Ready for tomorrow

New forms of working for the future

As the world beco­mes more complex, we need new solu­ti­ons. Foun­da­ti­ons are posi­tio­ning them­sel­ves with new forms of work and adapted funding acti­vi­ties in order to fulfil their socie­tal role effectively.

‘We must work toge­ther to tackle socie­tal chal­lenges, such as climate change and inequa­lity,’ says Judith Schl­äp­fer, Mana­ging Direc­tor of the Volkart Foun­da­tion. ‘That’s the only way we can deve­lop and imple­ment effec­tive solu­ti­ons.’ This is why the foun­da­tion is incre­asingly promo­ting initia­ti­ves that network parti­ci­pants from civil society, science, busi­ness, poli­tics and administration. 

This multi­di­sci­pli­nary solu­tion is crucial in a fast-chan­ging envi­ron­ment. Colla­bo­ra­tion has become stron­ger across the foun­da­tion sector, but in Schläpfer’s view it could still be inten­si­fied. Sector repre­sen­ta­ti­ves engage in discus­sions within working groups to learn from each other, test­ing out shared project part­ner­ships to boost effi­ci­ency. ‘It undoub­tedly makes sense not only for project orga­ni­sa­ti­ons to use part­ner­ships to make their goals a reality, but for foun­da­ti­ons such as ours to be open to new, more profi­ta­ble forms of colla­bo­ra­tion,’ she says.

Respect for others

The fact that the foun­da­tion sector is looking for new forms of colla­bo­ra­tion has been noti­ced by Nora Wilhelm, co-foun­der and cata­lyst at colla­bo­ra­tio helve­tica. New forms of colla­bo­ra­tion are in colla­bo­ra­tio helvetica’s DNA. ‘Our orig­ins lie in the view that we must learn to work with others if we want to meet the chal­lenges we face today as a society,’ says Wilhelm. This is the only way to achieve syste­mic change, she belie­ves, it is impe­ra­tive to take a bottom-up approach in order to achieve sustaina­bi­lity goals.

‘The only way to shape a sustainable, fair future is through parti­ci­pa­tion. A purely top-down approach always leaves certain groups at a disad­van­tage.’ For this to be a success, an under­stan­ding of the ecosys­tem is requi­red. Ever­yone has to under­stand and appre­ciate their role and those of others. Wilhelm compa­res this to a body: ‘If I’m the lungs, I do my job, but I don’t need to do the heart’s job at the same time.’ This approach can be chal­len­ging, with a new stake­hol­der quickly being seen as a threat rather than as poten­tial. ‘To ensure this kind of approach is a success, we have to change the para­digm – and also in our schools and economy,’ she says.

Parti­ci­pa­tory funding

Despite the desire for new forms of colla­bo­ra­tion, putting them into prac­tice poses chal­lenges, even in the non-profit sector. ‘Project owners know that they will always be compe­ting with others for the next batch of money,’ says Wilhelm. This makes discus­sions more complex, so in order to find new approa­ches, colla­bo­ra­tio helve­tica has run trials of parti­ci­pa­tory money allo­ca­tion, where parti­ci­pants evaluate projects them­sel­ves. As part of these tests, some projects were merged toge­ther, while others were with­drawn in favour of others. Parti­ci­pants worked toge­ther to select the best projects for funding. ‘Howe­ver, we must change how we think if we want to make this approach a reality in the foun­da­tion sector,’ says Wilhelm. ‘It needs trust and struc­tu­ral change.’ She also thinks increased colla­bo­ra­tion will improve the poten­tial of the appli­ca­tion process, which can be very complex. Instead of lear­ning from each other, people isolate them­sel­ves. Trans­pa­rency in gene­ral would help here, as would a better error culture. Fail­ures should not be seen as a major issue, but acknow­led­ged. ‘We can learn such a lot from each other in this respect. We should be focu­sing on lear­ning, not on short-term succes­ses, pre-defi­ned varia­bles and output,’ says Wilhelm. ‘For social inno­va­tions in parti­cu­lar, fail­ure must be a possi­bi­lity. Open-ended expe­ri­ments take us further, but this approach is unchar­ted terri­tory for many.’

