“What is the role of civil society and foundations at a time of growing fragmentation in Europe?” by Isabelle Schwarz, Head of Advocacy, Research & Development and Knowledge Management


What’s at stake?

Europe faces relentless, complex challenges. As a result, societies are becoming more and more fragmented, nationalism, xenophobia, extremism are on the rise, and the divisions between people – and between individuals and institutions – are growing ever wider. These realities have reached a degree that directly affects existing systems and policies, on local, national and European levels. They threaten fundamental values such as democracy and solidarity that underpin our “home”, our “living together”, and our “imagining of the future”.

Underlying and cross-cutting these challenges, there is a more fundamental issue: a governance and participation challenge for dealing with increasing divides in society, between different religions, world-views, socio-economic classes, generations, genders, regions, urban and rural areas. More than ever, there seems to be a need for social and cultural innovation fostering inclusivity and re-connection, for acknowledging and re-engaging vulnerable and marginalised groups, for bridging different places and identities.


A wide range of social innovation movements are responding to these challenges through e.g. social entrepreneurship, participatory democracy and new forms of economy (sharing, solidarity, circular economy, complementary currencies, crowd-funding, and so forth). These movements include NGOs and community-led initiatives, as well as a growing number of local governments and businesses that work with renewed business models, participatory methods and innovative governance approaches. Some of you might know the European Citizens’ Initiative for the European Charter of the Commons[1], a campaign initiated by the municipality of Naples and involving public, private and civil partners in the pursuit of the legal status and protection of the commons within the EU, or the Bologna Regulation that is a collaborative form of local government involving the city administration, social innovators, entrepreneurs, civil society organisations and knowledge institutions in co-designing urban development processes, leading to “collaboration pacts for the care and regeneration of the urban commons”.


We also see an increasing attention for such social innovation in the cultural sector matched with an emerging interest in the new civil roles of cultural organisations. ECF and Gulbenkian Foundation UK respectively commissioned research on the potential of contemporary cultural practices as drivers of civil society, and the main expressions of the civic roles of arts organisation. I am thrilled to see Tandem, a cultural collaboration programme that strengthens civil society in Europe and neighbouring regions to be part of Artlab Mantova. Tandem, a partnership programme between ECF and MitOst, a Berlin-based civil society organization, as well as several foundations from different parts of Europe, like Fondazione Cariplo in Milan, encapsulates the vision of a truly collaborative, transnational, culturally rooted but cross-sectoral community from Berlin to Beirut, Bologna to Alexandria, Sofia to Tunis.


There are zillion inspiring initiatives across Europe that bring a new understanding of culture as a resource and innovation space, that reinvigorate democracy, foster political imagination and contribute to society with a strong sense of social justice – based on values such as sharing, inclusion and openness. However, disconnection, isolation, and underexplored collaboration remain the norm.

The question is how to make meaningful connections and scale up these often hyper-local initiatives to the European level – or even better – to build bridges between these local initiatives and create a new inter-local map of Europe.


I am convinced, that there is much to gain if public, private and civil actors come together around a shared ambition for their territory – be it a city, a region, Europe. Public administrations, business, civil society, decision-makers and philanthropic players need to work not only more collaboratively but also more strategically together.

Breaking silos and creating synergies between social innovation actors developing and testing concrete participatory approaches will contribute to more resilient and sustainable communities and territories. New experimental spaces of strategic collaboration need imagination, courage and the letting go of fear and control. In order to address today’s challenges effectively, we all need to think outside the box and be open to change - both inside our own organisation and in relation to the way we work, with whom we work, whom we want to influence, and how we evaluate our results…This brings me to the role of foundations.


What can foundations do?

Faced by highly disruptive challenges within a turbulent, unpredictable and volatile global environment, philanthropy is compelled to reflect on its capabilities. This is an opportunity for foundations! In partnership with civil society, government and the corporate world, philanthropic organisations have the chance to really make the difference and contribute to systemic change. But they will need to reorient themselves on their role, position and skills.

