EFC Conference 2015: is it all about leverage now?


Do I really do a good job? Does my project have an impact? Could or should it have a bigger impact? How can I measure it? Could I team up with somebody to increase my outcome? In short: should I leverage my work?

It is the very aim of annual meetings of organizations that engage in the same field to discuss with peers how to improve their activities. Sharing best practices, unusual experiences, new ideas and – best for learning, but rarely done – unexpected failures are the main courses also on the menu of international foundation meetings. During the last five years, the most passionate and persistent members of the EFC have even established a kind of permanent forum for reflexivity and self-perception, organized ‘by the group that brought you “Impact Island”’: ‘Risky Business’, ‘Good to Great’, ‘See Change’ and now also ‘Something old, something new …’.

This year at the 26th EFC conference in Milan, my first impression was that nowadays it is all about leverage. Although rarely used explicitly during the discussions, the term somehow summarized many crucial reflections. What can we do to overcome the frustrating fact that we will always solve only a very small part of a bigger problem? That we have to select, to exclude, to reject funding requests more often than we can accept them? That even the biggest foundations reach limits in staff and resources when developing their operative strategy? In the seven-year itch of the economic crisis in Europe many sessions asked in various ways: how can we do more with less?

One way of leveraging our funds is to invest in people, not only in projects. The session ‘Capacity-building: How to support the development of sustainable social change’, hosted by ERSTE Foundation, presented three examples of capacity building by foundations and moderated debates including all participants on six tables. Adriana Bardolet Urgelles from La Caixa Foundation showed the huge impact that management and administration trainings as well as innovation and leadership courses for NGOs can have. Franz Karl Prüller from ERSTE Foundation explained why the ERSTE Foundation NGO Academy has its roots in the savings banks idea of the 19th century, which intended to empower ordinary people by giving them more (financial) independence thus more capacity to care for their own lives. Finally Goran Buldioski of the Open Society Think Tank Fund (representing here the Open Society Institutes of Europe) made clear that it is crucial to a sustainable concept of capacity building to first evaluate the needs of the NGOs. NGOs are the main and most important partners of foundations. To support the quality of their project work, sometimes even with seed funds, instead of only funding development interventions is a way to leverage impact.

Creating mixed alliances is another approach to increase impact. The Atlantic Philanthropies asked the question whether co-investing with the public sector is a suitable method in their session ‘Philanthropy and government: Natural allies?’ And there is, of course, the other player that knows a lot about leveraging and effectiveness: business. Is ‘Engaging with corporations’ a good plan and ‘What’s our business case’ then? These were the questions posed by Mama Cash and Oak Foundation when exploring new funding landscapes with a focus on women’s economic empowerment.

‘Boosting change: How to match social and venture capital’ (presented by Fondazione CRT and EVPA) was not only another discussion of how to find new financial resources for change making projects; in my interpretation it also had the ambitious goal to check how philanthropic thinking can advance the debate on real values in capitalism.

Social Investment has been identified as another way to leverage foundation capital. Participants in the EFC-Fondazione Cariplo programme TIEPOLO brought together on stage social impact investors, social entrepreneurs and the representative of a savings bank foundation to show different examples not just of funding but of investing with interest in social projects. Today, the assets and the funding budget of foundations are more and more seen as equal stakes. The Environmental Funders Network’s ‘Divest-Invest’ session addressed particularly the impact of ecological asset management of foundation capital.

But alliances do not necessarily have to enlarge or matter just to the funding budget. The session ‘The “art” of philanthropy: New paradigms for social change’ emphasized the positive synergetic effects of combining support for artistic projects with programmes that strengthen democratic processes and develop socially integrated communities. It was a smart attempt not only to show that cultural funding has the same goals as social funding – to give access for all to basic human rights – but also to demonstrate that communities can raise social coherence by investing in culture.

Still there was a second approach. No, it is not only about making more out of less. It is also about adopting to new circumstances. The statement that it is not all about maximizing impact, that there are other ways to tackle social problems, was made already at the beginning of the conference and it came from a country that made its experiences with oversized leverage. The Greek investor Aristos Doxiades from The Openfund made it very clear in his keynote speech in the opening plenary: there is also the magic quality of resilience. We do not always need huge beams to have more pull for change. Using Aesop’s fable of the (big but stiff and therefore breakable) tree and the (tiny but flexible and therefore unbreakable) reed as a metaphor for resilience, he presented Greek families as a much more efficient configuration to survive a serious crisis than big inflexible structures like the welfare state or the economy.

And he was not the only one. Resilience turned out to be the second hidden theme of this conference about ‘Vision and Energy for Change’. The Global Fund for Community Foundations offered in its session on ‘Community resilience in the context of emergencies: The role of community philanthropy’ three insights into how foundations react in cases of natural catastrophes. A similar approach but without the emergency background offered the debate ‘It’s the community stupid!’ that described the importance of a ‘local social fabric’ also woven by foundations (and here designed by Streekfonds West-Vlaanderen, Fonds 1818 and Stiftung Kulturbesitz Braunschweig).

‘Poor people find ways to survive but there is no ecosystem to help them grow.’ Survival and growth. Somehow Aristos Doxiades found a synthesis of the two methodological concepts of resilience and leverage. His advice: ‘We need to make the informal legal and the invisible visible, discover hidden skills, enable experiments, invest in people not in indicators’.

Maribel Königer


The report is also published on the blog of The Alliance Magazine.