Open commu­ni­ca­tion

Foun­da­ti­ons do not act in isola­tion: the non-profit concept gives their work a rele­vance to society and they have to deal with this. Henry Peter, the Head of the Geneva Centre for Phil­an­thropy of the Univer­sity of Geneva, belie­ves that the call for trans­pa­rency does not solely come into play between part­ner orga­ni­sa­ti­ons: society at large is also making demands in this arena. ‘Donors some­ti­mes have the legi­ti­mate desire to make a dona­tion for the common good without being visi­ble them­sel­ves,’ he howe­ver says, ‘which is, after all, the ulti­mate expres­sion of genuine altru­ism.’ While the funds need to origi­nate from a ‘clean’ source, this does not mean that they need have to be publicly disclosed.

In any event, he’s iden­ti­fied a trend towards more open commu­ni­ca­tion in the phil­an­thro­pic sector, which is gaining in importance against the back­drop of the inter­na­tio­nal situa­tion. While the needs are clearly incre­asing, the funds available to support the grea­ter good are also rising, some­ti­mes expo­nen­ti­ally, says Henry Peter. In the US, above all, people know that immense wealth has come into being in a very short period of time, which often leads to the estab­lish­ment of foun­da­ti­ons backed by assets or income beyond anything previously imagi­nable. He says that the ques­tion of legi­ti­macy has been behind some of these new deve­lo­p­ments. ‘In recent times, critics have been vocal about the self-inte­rest, inequa­lity and unde­mo­cra­tic exer­cise of power brought forth by some of these phil­an­thro­pic initia­ti­ves,’ he states. ‘While phil­an­thropy is not always perfect, it more often than not carries values that need to be protec­ted and foste­red’. This is part of the field of the rese­arch and teaching offe­red by the Geneva Centre for Phil­an­thropy, whose mission is to accor­din­gly equip acade­mics and prac­ti­tio­ners to further study and face the evol­ving chal­lenges of philanthropy.

A new approach

In Switz­er­land, foun­da­ti­ons are also adap­ting to socie­tal chan­ges and new expec­ta­ti­ons of the population.

Peter Brey, direc­tor of Fonda­tion Leen­aards, which is active in the fields of culture, ageing and society, and science, is only too aware of this: ‘Foun­da­ti­ons are incre­asingly asked to explain who they are, what they do and how they are mana­ged. They also have to quan­tify the tangi­ble bene­fits of their acti­vi­ties for the popu­la­tion as a whole.’ He adds: ‘Incre­asing numbers of foun­da­ti­ons are embed­ding their acti­vi­ties in an open dialo­gue with bene­fi­ci­a­ries and part­ners, and in a broa­der socie­tal framework.’

In light of these deve­lo­p­ments, Fonda­tion Leen­aards has also adjus­ted its stra­tegy. Along­side its tradi­tio­nal funding tools, it has deve­lo­ped a new approach with the help of initia­ti­ves. ‘In a society with incre­asingly complex chal­lenges, it seems essen­tial that we supple­ment our prin­ci­ple of project-based support with a more gene­ral approach that trig­gers an over­all dyna­mic.’ This apples to the world of science, in parti­cu­lar. In paral­lel to its tradi­tio­nal funding of biome­di­cine, Fonda­tion Leen­aards laun­ched its ‘Inte­gra­tive Health and Society’ initia­tive in 2021 (, the objec­ti­ves of which were set by work­shops invol­ving experts from a wide range of fields. They made two obser­va­tions: more than a third of Swiss people make use of comple­men­tary medi­cine, and at least half of those employed in the health­care sector provide non-conven­tio­nal therapy. ‘Nevert­hel­ess, it is clear that these two worlds, conven­tio­nal and comple­men­tary medi­cine, are not suffi­ci­ently fami­liar with each other, which makes inte­gra­tive pati­ent treat­ment harder,’ explains Brey. The initiative’s goal is to bring toge­ther these two worlds, enhan­cing the patient’s importance as the prot­ago­nist in the treat­ment process. To support this initia­tive, the foundation’s funding focu­ses on seve­ral areas: action rese­arch projects with metho­do­lo­gi­cal support from project owners; a think-tank that brings toge­ther pati­ents and thera­pists with diffe­rent treat­ment approa­ches; a plat­form for discus­sions and infor­ma­tion. The initiative’s key elements include a popu­la­tion survey, with the findings to be released in the spring. In parti­cu­lar, toge­ther with the Univer­sity of Lausanne’s ColLa­bo­ra­toire, a parti­ci­pa­tory approach inclu­ding both pati­ents and citi­zens was intro­du­ced to survey 3,000 people in western Switz­er­land in part­ner­ship with the Swiss Centre of Exper­tise in the Social Scien­ces (FORS). This approach is used by citi­zen labs that want to iden­tify tangi­ble ways to advance health issues at both an indi­vi­dual and syste­ma­tic level. Colla­bo­ra­ti­ons can go further, invol­ving more and more varied stake­hol­ders: colla­bo­ra­tio helvetica’s mission is to bring toge­ther the state, the private sector, civil society and foun­da­ti­ons, to support and better network change-makers. It works across sectors to achieve this. ‘But we’re not wholly neutral. We have ethi­cal and sustainable goals and prin­ci­ples that guide us,’ says Wilhelm. Howe­ver, it does not pola­rise: it seeks common ground and aims to bring people toge­ther, rather than divide them. If a major bank is invi­ted to look at a topic, this may prevent acti­vists from parti­ci­pa­ting – and vice versa – but colla­bo­ra­tio helve­tica can bring both groups together.