A promising avenue is that simultaneously with the emergence of radical citizens’ movements that are reclaiming “the commons” as an alternative value system that is challenging the duopoly of state and market, more and more voices also within the global philanthropic sector, are promoting the vision of “just transition” towards a more responsible, sustainable and inclusive system of global governance and fair economic order. EDGE (Engaged Donors for Global Equity) Funders Alliance recently established a European chapter hence fostering a transatlantic alliance on “just transition for systemic change”. EDGE Europe gathers progressive foundations in strategic collaboration and participatory grant-making so to have more influence on change and greater impact globally. Recognizing that global challenges require greater dialogue across issues, borders and strategies, EDGE combines support for local empowerment with support to transnational networking and movement-building.


Such a holistic approach to collaboration across borders benefits from some key ingredients which need to be at the root of our working processes. We must cross and indeed break down borders on many levels, step out of our comfort zones, and engage in silo-busting. This is critical for collaboration enhances the ‘spaces in between’, the intersections between people, organisations and ideas. At times of global interdependence and interconnectivity, the intersections are not of two spheres converging, but of many – layered, interrelated, made even more complex by the digital and technological developments.


Quoting Mahatma Ghandi “Be the change you want to see in the world”, foundations need to change. Some of our tools, for example traditional grant-making, have limited effect if not applied collaboratively. As an example, EDGE Europe plans to launch a Participatory Activists Fund, a non-donor driven initiative involving activists and foundations in its co-design and co-development with the aim to bring in grassroots knowledge, increase transparency, and alleviate power imbalances. It is currently being coordinated by OSIFE (Open Society Initiative for Europe, Barcelona) and shall be launched the collaborative fund in spring next year.


In short, foundations should not only support participatory practices of “grantees” and social innovation outside their organization but be innovative themselves and explore new forms and tools of philanthropy, like for example catalytic philanthropy and participatory grant-making in which stakeholders are directly involved in the grant-making process, from design to selection, implementation and evaluation.


Concretely, here a few points of what foundations can do:


  • Determine your particular place in the ecosystem and identify your specific contribution to the process of change
  • Develop a shared commitment across the organisation (Board and staff) to invest long-term to make real and lasting change
  • Address the root causes of systemic challenges and not just the emergencies
  • Go from donating to becoming an investment partner (loans, guarantees, venture capital, endowments, etc.)
  • Change perspective - from donor to game changer. This requires advocacy and agenda setting to be part of your tool box, together with other instruments such as cross-sectoral convening and capacity-building
  • Encourage participatory governance experiences by experimenting with philanthropic tools and facilitating exchanges between ‘unlikely allies’, through e.g. transnational ‘labs’, ‘transition arenas’, ‘hackathons’ etc.
  • Work collaboratively, adopt a holistic multi-stakeholder approach develop joint strategies and forge mayor alliances (public, private, civil)
  • Listen to what is really needed in society (rather than pushing your agenda) and bring new voices and perspectives to the table to co-design solutions
  • Work on perception and reframe narratives. Shape transformative narratives on issues such as migration, social inequalities and radicalisation to influence public opinion
  • Start to connect networks and communities of practice, and convene change-makers from across Europe and beyond around common issues – connect the local to the global
  • Evaluate your work, and share the learning – successes and failures – with a broader community of partners
  • Advocate for understanding that a healthy, inter-connected civil society is a bulwark against extremism and violence and strengthens’ Europe’s resilience



Europe is at stake. It not the time to shut our eyes and borders. Europe and needs to rethink itself in the world. Old solutions to contemporary global problems do not work. We need to change the system and invest in globally inter-connected alternatives politically, economically, ecologically, socially, and culturally.

Community-led initiatives and cross-sectoral innovation movements need our support to become enduring and meaningful solutions to the challenges we face, and to prevent fragmentation from forever replacing solidarity.

Making Europe our home requires commitment that is renewed every day. We must work doggedly together to overcome the growing distrust and widening gaps between people, communities and countries, and seal the cracks that are growing between north and south, west and east.

ArtLab is a gift to all of us, an opportunity to share our individual and collective insights in an open and constructive manner, both experimenting with practical solutions and political alternatives. Let’s use this space to the best possible outcome for our own work, our communities and Europe, in a spirit of learning and sharing.


Mantova, 29 Sept. 2016


[1] Commons are defined as two parts: it is both about reclaiming access to fundamental resources as well as the democratic process that governs their distribution. Resources that are fundamental to human life include both natural commons like water, food, energy, and the atmosphere, as well as manmade commons, like technology, medicine, the internet and culture. Reclaiming the commons also requires a reshaping of the democratic process.