Private foundations

We are living through politically and economically turbulent times. The rights and welfare of citizens in Europe and elsewhere are coming under pressure, the gap between rich and poor is widening, authoritarian regimes serve the interests of a few, transnational institutions for solidarity and peace are being called into question, and intercultural dialogue is viewed as a threat by a new wave of nationalism. Many people take a stand by launching initiatives to promote solidarity and a sustainable society.

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Such initiatives are often independent art and culture projects aimed at creating meaning and promoting local development. At a time when governments are reducing their role – or worse, when they adopt a repressive attitude towards autonomous civil initiatives and independent culture – these independent cultural initiatives enjoy increasing support from philanthropists. The majority of independent cultural initiatives, particularly in eastern and southern Europe – and beyond – are not supported by the government but by individuals, businesses and philanthropic foundations. This is the case in such places as central and south-east Europe, Ukraine, Turkey, Russia, the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa and elsewhere.

Can the alliance between philanthropy and independent culture help make the global economy, and national and transnational politics, more sustainable, and if so, how?

Dirk De Wit Innovation and development: visual arts

Can the alliance between philanthropy and independent culture help make the global economy, and national and transnational politics, more sustainable, and if so, how? On the one hand there is a need to redistribute the increasing wealth of a small minority and to invest it in society. On the other hand, philanthropy helps to tackle what an unsustainable economy – upon which philanthropy is usually based – helps to cause.

Philanthropy is about private initiatives that benefit the common good. It often involves donations of money or goods to improve the lives of the underprivileged around the world in domains such as education, culture, health, development, human rights and social inclusion. Modern philanthropy emerged in the 19th century as civil society began to take over the role previously played by the church. In the 20th century the state began to take responsibility for the care of the poor through social legislation, which led to the establishment of the welfare state after the Second World War. From then on, philanthropy played a complementary role alongside that of the government and civil society, and it supported initiatives in countries where there was little or no government. Modern philanthropy is also linked to the process of decolonization and development on other continents, and to the post-war conviction of establishing peace among peoples by spreading prosperity.

Philanthropy can take various forms. Sometimes it involves individual donations. In a number of cases, a private equity fund manages the personal wealth of an individual, family or company according to a certain vision of welfare and development. In other cases, a fundraising trust is set up by individuals, politicians and/or businesspeople to raise money for civil projects that the founders think are important and that are lacking in society. Each philanthropist seeks a project or initiative that closely aligns with his or her passion, ambition, expertise and life story. What they all have in common, however, is their independent and private statute, and their desire to channel private resources for the common good. Thanks to their independence, private foundations and funds are flexible and usually operate transnationally, through generally with a clear focus on particular countries and regions.

Different types of foundations based on initiator, resources, vision and form

Equity funds or foundations are driven by the personal wishes and convictions of the founders in the fields of art, culture and society. They often start with a private cultural centre and/or art collection, and activities then systematically expand. Sometimes they also invest in artists (for example by commissioning work, offering artist residency programmes, or establishing artist archives), in public activities (through education and advice) or in research into art and society.

In most cases, these foundations become more professional over time. They appoint a board and consult advisors. Their daily management develops a long-term strategy, based on a mission and vision, to ensure objectification and transparency in relation to what the foundation does and for whom. The founders themselves generally continue to provide inspiration, but they remain at arm’s length from the actual functioning.

Some examples:

  • Gulbenkian Foundation started in 1956 at the bequest of Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, a wealthy British businessman and philanthropist of Armenian origin, who played a major role in making the petroleum reserves of the Middle East available for Western development. The foundation has a museum in Lisbon which hosts his private collection and promotes initiatives in the arts, charity, education and science throughout the world from its offices in Lisbon, London and Paris.
  • Stiftung Mercator was founded in 1996 by the Schmidt family (Germany, Switzerland), which has donated a substantial amount of its own assets to the foundation, which works on four themes: Europe, integration, climate change and cultural education. Stiftung Mercator develops activities in Germany, Europe, Turkey and China.
  • Kamel Lazaar Foundation was established in 2005 by the Tunisian financier and philanthropist, who lives in Switzerland. The foundation possesses over 1000 works of art, representing various styles of modern art in the MENA region. It has expanded its activities to include the production and support of artistic and cultural projects in the MENA region, and become increasingly involved in projects linked to heritage and education. Kamel Lazaar has offices in Geneva, London and Tunis.
  • Izolyatsia Platform for Cultural Initiatives in Ukraine started as a private collection created by the entrepreneur Luba Michailova in the 1990s. The foundation was set up in 2010 as a non-profit and non-governmental multidisciplinary platform for exhibitions and residencies with the aim of contributing to cultural and social change, first in Donetsk, and later in Kiev.

