Philanthropy in Europe: A Rich Past, A Promising Future

As Alexis de Tocqueville traveled the United States during the early 1830s, he was taken by Americans' penchant for creating ad hoc groups and associations to resolve local disputes and problems. Tocqueville's observations about democracy and the balance between individual and collective action in America have been mainstays of political commentary and college courses ever since.

What is often overlooked by students of the French sage, however, is his belief that American morals and opinions lay, uniquely, "in the origins of American society and derived from the peculiar social conditions that had welcomed colonists in prior centuries." Jacksonian America, he argued, had a population devoted to "middling" values which wanted to amass, through hard work, vast fortunes. In contrast, in Europe "the lower classes had no hope of gaining more than minimal wealth, while the upper classes found it crass, vulgar, and unbecoming of their sort to care about something as unseemly as money; many were virtually guaranteed wealth and took it for granted."[1]

As a result, democratic capitalism and its stepchild, organized philanthropy, followed divergent paths on the two continents over the next century and a half. Indeed, as editors Norine MacDonald and Luc Tayart de Borms argue in Philanthropy in Europe: A Rich Past, A Promising Future, Europe, with its different religious contexts and dozens of nationalities, has always been a more heterogeneous place than America, and that diversity has fueled a variety of philanthropic impulses that continue to inform its evolving social, political, and economic fabric.

In Philanthropy in Europe, MacDonald and Tayart de Borms offer profiles of thirteen foundations and six essays that illuminate the various roles foundations play across the continent. The profiles, in particular, will interest American philanthropoids, policy makers, and journalists, in that they tell the story of some of the most influential philanthropic entities in Europe today: the Stefan Batory Foundation (Poland), the Robert Bosch Stiftung (Germany), the Compagnia di San Paolo (Italy), the Fondation de France (France), the Institusjonen Fritt Ord (Norway), the Impetus Trust (United Kingdom), the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (Greece), the Van Leer Foundation Group (Netherlands), and the AVINA Foundation (Switzerland). In this regard, Philanthropy in Europe works as a sort of primer, providing an overview of both the rich history of philanthropic action on the continent as well as of emerging philanthropic communities in countries such as Turkey.

The profiles also help to dispel the notion that, in the words of the book's editors, "the American Anglo-Saxon [philanthropic] model is the benchmark not only for Europe and the United States but also for the rest of the world." Indeed, the editors argue that the continent is home to three other philanthropic models: the Rhine model, which is characterized by strong civil society organizations that often receive contracts from the state and function much like subcontractors in important sectors such as health care and education; the Latin/Mediterranean model, in which the state is a strong economic actor, the relationship between the state and the market is different than in other models, and civil society organizations face a challenge in being accepted as independent and autonomous; and the Scandinavian model, in which a strong welfare state is balanced by a tradition of volunteerism and civil society organizations fulfill a complementary role bridging gaps in the system.

The second section of the book offers a number of incisive essays, including Filiz Bikmen's lively account of Turkish philanthropy and the pervasive role foundations (vakif, in Turkish) have played in Turkish society. (As Bikmen writes of the Ottoman era: "It was possible for a person to be born in a vakif hospital, study in a vakif school, work in a vakif institution, and be buried in a vakif graveyard.") In the book's other essays, Wilhelm Krull, secretary-general of the Volkswagen Foundation, looks at the role of European foundations in funding research; Caroline Hartnell, editor of Alliance magazine, examines European foundation support for civil society; Diana Leat, an academic and consultant, looks at how foundations in Europe influence public policy; and Maximilian Martin, the head of philanthropy services at UBS, the giant Swiss bank, examines the prospects for market-based philanthropic solutions to social and environmental problems.

Still, write MacDonald and Tayart de Borms, foundations in Europe face a conundrum: "The challenges ahead demand that we become even more European and more global, while working in closer partnership with other organizations and foundations. [Unfortunately], our operating environment is restricted...."

In the book's concluding essay, "The Importance of There Being a European Foundation Statute," European Foundation Centre CEO Gerry Salole addresses the problem and proposes a solution. The problem, says Salole, is that whereas the European Union is a single market, the twenty-seven countries that comprise the EU all have their own tax systems, each of which treats foundations differently. And while there has been an increase in transnational work conducted by European foundations over the last few decades, the legal framework for that kind of work has not kept pace with the ambitions of and growing resources at the disposal of European philanthropists. In other words, while Europeans are able to create multinational companies that operate across international borders, they do not have the same freedom to work philanthropically.

What is needed, Salole argues, is a European foundation statute that makes it possible for foundations on the continent to participate legally in a pan-European context. Without such a statute, Europe may eventually find its wealthy citizens looking to commit resources to philanthropic entities in other countries, especially the United States. While such a scenario seems unlikely, given the near-universal tendency of donors to think and fund locally, Philanthropy in Europe makes it clear that European foundations, philanthropists, and governments must adapt to the global realities of the twenty-first century if they hope to succeed in tackling the many challenges that confront the continent and the rest of the globe.

Matt Sinclair
Editor, Philanthropy News Digest
Foundation Center
New York, New York