Pioneer projects need an open culture, where people are free to make mistakes. Innovations can’t be scheduled.

He who dares, wins!

Developing whole ecosystems

As the foun­der of various civil society orga­ni­sa­ti­ons, Nicola Forster has a lot of expe­ri­ence in working with chari­ties. Here, he writes about the link between chari­ties and ATMs, problems with seed funding, the impact of poli­tics and recom­men­da­ti­ons for forward-thin­king charities.

Time and again, naysay­ers allege that chari­ta­ble orga­ni­sa­ti­ons provi­ding funding to exter­nal projects basi­cally work like ATMs: if you’ve got the right code, you can get money out. Fortu­n­a­tely, that’s not been my expe­ri­ence. As a co-foun­der of the think tank foraus, staats­la­bor and Opera­tion Libero, I have always found chari­ties to be important part­ners in buil­ding up these orga­ni­sa­ti­ons within civil society. We were students when we foun­ded foraus ten years ago – and our pockets were empty. We would never have mana­ged to fulfil our ambi­tion of estab­li­shing the think tank for young people with exper­tise in foreign policy on our own: we needed part­ners who belie­ved in us and who were willing to take some risk (at least, finan­cially) as a result. The Paul Schil­ler Stif­tung reco­gnised foraus’ poten­tial at an early stage, and provi­ded us with our first lot of funding so we could hit the ground running. Since then, we’ve worked with a lot of chari­ties large and small, as well as with phil­an­thro­pists them­sel­ves. Thanks to their support, we’ve been able to work towards making Switz­er­land more cosmo­po­li­tan. I would like to draw on this expe­ri­ence to share three central ideas for inno­va­tive colla­bo­ra­ti­ons with funders.

New formats

While there’s a lot of talk of trea­ting people as ‘equals’, there is gene­rally a clear hier­ar­chy between the people doling out the money and those putting their hands out. We need to change the way we see this. The government has made chari­ties provi­ding funding for exter­nal projects tax-exempt. As a result, they have an obli­ga­tion to ensure that their funding bene­fits society as much as possi­ble. When people submit a requ­est for funding, this helps chari­ties live up to this respon­si­bi­lity via the projects they put into practice.

Indi­vi­dual chari­ties or deve­lo­p­ment funds like Enga­ge­ment Migros are curr­ently trying out expe­ri­men­tal formats, such as co-crea­tion. The aim behind this is to jointly deve­lop projects that are in the inte­rests of ever­yone invol­ved and create an open, trans­pa­rent culture where people aren’t afraid to make mista­kes. As part of this, more invest­ments ought to be made in brave, pionee­ring projects that could poten­ti­ally end in fail­ure. After all: he who dares, wins!

Supporting (poli­ti­cal?) ecosystems

Inno­va­tive chari­ties are incre­a­singly focu­sed on deve­lo­ping entire ecosy­stems so they can maxi­mise the impact of their funding, working in direct colla­bo­ra­tion with the state, science, busi­nes­ses, etc. As larger amounts of money are needed for this, growing numbers of chari­ties are coming toge­ther to form consor­tia or infor­mal alli­an­ces. Given that most key issues that affect our future also have a global dimen­sion, Switz­er­land can serve as the ‘home market’ for projects with an inter­na­tio­nal reach. This is how various chari­ties, such as Fonda­tion Botnar or LARIX, handle this.

If you’re actually hoping to achieve a systemic effect that can be scaled up to the max, you need to be prepa­red to get poli­ti­cal. Why? Because poli­ti­ci­ans can imple­ment chan­ges that have a posi­tive impact on society and the lives of milli­ons. That’s why progres­sive chari­ties like Germany’s Guer­rilla Foun­da­tion or America’s Open Society Foun­da­ti­ons work directly with poli­ti­cal stake­hol­ders so they can create the biggest systemic impact possi­ble. In Switz­er­land, too, there is great scope for chari­ties taking a more ‘acti­vist-style’ approach. In other words, these chari­ties would help move­ments of rele­vance to society, such as the youth climate strikes, Black Lives Matter or the women’s strikes, to put their demands into prac­tice in a sustainable fashion. And there is reason to be hope­ful: accord­ing to the most recent Schwei­zer Stif­tungs­re­port, around five percent of newly foun­ded chari­ties are to be found in the poli­ti­cal domain.

More struc­ture, not just more projects 

Let’s go back to those ATMs. People know that the code for getting money is known as ‘seed funding’. Chari­ties want to launch projects, but they’re not inte­re­sted in sticking with them over the long term. We need to question this widespread prac­tice: it forces orga­ni­sa­ti­ons to set up new projects ad infi­ni­tum, making it impos­si­ble for them to create a sustainable struc­ture. To this end, stron­ger struc­tu­ral finan­cing could be lever­aged to ensure that an organisation’s profes­sio­nal hub (or, in other words, a lean office with profes­sio­nal accoun­ting, etc.) could launch an array of new projects, using funds much more effi­ci­ently and making sure that volun­te­ers are inclu­ded. The charity Merca­tor is leading the charge here, and is plan­ning to invest in the orga­ni­sa­tio­nal deve­lo­p­ment process and in buil­ding up people’s skills.

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