Over­ar­ching questions

For Andrew Holland, CEO at Stif­tung Merca­tor Schweiz, it is clear that given the pres­sing nature of topics such as climate change and social pola­ri­sa­tion foun­da­ti­ons should work toge­ther. Ques­ti­ons reso­nate throug­hout the discus­sion: what will phil­an­thropy look like in the future? Will each entity look at a problem indi­vi­du­ally, or can we achieve more by working together?

This chan­ges funding acti­vity. Along­side colla­bo­ra­tive funding models and syste­mic approa­ches, the shift from selec­tive project funding to enhan­ced struc­tu­ral funding is a key issue for foun­da­ti­ons such as Merca­tor Schweiz. For Holland, this also includes targe­ted funding for orga­ni­sa­tio­nal deve­lo­p­ment. ‘If you fund a project, you have a vested inte­rest in support­ing a resi­li­ent orga­ni­sa­tion that works effec­tively and sustain­ably,’ he says. Merca­tor Schweiz has long offe­red its part­ners support with deve­lo­p­ment as part of its project funding. ‘It’s worked well,’ says Holland, ‘but we reali­sed that people need targe­ted funding for purely orga­ni­sa­tio­nal deve­lo­p­ment projects and indi­vi­dual skills.’ For the latter, the foun­da­tion has deve­lo­ped services for NGOs, inclu­ding work­shops on agility, social media and design thin­king. They provide parti­ci­pants with prac­ti­cal methods and also encou­rage networ­king and discus­sions about their expe­ri­en­ces. When it comes to topics such as agility and other new methods of work, in parti­cu­lar, many orga­ni­sa­ti­ons ask them­sel­ves the follo­wing ques­tion: which are rele­vant to me? ‘Our trai­ning oppor­tu­ni­ties also help orga­ni­sa­ti­ons find out whether they would like to explore an issue in more depth,’ explains Holland. In order to give NGOs more targe­ted support to ensure they can fulfil their important role as stake­hol­ders in civil society, the foun­da­tion is further deve­lo­ping its orga­ni­sa­tio­nal deve­lo­p­ment proces­ses and tools. Merca­tor Schweiz is plan­ning a survey in order to learn where non-profit orga­ni­sa­ti­ons are at in their deve­lo­p­ment, what they need and how foun­da­ti­ons can offer them effec­tive support. It wants to design and execute this survey in colla­bo­ra­tion with other inte­res­ted grant-making foundations.

Brea­king down hierarchies

Peter belie­ves that the chari­ta­ble sector is well-equip­ped to handle these new models of work. Foun­da­ti­ons are often driven by a growing aware­ness of values that form part of the chari­ta­ble sector’s DNA. ‘Also, it can proba­bly be said that most Foun­da­ti­ons’ aims over­lap with the concept of the Sustainable Deve­lo­p­ment Goals,’ he says. He belie­ves that small orga­ni­sa­ti­ons with an open culture tend to have an advan­tage, as it’s easier for them to quickly adopt new forms of colla­bo­ra­tion. Howe­ver, struc­ture isn’t ever­y­thing. ‘It’s prima­rily people with skills and convic­tion that help new forms of colla­bo­ra­tion contri­bute to a more effi­ci­ent kind of phil­an­thropy, or not, as the case may be,’ he says. This can be seen in the under­stan­ding of leader­ship: where decis­ion-making autho­rity is distri­bu­ted, colla­bo­ra­tion is more effi­ci­ent and the quality of perfor­mance is higher. ‘Plus, employees’ know­ledge and soft skills can be used in a better way than in a hier­ar­chi­cal struc­ture,’ he says. Such a shift and elimi­na­tion of hier­ar­chies is some­thing Stif­tung Idée­S­port laun­ched two years ago, with the goal of crea­ting an agile, lear­ning-focu­sed organisation.