Other private foundations espouse a more outspoken social, political and community vision and believe in societal change through culture and education.

  • George Soros is a Hungarian-American investor, business magnate, philanthropist, political activist and author. He supports progressive and liberal political causes and dispenses his donations through his foundation, the Open Society Foundations. He provided one of Europe’s largest higher education endowments to the Central European University in Budapest and supported an open civil society in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall. His extensive funding of political causes has made him an enemy of European nationalists.
  • The A.M. Qattan Foundation (AMQF) was founded in 1998 by Abdel Mohsin Al-Qattan, a Palestinian businessman who was involved in social, charitable, developmental and political work. He bequeathed a quarter of his wealth to his independent foundation active in the fields of culture and education, with a particular focus on children, teachers and young artists. The foundation operates mainly in Palestine, with some interventions in Lebanon.

Fundraising foundations and trusts are the result of collective initiatives by wealthy citizens and/or businesspeople aimed at boosting the local cultural scene and the role of culture within civil society.

Some examples:

  • The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV) was founded in 1973 by seventeen businessmen and art enthusiasts who gathered under the leadership of Dr. Nejat F. Eczacıbaşı, with the aim of organizing international arts festivals in Istanbul to ensure a high-quality offer of arts and culture.
  • The foundation Anadolu Kültür, founded by individuals from art and business and civil society in 2002, has a slightly different and complementary vision on the role of culture in civil society in Turkey. It believes that cultural and artistic exchange helps develop mutual understanding and dialogue and overcome regional differences and prejudices, and that culture elicits a discussion of citizenship, identity and belonging. Anadolu Kültür has also supported the foundation of cultural centres. Diyarbakır Arts Centre was founded to support the production and sharing of art outside large cities and develop culture and art projects with regional artists. DEPO, cultural centre and platform for debate, supports collaboration between artists, civil society institutions and cultural institutions from Turkey, the Southern Caucasus, the Middle East and Balkan countries.
  • Some private initiatives invest directly in art research, production and distribution where there is a lack of cultural policy and grant schemes offered by the government. The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) is an example of an independent initiative that funds artists, art professionals and organizations in the fields of cinema, performing arts, literature, music and visual arts and facilitates cultural exchange, production, research and cooperation across the Arab world and globally. It is funded by foundations, individual donors and ministries of foreign affairs of Western countries.

Private foundations in Western countries also promote prosperity and welfare, and they complement government policy or work together with government bodies.

Some examples:

  • The European Cultural Foundation (ECF) was set up in 1954 by figures that included Robert Schuman, Denis de Rougemont and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, who believed in culture as a vital ingredient in Europe’s post-war rebuilding. ECF supports cultural exchange and creative expression across Europe because culture inspires people to create democratic societies. ECF is funded in part by the BankGiro Loterij and the Lotto.
  • The Prince Claus Fund was established in 1996 in recognition of Prince Claus’s dedication to culture and development. The fund creates opportunities for connection and exchange and stimulates cultural expression, primarily in Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe. Prince Claus Fund is supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Dutch Postcode Lottery, and private individuals and corporations.
  • In Belgium, the King Baudouin Foundation (Koning Boudewijnstichting) promotes a better society through change and innovation and increases social cohesion in Belgium and Europe. The foundation focuses on poverty and social justice, philanthropy, health, civil engagement, talent development, democracy, European integration, heritage, sustainable development and development cooperation. The foundation manages various private funds and stimulates effective philanthropy by individuals and corporations.

In Western Europe, foundations are also established by political parties with a clear vision of society.

One example:

  • The Friedrich Ebert Foundation was founded in 1925 and is named after Germany’s first democratically elected president. It is committed to the advancement of both socio-political and economic development in the spirit of social democracy, through civil education, research and international cooperation. The Friedrich Ebert Foundation has offices and projects in over 100 countries. More recently, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, linked with the Green Party in Germany, fosters democracy and human rights, takes action to prevent the destruction of the global ecosystem, advances equality between women and men, secures peace through conflict prevention in crisis zones, and defends the freedom of individuals against excessive state and economic power.

Other foundations are initiatives of various governments to reach common goals.

One example:

  • Euro-Med Ministers of Foreign Affairs agreed in 2004 to create the Anna Lindh Foundation, which is co-financed by the 42 countries of the Union for the Mediterranean and the European Commission. Apart from specific projects in education, culture and media and a network of over 4000 civil society organizations, ALF advises decision-makers and institutions on an intercultural strategy for the Euro-Mediterranean Region.

