EUNIC Siena Cultural Relations Forum
2nd edition, June 26-29, 2019
Rectorate, University of Siena, Siena, Italy
“Bridging Theory and Practice. A European Strategic
Approach to International Cultural Relations: The state of the art”
Speaker: Isabelle Schwarz, Head of Public Policy, European Cultural Foundation
Let me start with a premise: I believe it is an extraordinary result that we altogether have
contributed to, namely the emergence of the EU’s strategic approach to international cultural
relations. However, even if the outcome of the European Parliament elections were less
catastrophic than feared or anticipated, there are some very worrisome developments that
have the potential to setback progressive policies, including cultural policies and foreign
policy related strategies.
This means, the commitment, engagement and allocation of resources of all stakeholders
need to continue, including of foundations, in a spirit of true partnership between institutions,
organisations and local stakeholders. “It’s unfinished business”, also in terms of advocacy.
My presentation will focus on the role and possibilities of foundations, whether they actually
play that role, and what the bottlenecks they have to face. And I will end by making
suggestions as to the how the EU strategic approach to international cultural relations can
be enhanced through a sound multi-stakeholder approach.
Foundations are part of the “political ecosystem” and represent a significant sector. “There
are approximately 150.000 public benefit foundations in Europe with estimated assets of 510
billion Euro, spending around 60 billion Euro on an annual basis. The sector is growing rapidly
with hundreds of new foundations being created every year. There is a large diversity of
foundations: family foundations, corporate foundations, private foundations, lottery
foundations, community foundations… (and I exclude here inter-governmental foundations).
More than 50% of the foundations in Europe were created after 1990. Another interesting
feature is that 50% of the foundations were created not by bequest but by the founders while
alive. This gave rise to more engaged philanthropy, called venture philanthropy. “
These facts illustrate the important resources (not only of financial nature) foundations have
so to advance the public good, and how diverse the sector is. However, I’d like to mention a
few common threads and trends:
- Foundations are part of civil society and for strong, resilient and cohesive communities to
emerge, civil society organisations are pivotal. They can be important brokers and
partners for other actors like European institutions, national governments, the corporate
sector, and other civil society actors. They partner with each other and with other
stakeholders to leverage greater impact.
Facts and figures on foundations are extracted from a speech delivered by Dr Rien van Gendt at the “Humanity in
Action International Conference”, Strasbourg, 5-8 July 2018
- Foundations are not a substitute for governments; governments remain key players not
only because of the size of their resources but also because they have systems of public
accountability that give them legitimacy. Foundations cannot compete with governments
over the quantity of their financial resources, but they can play a strategic role because
of the quality of their resources.
- The fact that institutions and governments are structured in silo-ed structures is a
challenge. It makes it difficult for them to address issues like peacebuilding, reconciliation,
sustainable development, as these domains require an interdisciplinary, holistic
approach. And that is exactly how foundations work and what they can offer.
- Also, foundations are in an in an ideal position to address culturally sensitive challenges
because of their independence (no political strings attached) and their long-term
orientation (rather than governments that function in electoral cycles). It allows them to
explore and address root causes of a problem rather than to tackle its symptoms.
- Foundations can capitalize on their unique features of independence and taking a long-
term horizon to take risks, experiment, explore innovative, unconventional approaches,
and allow failure to learn from, test again, and adapt their methods, instruments and
Having outlined the possibilities of foundations, let me also share some of the challenges,
bottlenecks and roadblocks the sector faces:
- First of all, as governments are met with distrust from citizens and media, foundations
and civil society organisations can experience the same attitude. Foundations have to
make evident what they define as public good and demonstrate with great integrity that
they are transparent and accountable.
- Secondly, we witness across the world the shrinking of the civil society space and
silencing of independent, critical voices. This affects foundations, also in Europe.
- A third challenge for the foundation sector is that, although in absolute terms its resources
are significant, in comparison to government, they are minute. As I mentioned before,
foundations cannot, and should never, be considered substitutes to governments but they
can play a complementary role.
- Another issue it that foundations should be more self-critical, acknowledge failure to
reconsider their own practices, and adapt their strategies and programmes to be at the
pulse of societies. They should for example think more of how to effectively serve the
needs of their grantees who are effectively partners in achieving a common goal (moving
away from the notion of donating and giving to working in partnership).
- Last-not least, when foundations want to work cross-border many hurdles present
themselves (complexities of transnational grant-making, giving and investing) that can
cause roadblocks for foundations to freely operate and engage in international cultural
relations. This is part of another advocacy chapter within the world of philanthropy that I
will not elaborate on today but that needs to be considered when discussing the role of
foundations in international relations.
So why working in partnership with foundations is a key asset for the EU strategic approach
to international relations. Five principal reasons:
- Foundations are part of civil society and contribute to identifying and voicing concrete
needs and solutions, while they have the resources to test out, pilot, and experiment with
new tools and methods. Foundations contribute to the diversity and inclusivity of voices,
through their own voice and the players they are able to reach, work with and involve in
strategic conversations and discussions.
- Foundations can reach part of society that government cannot. They bring different
resources, knowledge, experiences, networks, platforms, and are keen to work
- They have the ability to work with a long-term perspective, not from project to project, or
from election cycle to the next unlike governments, and for-profit organisations faced by
shorter term considerations and needs.
- Foundations are independent, flexible, can intervene rapidly, and usually far less
bureaucratic and cumbersome in their procedures than institutions and governments.
- Foundations can complement public authorities and the private sector or add resources
where the latter are unable due to legal and other restrictions (e.g.re-granting, pooled
funds, trusts…). Why not explore a new mechanism pooling European, national and
private resources in support of international cultural relations? A kind of matching fund
where knowledge, capacity, resources of individual players can be scaled up and out, and
serve a bigger community, to the benefit of fair international cultural relations and
To conclude, there are a lot of policy frameworks, collaboration opportunities, pilot initiatives,
and new sources of funding BUT it does not make it strategic as long as we work in silos or
among European partners only. The next steps, maybe also an avenue to consider for the
EUNIC Siena Cultural Relations Forum 2020, must include the association of our
international partners and stakeholders in the shaping of the vision and its realization.