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.
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.