With a little help from our friends: Lessons learned in community philanthropy from continental Europe

This is the eighth article in a series about European philanthropy. The series is published as a collaboration between The Philanthropist and The Lawson Foundation.

In today’s globalized world, where many of our challenges know few borders, there is a growing need for collaboration, space to learn from one another and to co-create solutions. This series has provided a valuable opportunity to reflect on what we have observed of the philanthropic sector in continental Europe, and to unpack what lessons these observations hold for community philanthropy in Canada.

When we think of what has piqued our curiosity and influenced our work, two broad themes come to mind. First is Europe’s global outlook, and how its international connectedness has informed our own sense of purpose and place in the world. Second is what we have observed and can learn from Europe’s robust infrastructure model.

Enduring relationships

While our history of exchange and collaboration with continental Europe is not a particularly lengthy one, its fundamentals are shaped by significant relationships and friendships. Michael Alberg-Seberich notes that Canada’s connection to European philanthropic organizations and ideas has remained relatively marginal due to linguistic and other barriers.[1] Extra effort is required for relationships to endure.

Some of our earliest collaborations emerged through initiatives like the Transatlantic Community Foundation Network (TCFN), which was founded less than a decade after Community Foundations of Canada. Established in 1999 by Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation and the U.S.-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, TCFN’s goal was to facilitate the exchange of experience and expertise among participating countries from Europe and North America.[2] During its three phases of work from 1999-2008, it provided a platform for communication and exchange. TCFN working groups explored issues such as organizational development, effectiveness, and advocacy. The network’s emergence coincided, not surprisingly, with the development of community foundations in countries where the concept was also relatively new.[3]

Although TCFN stopped short of creating a lasting mechanism for collaboration, we can look back and observe how this network set in motion a series of important conversations. Many of the relationships that we enjoy today began during this era and were subsequently accelerated when we started to host each other in intentional “impact places” (a concept we will return to further on in this article) both in Canada and Europe, where we spend time co-creating and supporting one another’s work. In short, a form of “empathetic diplomacy” took root after TCFN. Although this is a softer side to our strategic collaborations, it has been essential to our success over the years.

Global connectedness

Early on, it became apparent that Europeans saw working beyond the confines of their own borders as key to their mission. In addition to TCFN’s work, the efforts of organizations such as The Breuninger Foundation, The Robert Bosch Stiftung, the BMW Foundation and associations such as the Network of European Foundations (NEF) and the European Foundation Centre (EFC) have all played a part in the evolution of Community Foundations of Canada’s thinking on the global stage. The need and value for this sense of global connectedness have only proven truer with time.

A greater awareness of, and commitment to, a global outlook has compelled us to ask better questions and to reconsider how we define and engage with “community” writ large. It also asks us to reflect on the ways we are addressing Canada’s demographic and technological shifts. As our world becomes more globalized, so too are the communities in which we live, work, and play. We know that communities of tomorrow will look very different from those we have known to date. They will also be more connected to other places around the world than ever before. By 2036, for example, Statistics Canada predicts that as many as 30% of all residents in Canada will have been born abroad. Another 20% of the population will have been born in Canada but will have at least one immigrant parent.[4] At the same time, Indigenous communities are growing more than four times faster than the rest of the population.[5]

If our community foundations and philanthropic activity are going to be ready for the future, we must evolve to meet the demands and opportunities of this landscape. This means being globally connected. It means following some of the examples of openness and collaboration we have observed in the European sector, as well as doubling down on our collaborative efforts to break silos, systemic barriers, and social norms that have governed philanthropy for the past 100 years. It means continuing to step out to champion the values of pluralism, allyship, diversity, inclusion and belonging we need now more than ever. In addition to global dialogue and exchange, we recognize and value the importance of listening to, and learning from, voices in Canada, particularly Indigenous leaders as well as others who have been marginalized in conversations about our country’s future.

