Bild zVg: Der Vorstand aus der Frühzeit von SwissFoundations mit dem Autoren Benno Schubiger (vorne Mitte)

Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons: from a club to a move­ment in 20 years

SwissFoundations

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. 

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