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Dispatch from #ForumCon23: Catalysing Change, Transforming the Field

Monday, September 11, 2023

This is a guest post by Hanna Stähle, Head of Foresight and Innovation at Philea – Philanthropy Europe Association.

Attending this year’s United Philanthropy Forum’s annual conference was very special to me. Many know the story of the Forum and how it was created seven years ago as a platform of now 95 regional and national PSO members to lead philanthropy to be more equitable, more accountable, more effective. Not many know that this story was a source of inspiration for a European experiment – creating PEX as a platform for exchange for European philanthropy networks and support organizations. Hosted by Philea, it now brings together leaders and experts from more than 70 national, regional, European and global philanthropy support organizations to facilitate learning, collaboration and action.

It is key to build bridges between geographies and cross-pollinate each other with ideas and inspiration. Through Philea, the Forum invited three PEX organizations to attend the annual forum, whose participation was supported through a scholarship by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation: Birce Altay, TÜSEV – Third Sector Foundation of Turkey, Vinzenz Himmighofen, iac berlin, Germany, and Francesca Mereta, Assifero, Italy. I was fortunate to represent Philea together with our Vice President Carola Carazzone and accompany the PEX delegation at the Forum's Annual Conference to build bridges and establish long-term connections, encouraging colleagues in the US to engage in European gatherings and vice versa. Only by working together can we advance the philanthropic agenda and contribute to social transformation. I am walking away from this conference with a wealth of experience and learnings. Here are some of the key takeaways:

  • Be comfortable with discomfort and acknowledge voices that are missing – the urgency of the moment requires us to leave the comfort zone and explore, imagine new possibilities. The keynote speech by Elizabeth Alexander – poet, scholar and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation – provided excellent food for thought. One number she mentioned particularly struck me – one-third of the monuments in the US is dedicated to war – and made me read further. This is one of the findings of the Monuments Project, a representative study, funded by the Mellon Foundation, to better understand and improve America’s commemorative landscape and what stories are being told through monuments, statues and memorials throughout the country. She writes pointedly in a CNN opinion piece, “the most durable monuments in the United States have not endured because they best tell the stories of who we are, but because they are the products of the most financial resources and hegemony in its many forms – racial, ethnic, religious, and gender-based”. What is the commemorative landscape in Europe, what is our collective history, who is being worshipped and what voices are missing? These are the questions I am being left with. 
  • Address colonial practices and pay tribute to indigenous peoples – David Biemesderfer, The Forum’s President and CEO, opened his welcome speech by referring to the Native American peoples and acknowledging that New York City and the Forum’s 2023 Annual Conference took place on “stolen lands.” He said: “We offer land acknowledgment because Native land was taken by force and colonized to form the United States as we know it today. Through this process, which is ongoing through systematic oppression, Native identity, history, and land ownership has been ignored by colonizers and attempted to be erased. Land Acknowledgement is a first step in opposing the systematic oppression and historic erasure of Native people and Native Land ownership”. Just a few days before The Forum’s Annual Conference took place, the UK-based Lankelly Chase Foundation decided to dismantle and redistribute all its assets after more than 60 years of grant-giving. Lankelly Chase will give away £130 million over the course of the next five years, as the foundation sees itself as part of the traditional philanthropy model, “entangled with Colonial Capitalism” and continuing “the harms of the past into the present”. It remains to be seen what impact Lankelly Chase will achieve and how this decision will influence other funders to reflect on their own legacy and current power dynamics. What seems to be clear is that we are only at the beginning of this conversation. 
  • Advance change from within – we can only be credible if we walk the talk and are able to achieve change internally before we expect this from others. The Forum’s internal journey on racial equity that started in 2016 is a great example of deep inner work. The Forum has established a Racial Equity Learning and Action Cohort, launched case stories to facilitate learning and exchange and, most recently, published its second report Journey Toward Racial Equity. Not only did the Forum advance the agenda within the philanthropy field and helped measure PSO’s efforts in advancing racial equity, it also prioritised capacity building for its staff and Board of Directors to create a stronger foundation upon which to build further work. The Forum’s Racial Equity Guiding Principles and Practices largely informed these efforts and were extended to programming and partnerships. I was inspired by the level of commitment and dedication of the Forum’s CEO, team and governance and how progress was measured over time. This inner transformation is contributing to outer transformation in the philanthropy field.
  • Create avenues of interaction and build trust – providing funding is not enough. 90% of funding that black-led organizations receive is transactional, without possibility for meaningful engagement and dialogue. This is the most recent data that Kia Croom, an inspiring leader from Fundraising in Black, presented at the roundtable conversation – Black-Led Organizations. We all know that receiving long-term, core funding is not possible without having built a solid relationship and created trust. Simply opening the doors to conferences and gatherings is not sufficient, as this often requires participation fees and time commitment.

Philanthropy infrastructure, as we often call it in Europe, plays a critical role in convening the sector, formulating the agenda, providing space for learning and collaboration, mobilising resources, advocating for change, and finding common ground on sometimes challenging, divergent views. The Forum’s Annual Conference provided an excellent platform to meet philanthropy practitioners, learn and exchange practices, discuss common challenges and emerging opportunities. This is the role of a catalyst in the field, because – as Alina Porumb and Alexandra Stef from INSPIRE and co-leads of PEX catalyst infrastructure group once wrote – catalysts “operate from a frame of possibility and potential, allowing space for alignment to emerge, rather than from a frame of linearity, control and coordination”. So let’s move the needle and explore the frames of possibility and potential for the philanthropy field in the US, Europe and across the Atlantic.

International delegation at the United Philanthropy Forum’s Annual Conference in New York, including PEX organizations – Assifero, iac berlin and TÜSEV.