Belonging: more than just a feeling

The concept of global connectedness has played out in other areas of our work. In recent years, we have focused our efforts on belonging and questions around what it means to belong in Canada. It has been an integral part of our Vital Signs work since 2015, and was a focus leading up to Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017, a complex anniversary year in our country. Ongoing dialogue with our European counterparts and partners has helped us and community foundations to reflect on the kind of communities that we want to be part of and the kind of country we want to build together. Belonging has been a useful framework that has allowed us to exchange in a common vocabulary about a vast array of work. This includes local projects such as community kitchens and children’s camps to broader national initiatives like the resettlement of Syrian refugees and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.

We have continued to work closely with several European, particularly German, foundations to develop and share learnings where changing demographics and welcoming newcomers are concerned. For example, in 2017, representatives from the Robert Bosch Foundation, Bürgerstiftung Stuttgart (Stuttgart Community Foundation), and the Breuninger Foundation joined Canadian representatives for a multi-day workshop to tackle a series of challenging questions that explored identity, factors that lead to belonging, systems we interact with that create individual and community belonging, and more.

Global connectedness and the Sustainable Development Goals

Today, we are taking that impetus for global connectedness into our work towards achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs provide a valuable interface for connecting local, national, and international efforts around common indicators. We are highly attentive to efforts in Europe and elsewhere in the world using this framework.

Europe’s leadership on the SDGs has inspired some of our own actions and made us reflect on the role of philanthropy in addressing the SDGs, whether through advocacy, in finding ways to support and amplify great work that is already underway, or in helping to bridge dialogue across sectors. The SDGs’ global agenda opens a new door with respect to global collaboration amongst community foundations and leadership from international networks. The Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support (WINGS), for example, is a potential driver of coordinated effort and sharing. We are also closely following the work of coalitions and groups such as the F20, an affiliation of 45 foundations and philanthropic organizations from different parts of the world, which recently welcomed the Climate Agreement by G6 countries and called for strong action on climate change at the G20 meeting in Argentina. The BMW Foundation has assumed a leadership role in another way by helping create Twentythirty, a new online magazine that sheds light on the social, political, and environmental challenges we are facing and features inspiring “responsible leaders” who are working to solve them. These are just a few of the ways that we have seen European foundations or international networks respond.

They have influenced our thinking around leveraging networked leadership, which has in turn led us to co-create initiatives such as our first-ever North American Community Foundation Summit[6] with Mexico and the United States, and Alliance2030.ca, a new and open digital platform designed to advance an integrated national conversation on the SDGs. Part of our intent is to broaden the traditional focus on civil society and find ways to work with individuals, think tanks, corporate partners, and government stakeholders. We look forward — and see exciting potential with the SDGs — to exploring further learning and dialogue with partners in Europe.

Europe’s support architecture

The second broad area that has prompted reflections and discussions for us is Europe’s support architecture. Our learnings have propelled us to reflect on, and ask questions of, our own system and how we work. Do we have the architecture necessary to create the outcomes that Canadians are encouraging us to deliver? In what ways might European infrastructure inform our approaches in the future?

Europe’s infrastructure is deeply networked. It has been developed over decades of work and operationalized through bodies such as the EFC, NEF, the Donors and Foundations Network of Europe (DAFNE), and others. Additional layers of associations and bodies exist at national and regional levels. From our perspective, the result is a capacity to collaborate and respond collectively to emerging forces and, when required, connect with the European Union, propose ideas and solutions, influence debate, and shift power in concrete ways. Thus, when faced with the influx of Syrian refugees fleeing to Germany, for example, community foundations were very quickly able to convene and participate in the response alongside refugees, settlement workers, government representatives, and other leaders from the philanthropic sector and civil society. The German model informed the initial thinking behind the Welcome Fund for Syrian Refugees as well as other initiatives such as the Community Fund for Canada’s 150th, which was rolled out during Canada’s sesquicentennial and engaged more than 176 communities from coast to coast to coast.

What part of this architecture should we, or could we, adapt to the Canadian context to create a nimble structure that enables us to respond more effectively to global challenges and issues and create what is needed next? What would it take to do so? These are some of the questions and reflections we continue to consider.

Other forms of exchange and learning

Over the years, several Canadian foundations have had the opportunity to support and exchange with peers in Europe. The Winnipeg Foundation, for example, which is also Canada’s oldest community foundation, has maintained an active bilateral collaboration with the Nitra Community Foundation in Slovakia for more than 15 years. Delegates from both foundations have visited each other and built an international, collaborative relationship with learning opportunities focused on key areas of interest, including donor relationship management and endowment funds.

