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Europe Has an Opinion on Philanthropy

Europe Has an Opinion on Philanthropy

The first European Economic and Social Committee Opinion entirely dedicated to philanthropy comes at a crucial time and sets the tone for philanthropy-related debates under the new mandate of the European Parliament and Commission. At a time when core values such as democracy, rule of law, and fundamental rights are being challenged in some Member States, philanthropy has a crucial role to play alongside wider civil society to defend those values.

In line with EU freedoms, the Opinion calls on EU Member States to establish an enabling environment for philanthropy. The Opinion also stresses the importance of philanthropy for the common good and for social cohesion, with very clear policy recommendations for ways forward. While business can operate easily across borders, philanthropy cannot. There are various possible ways of addressing this, including supranational legal forms to facilitate philanthropic engagement. The Opinion asserts that Member States should ensure the application of the freedom of capital, coupled with the non-discrimination principle, to facilitate cross-border philanthropy.

The Opinion reiterates the idea that national and EU security measures must be proportionate and evidence-based and suggests the EU could leverage the impact of private resources for the common good by stimulating co-investment and social impact investment by philanthropic actors. It also urges the EU to facilitate engagement in social innovation and notes that there are some potentially interesting proposals at the EU level in the pipeline. These are important messages to policy makers, and will be critical in advocacy work around the Opinion.

The King Baudoin Foundation's involvement in the Opinion drafting process yielded many lessons for the sector that will help in future exchanges with European policy makers.

First, philanthropy currently is either not on the European agenda or is not a prominent enough item on that agenda. Considering how diversified philanthropy has become, the sector will have to continue both technical discussions with the EU and national bodies on specific matters. as well as affirm the more general picture of what philanthropy contributes to society. These will be priorities for the Philanthropy Advocacy Initiative that DAFNE and the European Foundation Centre are managing jointly.

Storytelling and using the right arguments will be key here. During the public hearing for the Opinion, two philanthropic stories, KickCancer and Fedora, were presented to demonstrate the value of philanthropy. The presentation had a positive impact, and it is something we should do more of when engaging with policy makers. Philanthropy is not just about large donors. Millions of Europeans engage in philanthropy, giving money, time, skills and goods. This is taken for granted by the sector, but it should be emphasized to the general public and policy makers. During discussions on the Opinion, philanthropy’s impact was brought to life with examples from regions, villages, and neighborhoods. Adopting a broad description in the Opinion of what philanthropy represents, rather than attempting a definition, allowed us to include these stories as well as the diverse nature of philanthropic engagement.

Demonstrating philanthropy's complementary role vis-a-vis public action also will be key in the coming years. Philanthropy can help Member States and public actors but cannot and should not replace the state. On the contrary, it is through more robust dialogue, collaboration, and exchange that the synergies needed to address urgent societal issues will be created.

Finally, relevant data on the sector is still lacking. The sector needs to develop and improve existing studies and be able to follow philanthropic trends by gathering data from all over Europe. This will require innovations in the way we share information. To this end, plans for an annual European "philanthropy barometer" are in development.

Now that the Opinion has been released, the social sector sector in Europe has to build on it and continue to make progress with the EESC, with other EU institutions, and with national policy makers by turning its recommendations into action.

Ludwig Forrest ( is a senior program coordinator at the King Baudouin FoundationAn earlier version of this article, "European philanthropy: An untapped potential," appeared in the June 2019 edition of DAFNE’s Philanthropy Europe e-newsletter,