SwissFoundations: from a club to a movement in 20 years
On 18 May 2001, 11 foundations large and small came together to form an association of Swiss charities. The establishment of SwissFoundations (SF) reflected the macroeconomic circumstances and zeitgeist at the turn of the millennium.
A wave of foundations were established in the 1990s in Switzerland, sparked by a stock market boom. This period was also shaped by the early days of the internet, which accentuated growing trends, such as networking among peers and the desire for transparency among like-minded people. Grant-giving foundations had long been under the wing of banks and law firms, but now they blossomed into a sector with its own profile.
The member foundations of SF undertook to share their funding policies and key figures with each other, quickly creating an atmosphere of trust that in turn encouraged exchange. Added value was created thanks to the professionalisation of the foundations’ working methods and their collaboration. No matter whether it was the joint development of specific working tools, training in funding techniques or knowledge transfer through its publications, the focus was always on the foundations’ target groups (applicants, sponsors, etc.). SF’s orientation towards the common good is reflected in funding collaborations between member foundations – and sometimes with other sponsors. Venture Kick’s start-up programme and the Swiss Institute for Art Research (SIK-ISEA) are examples of such strategic funding partnerships that would not have come about without an association-based relationship of trust.
Early on, SF decided to take an ambitious stance on the issue of grant-giving foundations, always keeping the situation outside its own spectrum of membership in view. The association did this by developing and promoting a code of conduct for good foundation governance (the Swiss Foundation Code, first published in 2005), the fourth edition of which will appear in early July 2021. This raised the bar internationally and has already found many imitators outside Switzerland. This was followed by an initiative to establish a university institute for foundations and philanthropy; this started its successful work in research, teaching and training in 2008 as the Center for Philanthropy Studies at the University of Basel.
SF’s owes its creative power not only thanks to its precise objectives, commitment to ideals and large network, but also to its sound financial footing, which makes it easier to invest in research and development in the third sector. The association members pay comparatively high entry fees and annual contributions. In addition, a number of member foundations, where their funding objectives permit and which want to be involved on an additional level, donate further funds to support joint charitable projects or to sector development.
SF now has 191 members in every part of the country. In total, they spend more than CHF 1 billion annually; thus, the association accounts for more than a third of total annual distributions made by charitable foundations in Switzerland. These funds from private sources can really make a difference.
Of course, not everything is rosy – even at SF. The organisation of foundations through membership of SF and proFonds (the umbrella association of charitable foundations and associations founded in 1990) stands at just under 4% – well below that of Germany, for example. And with the ongoing revision of foundation law (launched seven long years ago through the parliamentary initiative ‘Schweizer Stiftungsstandort Stärkung’ from former councillor Werner Luginbühl), lobbying by both associations for the modernisation of foundation legislation has achieved only modest results. This is reflected in the dissolution without warning of the parliamentary group on philanthropy and foundations at the start of the current legislative period. Clearly, Switzerland’s foundation sector still has much to do.