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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.