Questions below are based on Carola’s previous call to action “Debunking two myths to avoid agony in Italian civil society” published in Alliance Magazine. You can read that here.
- You mention how philanthropic foundations have a huge potential of changing the national landscape in Italy around what it means to enter a partnership with an NGO. What is the role of foundation associations in countries similar to Italy in fostering conversations around this and innovations in funding and philanthropy? What are some lessons that have worked for you [or your peers] and some that haven’t?
Assifero, the Italian Association of Grant-making Foundations, as a national membership association, did not want to limit services and act as a club offering fiscal and legal services and some networking. We wanted to become a stakeholder in the process of sustainable human development in our country, and for this reason, we joined ASviS – the Italian Alliance for Sustainable Development and the Italian Alliance on Social Generativity.
We wanted to respond to the capacity-building needs of Italian philanthropic foundations but also support them in deploying their distinctive role in today’s society and in capitalizing on their own assets (connections, credibility, and non- financial grants). We wanted to stimulate a cultural shift from short-term to long-term approaches and strategic partnerships, from focusing on inputs and giving, to impact and outcomes and from traditional grant maker-grantees relationship towards co-designing. We stimulate our members to work through more collaborative approaches and co-funding. In 2018, for example, we promoted two initiatives, a leveraging pilot initiative on educational poverty in Italy (with a fund of Con I Bambini), and a matching fund initiative on climate change (with a European Union fund re-granted in Italy by Fondazione Punto Sud).
- Many countries and regions probably experience the similar vicious cycle that some NGOs an Italy have found themselves in: an NGO has legitimacy and exists if it produces projects, and it produces projects to exist- implying- that NGOs are dependent on project- funding. What is the role of infrastructure organizations in combating this mentality and increasing awareness around funding general support to the non-profit field?
The overhead myth is deeply rooted in a Catholic country like Italy. In Italy, the myth of the (almost) zero cost of NGOs has deep roots, which include: the culture of Catholic voluntary service; the subconscious of a country deeply rooted in a male-dominated system in which, for hundreds of years, social services were carried out free of charge by the church and, for the most part, by women, both religious and lay; the tokenistic declarations needed to claim one’s contribution in the fight against a widespread subculture of mischief; the occasional risk that the more cunning ones will finance friends or friends-of-friends and, in general, the lack of social trust and the fear of taking responsibility towards change. As the mantra goes, the NGOs should cost very little and all funding must be allocated to projects. This, together with the ‘magic percentage formula’ of general costs as the only indicator of efficiency of non-profit organizations, has strangled them and reduced them to mere “project factories” with inadequate organization, structure, and staff, from which the best talents, even if extremely motivated, end up leaving. This, however, is not a matter of increasing the percentage of overhead costs to be covered by a project. The question is much more transformative. The question is funding strategic objectives – missions, as Mariana Mazzucato puts it – instead of only stand-alone projects, funding long-term and not looking constantly for new things and short-term deliverable outputs. Infrastructure organizations can play a powerful role in promoting this cultural shift, as they have the broad vision, and overall, comprehensive, intersectional picture. They can be the ones making meaningful connections.
- Often times, it’s this long-term funding that philanthropy infrastructure desperately needs in order to show long-term, sustainable growth and results. How can the shift away from project-funding for the non-profit sector be translated into funding towards promoting steady funding for philanthropic infrastructure?
I am part of the WINGS- DAFNE working group on the 4Cs (Capacity, Capabilities, Connections, and Credibility) and Assifero is using this framework in its strategic planning. Funding – especially core funding for philanthropy infrastructure – is fundamental in order to promote more informed, more connected, and more effective ecosystems of philanthropy for systemic change. Core support is crucial and it should be seen not as a cost, but as an investment in a more informed, connected, and effective system of philanthropy in the country where each stakeholder is enabled and can benefit from it.
- It can be controversial to comment on the general philanthropy culture of a specific country when working within it. What has been the feedback you have received from this piece from within Italy? From outside? How do you hope to inspire others?
Yes, it is controversial. Things that are perceived as disruptive … My “call to action” has been published in 4 different magazines in Italy, and read online by more than 90,000 readers… and is apparently making a little case for debate. In Italy, the overhead myth and the paradox of the project life-cycle were monolithic and undisputed, not only among the sector’s professionals, but also within public opinion, stereotyped in the procedures and practices of practically all public and private donors. Today, we need a stronger civil society in Europe and I feel a personal responsibility to be vocal and offer my little contribution to this cause from the perspective of private funders.