In other contexts, including la Francophonie, foundations from both sides of the Atlantic have begun to look for specific ways to connect and collaborate beyond the dominant Anglo-Saxon framework. In contexts where the perception of government and civil society are different, the role and place of community foundations is also unique and gives rise to other opportunities. From Europe, to the DRC, to Haiti, to Quebec and minority francophone communities across Canada, francophone foundations have started exploring networking, knowledge-sharing and practices specific to their cultural contexts. Ahead of our 2017 international community foundations conference, we were delighted to host a day-long workshop with these actors to further explore ways of working together and supporting each other. During the day, participants discussed what collaboration might look like. Could the SDGs serve as a useful framework? How might participants facilitate connections, conversations, and collaborations on a more regular basis? There is clearly opportunity for this to grow, through Fondation de France and others, for example. These are all parts of a developing infrastructure that can support our movement.

Coming together and the value of “impact places”

Finally, we should not overlook the significance of face-to-face exchange and the development of “impact places” in the European approach. Like placemaking, this is part process and part philosophy but all about creating spaces for meaningful exchange, co-creation, and forms of social innovation. It has been central to the European approach in philanthropy and we have observed, learned from, and been inspired by it. Creating, and contributing to spaces like Wasan Island in Canada, and Paretz in Germany have helped bring us and our partners closer together. Given that it is both a philosophy and a process, we invested in this concept in Canada and believe it has helped us move to more relational, rather than transactional, collaborations that create greater impact.

For several decades, EFC has operated Philanthropy House in Brussels, a central node for collaboration and conversation. This is at least part of the inspiration behind Toronto’s Foundation House (of which we are proud to be a member), which serves as an intentional, shared workspace and convening hub for Canada’s philanthropic and non-profit community. For Community Foundations of Canada, the concept of impact places has also inspired our connection and relocation to a shared space with The MATCH International Women’s Fund, The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, and Impact Hub Ottawa. The commitment to shared space, “hosting,” and its potential for creating meaningful collaboration and impact has become core to our work.[7] The intentionality of the space is part of what makes it important. It supports our joint potential to aggregate capacities, create “networks of networks” and build our overall robustness of the sector to speak on issues and take timely action.

A shared sense of direction for the future

The question now is where do we go from here? How do we interpret, analyze, and move forward based on what we have observed and learned to better equip Canada to grapple with the opportunities and challenges ahead? What aspects of the European model should we explore in greater depth to strengthen our capacity to anticipate, to seed collaborations, and to better respond? To lead inclusively, transparently, and collaboratively? Series such as this one and the reflections we see emerging are steps in the right direction, and we are optimistic that the solid foundations of knowledge exchange and collaboration will be productive for all of us and the communities we serve.


[1] Michael Alberg-Seberich, “Analyzing Canada’s Philanthropy Support Landscape to Enhance Giving,” The Philanthropist, https://thephilanthropist.ca/2018/03/analyzing-canadas-philanthropy-support-landscape-to-enhance-giving/, 5 March 2018.

[2] “The Future of Community Foundations: A Transatlantic Perspective,” Report by the TCFN Academy, June 2007.  TCFN / Bertelsmann Stiftung

[3] Laura Arrillaga and Victoria Chang, “Transatlantic Community Foundation Network,” Stanford Graduate School of Business, 2005, Case No. Si78 https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/case-studies/transatlantic-community-foundation-network

[4] John Ibbitson, “The politics of 2036, when Canada is as brown as it is white,” The Globe and Mail, 27 January 2017, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/the-politics-of-2036-when-canada-is-as-brown-as-it-is-white/article33814437/

[5] “First Nations People, Métis and Inuit in Canada: Diverse and Growing Populations,” Statistics Canada, 26 March 2018 https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-659-x/89-659-x2018001-eng.htm

[6] Learn more about the North American Community Foundation Summit via https://nacfsummit.com

[7] For more on the learning journey of Foundation House members, see “20 Lessons Learned from the Foundation House…To Date.” Learned http://www.foundation.house/our-journey


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