The initial expe­ri­ence has been posi­tive: ‘It’s a form of colla­bo­ra­tion that suits us and is fair to our staff, while also chal­len­ging them at the same time,’ says Sandro Anto­nello, orga­ni­sa­tio­nal deve­lo­per at Idée­S­port. It proved its worth during the coro­na­vi­rus pande­mic, in particular.

But Anto­nello has some food for thought: ‘It is also a highly deman­ding form of colla­bo­ra­tion that goes hand-in-hand with many chal­lenges. Indi­vi­dual employees and teams have to take on respon­si­bi­lity, make decis­i­ons and handle conflicts. That’s not always easy.’ Howe­ver, employees went to work with enthu­si­asm: ‘They were so moti­va­ted that we had to slow them down to prevent the system from being over­whel­med. That was impres­sive,’ he says. The fact that Idée­S­port is a non-profit orga­ni­sa­tion helped because an agile orga­ni­sa­tion also focu­ses on people and meaningful­ness. Its purpose is at its heart. Anto­nello: ‘Many compa­nies would be happy to have such a start­ing point from which to launch their agile trans­for­ma­tion.’ Howe­ver, this bene­fit is also a chall­enge: since employees set so much store by the ques­tion of ‘why’, a common under­stan­ding is also vital. To this end, staff at Idée­S­port delved into these topics toge­ther. ‘Howe­ver, it is just as important to ensure that all employees find their perso­nal “why”,’ says Anto­nello. He’s very keen to ensure that employees have the answer to this and look at the entire orga­ni­sa­tion with a criti­cal eye. This criti­cal explo­ra­tion encou­ra­ges dialo­gue and further deve­lo­p­ment. ‘But, of course, the “whys” should not diverge too much.’ He also clari­fies that an agile orga­ni­sa­tion is not the same as a grass­roots demo­cracy; people have assi­gned respon­si­bi­li­ties. ‘The project has been comple­ted, but the trans­for­ma­tion and further deve­lo­p­ment are conti­nuing,’ says Anto­nello. When he says that some measu­res did not work, it almost sounds posi­tive; after all, that’s part and parcel of it. An itera­tive process with feed­back loops leads to ongo­ing review and adjus­t­ments: ‘That’s why we abolished certain roles and expe­ri­ence silos.’

The limits

Merca­tor Schweiz is also adop­ting an itera­tive process, compo­sed of moni­to­ring, evalua­tion, lear­ning and adapt­a­tion (MELA), on a stra­te­gic level. The foun­da­tion has intro­du­ced agile methods with the aim of stay­ing able to respond to social deve­lo­p­ments in a flexi­ble, timely manner. ‘Agility is more than flexi­bi­lity. It’s also about proac­tive, future-orien­ted actions,’ says Holland. It has intro­du­ced a posi­tion for future issues and inter­nal working groups to deve­lop its work further. Merca­tor Schweiz has had good expe­ri­en­ces with this ‘hybrid’ approach – a combi­na­tion of agile and tradi­tio­nal methods. Howe­ver, even new ways of working have their limits, as Peter points out: Current legis­la­tion was crea­ted for a tradi­tio­nal hier­ar­chi­cal approach, and is ever less well-suited to modern models. This means gover­nance is called for. The chall­enge lies in finding the right model at the right time, with deve­lo­p­ment hinde­red by how slug­gishly adjus­t­ments are procee­ding. Henry Peter says: ‘As before, good, effi­ci­ent gover­nance is a key element in every organisation.’

Colla­bo­ra­tion where it makes sense

Migros Cultu­ral Percen­tage and the Migros Pioneer Fund are both pursuing inno­va­tive colla­bo­ra­tion models with other funding organisations.

Stefan Schöbi is Head of social affairs in the Social Affairs & Culture Depart­ment at the Fede­ra­tion of Migros Coope­ra­ti­ves. In his role, he is respon­si­ble for the Migros Pioneer Fund and natio­nal social projects of Migros Cultu­ral Percen­tage. He says: ‘Our mandate means that tradi­tio­nally we have colla­bo­ra­ted closely with other civil society stakeholders.’

