ging and finan­cing clubs and chari­ties. He also works as a univer­sity lectu­rer and spea­ker, and has published nume­rous works, inclu­ding the semi­nal work Fund­rai­sing – Grund­la­gen, System und stra­te­gi­sche Planung. He co-foun­ded Zurich’s Round Table of Phil­an­thropy and the Verband Asso­cia­tion Manage­ment Compa­nies Schweiz amc.

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