We need to be able to cope with diffe­ring opini­ons

Focus on the grant givers

Beate Eckardt is leaving Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons after 15 years. The Mana­ging Direc­tor of Switzerland’s largest asso­cia­tion for chari­ta­ble foun­da­ti­ons looks back on the most signi­fi­cant projects and talks about her next steps.

At the end of June, Beate Eckhardt will step down as Mana­ging Direc­tor of Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons. Equip­ped with a huge amount of profes­sio­nal expe­ri­ence, she began her adven­ture at Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons 15 years ago. Eckhardt is a self-star­ter with a back­ground as a Germa­nist and a socio-econo­mic histo­rian, and an execu­tive master’s in Commu­ni­ca­ti­ons Manage­ment from the Univer­sity of Lugano. In her capa­city as a free­lance consul­tant, she had just got the fourth inter­na­tio­nal school in Winter­thur in the canton of Zurich off the ground – a chari­ta­ble public limi­ted company and foun­da­tion – when the part-time oppor­tu­nity of Mana­ging Direc­tor at Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons presen­ted itself. One month after star­ting in Febru­ary, she gave birth to her third child.

You’re nearing the end of your time in office. Was there any chance of an orga­nised end to your time at Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons or have the last few weeks been domi­na­ted by coro­na­vi­rus? 

The last few weeks have indeed been quite tense and turbu­lent. Instead of holding the Schwei­zer Stif­tungs­sym­po­sium 2020 in Basel – the largest indu­stry event in the Swiss charity sector – we had to respond quickly and flexi­bly to the COVID-19 pande­mic and the resul­ting chal­len­ges faced by our society and our members. In the course of just a few weeks, we published guide­li­nes for action and soli­da­rity for chari­ta­ble foun­da­ti­ons, laun­ched a COVID-19 landing page (www.swissfoundations.ch/covid-19), released guid­ance on acces­sing emer­gency government funding and various gover­nance questi­ons, and orga­nised more than 17 Zoom webi­nars for our members on topics such as funding, charity work, finan­ces, law and cultu­ral promo­tion in parti­cu­lar. This was far from our normal routine. But we have lear­ned a huge amount, both within our team and toge­ther with our members, who have reac­ted to the crisis quickly, very coope­ra­tively and with mini­mal bureau­cracy. That really impres­sed me. 

Beate Eckhardt in inter­view with Bernese patron Hans­jörg Wyss at the Carne­gie Sympo­sium on 24 May 2019 | Photo: Sandra Blaser

How did you first encoun­ter Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons (SF) and the charity sector 15 years ago?

At the time, it was a small orga­ni­sa­tion; it had only been going for four years and had around 15 members. That made it a perfect, exci­ting project with huge poten­tial. . It was an envi­ron­ment that could be deve­lo­ped, which really appealed to me. The charity sector was not parti­cu­larly well deve­lo­ped at the time. The gene­ral public didn’t have much of an idea what the sector was about. 

That made you as a gene­ra­list with exten­sive know­ledge of stra­te­gic commu­ni­ca­ti­ons and an awareness of how chari­ties work the perfect person for the job.

Maybe. The job profile has chan­ged a lot in recent years, howe­ver. Going forward, there will defi­ni­tely be more cross-sector acti­vity. Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons will be called on to take a stron­ger posi­tion in terms of thema­tic direc­tion and leadership. Part­nerships and inter­sec­to­ral colla­bo­ra­tion will be two of the biggest topics in future. We already get a sense of that now in our colla­bo­ra­tion with public autho­ri­ties

«I am confi­dent that there will be more fruit­ful colla­bo­ra­ti­ons in the future.»

Do you work with public autho­ri­ties?

Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons actively tries to build connec­tions with federal and canto­nal offices. And with parlia­men­tary groups focu­sing on speci­fic topics. At the canto­nal level, we work with the tax and super­vi­sory autho­ri­ties in parti­cu­lar. At the federal level, we have a good rela­ti­ons­hip with the Federal Office of Culture and the Swiss Agency for Deve­lo­p­ment and Coope­ra­tion (SDC). When I look at what’s happe­ning in this area, I am very confi­dent that there will be an incre­ase in fruit­ful, comple­men­tary colla­bo­ra­ti­ons in future. We need to remem­ber that in finan­cial terms, the government has much more power in most areas. Chari­ties can func­tion a bit like expe­ri­men­tal labs for society, and the government can, to a certain extent, cherry-pick because it can see what works and what doesn’t. If we look back at history, we see that in the educa­tio­nal sector, for example, the majo­rity of inno­va­tions came from private initia­ti­ves. This pres­ents a huge oppor­tu­nity. 

How did Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons come to occupy this role?

One of the great strengths of Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons is its clearly defi­ned role. The focus on chari­ties has proved effec­tive. We’ve never spread oursel­ves too thin. We have been able to concen­trate on the important question of how private assets can be applied in the best and most effec­tive way possi­ble. This covers a range of diffe­rent aspects, inclu­ding legal and regu­la­tory frame­works, government issues, and asset manage­ment and funding. We have been able to create a posi­tive context and a trust­worthy space for our members that is highly valued today. At the same time, our clear stan­ces, opini­ons and commu­ni­ca­ti­ons work exert influ­ence on the wider public and poli­ti­cal realm.

When will the next step of colla­bo­ra­ting with private busi­nes­ses take place?

I think that will be the next cross-sector step, yes. A glance at the busi­ness world shows that many compa­nies today are asking them­sel­ves how they can act respon­si­bly in their local area and how they can be good citi­zens. There are chari­ties that own shares in busi­nes­ses and busi­nes­ses that start corpo­rate foun­da­ti­ons. The loop will close between government, busi­ness and chari­ties. 

What role will chari­ties play in this?

Chari­ties are well prepa­red for this next step. They are gaining expe­ri­ence and beco­m­ing more open to, and well-versed in, colla­bo­ra­tion with each new project. We’ve seen a lot more part­nerships being formed at Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons. We are star­ting to see part­nerships with shared causes that go far beyond simple co-finan­cing. Two new initia­ti­ves with a focus on age have deve­lo­ped in the last few months alone, for example.

«To my great plea­sure, rese­arch and success­ful trai­ning is being carried out in Switz­er­land today.»

Do you have anot­her example?

One example was the foun­ding of the Center for Phil­an­thropy Studies (CEPS). It was one of the first ever colla­bo­ra­tive initia­ti­ves with a shared cause in Switz­er­land. Six foun­da­ti­ons – the Ernst Göhner foun­da­tion, the Sophie und Karl Binding foundation,the Avina foun­da­tion, the Chri­stoph Merian foun­da­tion, the Gebert Rüf foun­da­tion and GGG Basel – cove­red the finan­cing and Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons hand­led the coor­di­na­tion. The foun­da­ti­ons came toge­ther and said: we want to provide a small, univer­sity-level, inter­di­sci­pli­nary rese­arch centre in Switz­er­land with an excel­lent inter­na­tio­nal network. I am deligh­ted to see that the centre is now success­fully carry­ing out rese­arch and trai­ning. 

Was this an important mile­stone in the history of Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons?

Without a doubt. At the time, the concept and the process were an inno­va­tive under­ta­king. Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons invi­ted four univer­si­ties to take part in a tender with an inde­pen­dent jury. We didn’t adver­tise for indi­vi­dual profes­sors, but rather for rector­ships. We had 2.5 million francs at our dispo­sal. The Univer­sity of Basel recei­ved the funding, with Georg von Schnur­bein as concept deve­lo­per. A lot has happened since then. Chari­ties want to make a diffe­rence and do good in society. The work of the CEPS has made a signi­fi­cant contri­bu­tion to this deve­lo­p­ment. The question of the over­all impact of indi­vi­dual chari­ties has led to the profes­sio­na­li­sa­tion of the sector. The CEPS has made an inter­na­tio­nal impact and estab­lished cross-border part­nerships. Today, the CEPS is one of the most renow­ned scien­ti­fic rese­arch centres in Europe in the fields of phil­an­thropy and foun­da­ti­ons.

So Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons iden­ti­fies stron­gly as an enab­ler in this context.

Exactly. Whenever we thought a new deve­lo­p­ment was needed, we never felt like we had to keep things within our asso­cia­tion. That’s anot­her one of our strengths: from the very begin­ning, we have inve­sted in ‘smart colla­bo­ra­ti­ons’ – co-foun­ding and outsour­cing. Other examp­les include the Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons Legal Coun­cil and the Senior Expert Advi­sory Network. The Legal Coun­cil supports Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons with things like consul­ta­tion proces­ses, and the Advi­sory Network provi­des new foun­ders and our members with legal and stra­te­gic support in the form of a monthly help desk.

What are SF’s connec­tions at the Euro­pean level?

We are co-foun­ders of the orga­ni­sa­tion Donors and Foun­da­ti­ons Networks in Europe (DAFNE), a network of 30 natio­nal asso­cia­ti­ons for foun­da­ti­ons and donors repre­sen­ting over 10,000 chari­ta­ble orga­ni­sa­ti­ons across Europe. It func­tions both as a source of inspi­ra­tion and as an early warning system. We have inve­sted a lot in the network, and it is paying off in the current crisis. We have been able to get in quick, direct contact with other foun­da­tion asso­cia­ti­ons and learn from each other. The poli­ti­cal advo­cacy and lobby­ing work we do with DAFNE and the Euro­pean Foun­da­tion Centre (EFC) at EU level and with the Orga­ni­sa­tion for Econo­mic Co-opera­tion and Deve­lo­p­ment (OECD) is espe­cially important to us. In addi­tion to DAFNE, we are also part­ners of EFC and the Euro­pean Venture Phil­an­thropy Asso­cia­tion (EVPA), and are members of the global network of asso­cia­ti­ons WINGS.

«For me, the Euro­pean network DAFNE is both inspi­ra­tion and early warning system.»

SF estab­lished a set of pionee­ring guide­li­nes with the Swiss Foun­da­tion Code.

SF issued and adhe­res to the code, but we didn’t write it. There was a clear divi­sion of respon­si­bi­li­ties from the start. This was anot­her instance in which SF’s parti­ci­pa­tive approach paid off. For the first edition, three scien­ti­fic, legal and prac­ti­cal experts were brought on board to deve­lop the first Euro­pean code of gover­nance for chari­ties. Thomas Spre­cher and Phil­ipp Egger were the real foun­ding fathers – Georg von Schnur­bein joined at a later date.

What does the code achieve?

It offers support and provi­des best prac­tice guide­li­nes. What needs to be taken into account when crea­ting and mana­ging a foun­da­tion? The code is divi­ded into three princi­ples and 29 recom­men­da­ti­ons. When it came to the third edition in 2015, the issue of capi­tal invest­ments was a contro­ver­sial point of discus­sion. There were legi­ti­mate defen­ders of the posi­tion that it is a charity’s duty to create as much return on its invest­ments as possi­ble in order to conti­nue the pursuit of the charity’s purpose in future, no matter how the assets are inve­sted. Howe­ver, the code took the posi­tion that a foun­da­tion has an impact as an entity as a whole, meaning its impact is expres­sed through its invest­ments as well as its funding. This impact can be both posi­tive and nega­tive. The discus­sion is more or less at an end now. The code’s posi­tion that invest­ments and the charity’s purpose are two sides of the same coin and can’t be pulling in two diffe­rent direc­tions has gene­rally been accep­ted. 

You don’t need consen­sus?

We need to be able to cope with members having diffe­ring opini­ons. It’s not our aim to become either a certi­fi­ca­tion body or the charity police. Which is why the code is a guide­line. This enab­les it to be as detailed as it is. It’s a tool­kit for tack­ling all the rele­vant flesh-and-blood questi­ons – it doesn’t offer one-size-fits-all solu­ti­ons.