Many of the socie­tal projects are deve­lo­ped and finan­ced coope­ra­tively, in line with the prin­ci­ple of subsi­diary. Natio­nal social projects gene­rally have at least one other part­ner, whether a foun­da­tion or a univer­sity of applied scien­ces. Howe­ver, this colla­bo­ra­tion does not have to exist in paral­lel. In some cases, the Pioneer Fund takes on projects finan­ced by other funders at the start and then scales them up across Switz­er­land. This means that funding part­ner­ships can func­tion succes­si­vely. To illus­trate this, Schöbi refers to the Startup Academy, an orga­ni­sa­tion in which the Gebert Rüf foun­da­tion was initi­ally greatly invol­ved before the Pioneer Fund expan­ded the project. Schöbi thinks there is still poten­tial here: ‘Alignment and compa­ti­bi­lity are of central importance. There’s still room for impro­ve­ment in the foun­da­tion and funding sector.’ Conver­sely, he lists the co-impact model, a form of colla­bo­ra­tive phil­an­thropy, as a parti­cu­larly inte­res­t­ing and inspi­ring project. ‘Various foun­da­ti­ons pool their funds and simul­ta­neously open their port­fo­lios to other co-inves­tors,’ says Schöbi. ‘This is based on a shared thema­tic and regio­nal focus – in this case, comba­ting poverty in the global south – and shared imple­men­ta­tion prin­ci­ples, a kind of metho­do­lo­gi­cal tool­box.’ This model is docu­men­ted trans­par­ently and thus indi­vi­dual elements can be extra­c­ted. The joint coope­ra­tion of funders makes their work targe­ted, effi­ci­ent and sustainable. This shared approach shifts the focus away from an indi­vi­dual project and towards a long-term perspec­tive. Despite all the posi­tive effects that Schöbi sees in shared projects, he firmly belie­ves that not every project needs a colla­bo­ra­tive model to be a success. ‘The well-known saying applies here: if you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far go toge­ther.’ He thinks colla­bo­ra­tive models are a sensi­ble option in cases where projects have proven their effec­ti­ve­ness and now must be ancho­red in the long term.

A funding pool

‘After a successful pilot phase, it’s important to scale up projects to achieve a grea­ter reach,’ says Schl­äp­fer. ‘We need pilot projects where people are coura­ge­ous about trying out new approa­ches and forging uncon­ven­tio­nal part­ner­ships. That’s how we acquire know­ledge, gain a deeper under­stan­ding of complex issues and take a credi­ble stance.’ To broa­den the reach of posi­tive chan­ges, the Volkart Foundation’s funding focu­ses on enab­ling syste­mic chan­ges, rather than fight­ing symptoms on a project-by-project basis. Simi­larly, a long-term vision and a desire to tackle the root causes also remain indis­pensable to achieve posi­tive syste­mic change. That’s why the 70-year-old foun­da­tion almost always makes only gene­ral opera­ting contri­bu­ti­ons instead of indi­vi­dual project contri­bu­ti­ons. This enables orga­ni­sa­ti­ons to swiftly scale their acti­vi­ties and seize oppor­tu­ni­ties agilely. The most important success factors in initia­ting effec­tive syste­mic change are advo­cacy work, orga­ni­sa­tio­nal deve­lo­p­ment, skills deve­lo­p­ment and part­ner­ship crea­tion. Schl­äp­fer menti­ons ChagALL as an exam­ple of a successful project – a funding programme to improve equal educa­tio­nal oppor­tu­ni­ties for young people. Various foun­da­ti­ons, inclu­ding the Volkart Foun­da­tion, have jointly supported it for seve­ral years. ‘The funding model was revi­sed in such a way that ChagALL was able to use the exper­tise and expe­ri­ence gained to support simi­lar initia­ti­ves,’ says Schl­äp­fer. To this end, a fund finan­ced by seve­ral foun­da­ti­ons was set up to ensure finan­cial support for these new projects. In 2021, these funding program­mes and the asso­cia­ted insti­tu­ti­ons joined forces to form Alli­anz Chance+. Toge­ther with other foun­da­ti­ons, the Volkart Foun­da­tion pled­ged the start-up funding for the Alli­anz Chance+ asso­cia­tion. It combi­nes prac­ti­cal know­ledge from funding projects with findings from socio­lo­gi­cal and educa­tio­nal rese­arch. The resul­ting recom­men­da­ti­ons for school prac­tice and educa­tio­nal policy are carried by the alliance’s members into poli­tics, admi­nis­tra­tion and the public sphere. This approach enables change at a syste­mic level.

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