Foundations develop a range of activities such as supporting innovative research, implementing research findings, third party financing (grants), capacity building, networking, advocacy and policy advice.

In some cases, the arts and culture are at the core of the mission, and they are linked to broader topics such as capacity building and education. The arts and culture are seen as spearheads and as tools to reach other goals.

In places where the government is more repressive, one must tread carefully: a private foundation must develop a solid relationship with the government and engage with foreign institutes and embassies

Dirk De Wit Innovation and development: visual arts

What is the relation between philanthropy, civil society and (trans)national politics?

From a Western European perspective, the welfare state promotes the prosperity and welfare of people at home and abroad. Philanthropy positions itself as complementary to government policy. Governments sometimes make use of private foundations or of independent non-governmental cultural initiatives to achieve their goals for culture and civil society. With the rise of neoliberalism and the accompanying reduction in the role of the government, the role of philanthropy and private initiatives is encouraged through tax incentives. In Anglo-Saxon countries, there is a longer tradition of encouraging personal donations and private initiatives through tax incentives.

In non-Western countries, cultural policy usually consists of supporting cultural centres and national heritage, with little or no support for contemporary production and presentation, and without any vision of art and culture as dynamic processes for empowerment and local community development. Citizens, company directors and civil-society organizations launch their own initiatives in the domains of culture and community and raise the necessary funds.

Civil society and independent culture are coming under pressure today in many countries Europe and elsewhere, owing to a combination of nationalism and authoritarian forms of government. Independent culture is viewed as a threat or even an attack on traditional culture and so called national values. Civil initiatives and independent culture are more and more controlled by the government and are sometimes intimidated by false accusations of mismanagement, defamation, espionage or even terrorism. As a result, the networks that link independent cultural initiatives, which are vital for their existence, are impaired. For example, the government of Victor Orban in Hungary has attempted to prohibit foreign universities in an attempt to close the Central European University of George Soros.(1) Also, the chairperson of the foundation Anadolu Kültür, Osman Kavala, was arrested by Turkish police in 2017 and has already spent months in prison, like tens of thousands of other citizens.(2) Foundations and funds attempt to maintain their independence by locating their head offices in countries with a stable regime: Kamal Lazaar in Geneva/London, AFAC in Lebanon, Open Society Foundations in New York, A.M. Qattan Foundation in London, and so on. In this way, private foundations are able to continue their activities by carefully choosing their public discourse, sometimes highlighting more ‘neutral’ cultural activities in their communication or by operating behind the scenes to protect the project leaders they are supporting. Other foundations choose a more direct and open approach, which often leads to prohibition of activities.

Recent tendencies and challenges

The accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few is increasing all the time, also in countries where civil society is coming under pressure like for example in Egypt, Russia, Turkey or some countries in Africa. How can that wealth be invested in society through private foundations that support civil initiatives and independent culture? Can private foundations encourage governments to develop policies to stimulate this investment?

At the same time, wealthy individuals like to invest in art, build up collections, open private museums, and support major art projects of international stature, which bear little relationship to citizens and questions concerning community development. It is a challenge to make such individuals sensitive to the issues facing society and to encourage them to embrace philanthropy.

The EU, its member states and other countries place culture more in the centre of their external relations; not as a form of promotion or showcasing, but on account of the civil values of culture as an engine of development, community and dialogue between nations. These cultural values are often in line with the aims and values of private foundations and funds. As a result, ministries of foreign affairs and cultural institutes such as the British Council and Goethe Institut increasingly collaborate with these private foundations and funds.(3) Even though strong ethics have to be taken into account concerning where the money supporting foundations is coming from, such collaboration can enhance the position of independent culture and civil society in certain countries. In places where the government is more repressive, one must tread carefully: a private foundation must develop a solid relationship with the government and engage with foreign institutes and embassies, or open tensions will mean that collaboration and support will have to be more circumspect and, in some cases, remain under the radar in order not to jeopardize independent cultural initiatives. Authoritarian regimes often view cultural collaboration from the EU and its member states as geopolitically motivated to destabilize their countries. Moreover, values such as freedom of expression and equality between men and women are viewed as a threat to national values.  

In anticipation of a sustainable economy and open society politics, various forms of wealth redistribution remain essential for the development of civil society, whether through the government or through private initiatives if the government fails to take action, or through collaboration between both.

Foot Notes

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  3. MORE EUROPE – Culture in the EU’s External Relations is a public-private consortium (Goethe Institut, Institut français, British Council, European Cultural Foundation and Stiftung Mercator) which consists of foundations, civic networks and national cultural institutes, and is a cultural civic initiative with the objective to highlight and reinforce the role of culture in the EU’s external relations.
Je leest: Private foundations