Tell us about your colla­bo­ra­tive approach. Did SF always have a flat hier­ar­chi­cal struc­ture or did it adapt to the chan­ges in the world of work?

We can’t claim to have been ahead of the curve as a design thin­king orga­ni­sa­tion. But we always took advan­tage of smart oppor­tu­nities. We simply took action. I don’t have to have ever­ything deci­ded down to the last detail before I get star­ted on some­thing. At SF, we got an extra push from our young, digi­tally expe­ri­en­ced team members. The orga­ni­sa­tion has bene­fi­ted hugely from their enthu­si­asm and skill.

Whose initia­tive was behind the crea­tion of Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons?

Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons emer­ged from what was then the ‘Working group for chari­ta­ble orga­ni­sa­ti­ons’, later rena­med proFonds. A group of mana­ging direc­tors of chari­ties got toge­ther to share their expe­ri­en­ces. They knew that they needed dialo­gue with peers in the same sector. Bear in mind that at the time, there was no clear idea of how best to manage a charity and how to fund projects effec­tively. There were a lot of questi­ons that needed to be addres­sed. Like which manage­ment princi­ples to follow when running a charity – an SME model, manage­ment guide­li­nes or a corpo­rate approach? A need emer­ged for a trust­worthy space for repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of chari­ta­ble foun­da­ti­ons to discuss speci­fic topics like funding stra­te­gies and work, asset manage­ment, good gover­nance, etc.

The asso­cia­tion is now 15 years old. You could say it’s reached adole­scence…

…(laughs) The wild years!

The wild years?

I think we’ve emer­ged from them now. Five years ago, SF expe­ri­en­ced a burst of growth. Plura­lity incre­a­sed and so did the amount of exper­tise. Our members are now a very diverse group. We repre­sent foun­da­ti­ons both large and small, with members ranging from clas­sic chari­ties to foun­da­ti­ons that support exter­nal projects and corpo­rate foun­da­ti­ons. Our members and asso­cia­ted part­ners now provide over a billion francs of funding a year. That’s a huge amount of funding power. 

Beate Eckhardt

The asso­cia­tion is now in a stable, estab­lished posi­tion. How do you think the charity sector will deve­lop?

I think the question of legi­ti­macy will conti­nue to occupy the sector. The decisive factor will be how visi­ble chari­ta­ble foun­da­ti­ons are and how acces­si­ble and trans­pa­rent they are consi­de­red to be. Regu­la­tion will remain anot­her key topic. Chari­ties will be subject to an incre­a­sing amount of regu­la­tion. No-one is trying to restrict non-profit enter­pri­ses, but we’re living in an age where regu­la­tion is requi­red where­ver money is invol­ved. And Swiss chari­ties have a lot of money. There need to be measu­res in place that build trust, at both the natio­nal and the Euro­pean level. As a coun­try, Switz­er­land relies on foste­ring conti­nued under­stan­ding for the impact of chari­ties and foun­da­ti­ons at the Euro­pean level. Last year, SF crea­ted the Euro­pean Advo­cacy Fonds for this very purpose, which allows our members to support Euro­pean lobby­ing. 

What does the future hold for you?

My adven­ture conti­nues. I’m very much looking forward to getting back to my entre­pre­neu­rial roots and star­ting a company. 

What kind of company?

I’m going to conti­nue my stra­te­gic work on the admi­ni­stra­tive board of Schau­spiel­haus Zürich AG and as a board member of the Swiss Society for the Common Good (SSCG), and return to my work as a consul­tant. I find the field of corpo­rate phil­an­thropy extre­mely exci­ting. The charity sector is a fanta­stic network full of inspi­ring projects.

Will you start work again strai­ght away?

We’ll have to see. I won’t be taking my plan­ned two-month trip through the Western Balkans, at any rate. I’m a prag­ma­tist, so I’ve opted for a shor­ter break in the moun­tains for now. 

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