Planning, assessing and communicating the impact of networks

by Carola Carazzone (Assifero)

This text was original a speech given by Carola at WINGS Driving Philanthropy for the Future meeting in Jamaica, April 2019.

I was asked to share with you today, the journey we walked in the last 4 years in Assifero- Italian association of grantmaking foundations (using traditional taxonomy 100 members among family, corporate and community foundations; about 400.000 euros annual budget; lean team of 5 people and engaged executive board) specifically in terms of planning, assessing and communicating our impact as an association, as a network supporting Italian philanthropy.

But first of all, I want to express my deep gratitude to WINGS. WINGS always gave me a wonderful, warm feeling of belonging, of being part of a community of practice, this feeling that you are not alone on earth and there is someone else, in the world fighting your same battles, struggling for the same cause.

I was lucky enough that WINGS was the first network I met a few weeks after starting in Assifero, back at the WINGS forum in March 2014 in Istanbul…Having WINGS, as well as the EFC, DAFNE, and ARIADNE as sounding boards and touchstones made my life in the last 5 years much easier and really gave me a lot of backing, benefit, and energy.

I also want to thank you, a wonderful group of peers. I have learnt so much from you in these days in Jamaica and I am grateful especially to the colleagues who were brave enough to share a failure, a lemon, something that didn’t work… and allowing all of us to learn from that. Coming from a country were failures are taboos with deep consequences in terms of constraints to innovation, I deeply appreciate that.

Let me now start saying something about the Italian philanthropic context.

Italy has some of the oldest institutional philanthropy organizations in the world. Last week I was with a group of American foundations in Florence. The 5 richest families in Florence today were the same richest in the XIII century when the Istituto degli Innocenti was created, one of the oldest philanthropic institution in the world.

Actually, it is not just Florence, but also in Brescia the Congrega, which was founded in 1535, and in Torino the Ufficio Pio which was founded in 1595, and in Naples the Pio Monte which was founded in 1602. Here, the richest families in town are giving money, real estate, precious art works (the Caravaggio painting in Pio Monte could cost 200.000 euros to be rented 3 months by a Museum) and jewelry to endow philanthropic entities in order to assist the poor, provide them with social housing, scholarships for their kids, and different kinds of economic and social services.

But modern philanthropy is a different animal and new in Italy. Family foundations in Italy were only developed in the last 20 years. Community foundations (the very first one was established in 1999 in Lecco) and corporate foundations were also developed recently in Italy over the last 10 years. And I leave apart banking origin foundations that were established by law in 1999.

Many different reasons, including:

  • A rooted catholic culture upon which you should not show off how rich you are and even less the charity you do,
  • Fears about your wealth becoming of public domain (mafia, almost two decades of far-left wing terrorism kidnappings, have left scars that are still painful in the country),
  • Lack of fiscal benefits when you establish a philanthropic foundation/ trust/fund.

So, in Italy we have on the one side a millennial old culture of giving and, on the other side, a very green and emerging culture of “strategic philanthropy”, of the distinctive role foundations and philanthropic organization can play in the complexity of today challenges and society.

The concept of private foundations is relatively new in Italy and they are generally (with some amazing exceptional exceptions), not sophisticated grant- givers, and not even yet grant-makers in many cases.

To make complex things simple, most of the family and corporate foundations (I leave aside here community foundations which are my favorite ones but a different kind of story) focused on INPUTS and not on OUTCOMES, on the impact they can make. Focusing on inputs, they focus on endowments, management of the endowment, annual spending distributed mainly with call for proposals without really assessing what kind of impact they are able to activate.

I remember when Assifero started to collect a baseline of data among our members to plan our impact as an association. More than 70 % of family foundations have only one officer who normally is the assistant/secretary of some member of the family. They fund little projects (reassuring if they have a well-crafted log-frame) that they like to fund not more than once.

Actually, Italian foundations are often doing exactly the opposite of what grantees/civil society organizations need which is long term, reliable, unrestricted support.

In this kind of philanthropic context, at Assifero, we wanted to plan our impact and to make a difference, and the question we started asking ourselves as a philanthropic network was: how can we strengthen Italian foundations in contributing to the common good, to use better private resources for public good? How can we make Italian philanthropy more informed, more connected and more effective to build civil society and democracy and impact the achievement of the SDGs? How can we reimage ourselves as an association, as a network to move Italian foundations beyond grantmaking, and in the end, contributing to shifting the power towards social justice?

And if this is the overarching, overall 10 years objective, how can we narrow it down in order to plan a reachable impact in the medium term- let’s say 5 years?

What is the difference we want to make as a network, the first change we want to lead as an association? The first change we wanted to make as network was to make private foundations understand their distinctive role vis a vis public donors, individual donors and grantees. We wanted them to build a common inclusive and dynamic identity, to speed up the learning process, and avoid starting over every time from scratch.

We believed that Italian private foundations could do much better than just distributing some money here and there to fill the gaps of a welfare state that is currently struggling and we wanted to make them aware of their potential impact to move them from INPUTS-focus to OUTCOME/impact-focus.

Quality not quantity approach.

Assuming more risks, innovative approaches.

Investing not only donating.

Funding in a different way: core support and not only call for proposals.

An example of Assifero’s failure was at a training with EFC in Venice in 2015. It was the beginning of the EU’s 7 years Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for the years 2014 to 2020, and together with EFC and ACRI, we wanted to inspire Italian individual foundations to consider their potential role as associates and partners with grantees Italian NGOs applying for EU funds on key budget lines (for example violence against women). Instead of each individual foundation funding its own little project on VAW, the idea was to match the funding application to EU for a much greater impact. It was a complete failure for Assifero: I could convince only one of my members to participate in the training. Their focus was on inputs not on impact. Collaborating more was not a meaningful option for them back then.

From 2015 to now, we transformed Assifero from a traditional membership association providing legal and fiscal service and a bit of “upon invitation only low-cost club” in the Milano area, to an Italian leadership organization.

In 2014, Assifero had less than 60 members all based in three northern regions of Italy, a budget dependent on a single donor, one-person staff, one annual general assembly and conference and no collaborative funds or substantial collaboration among members. Today Assifero has 100 members (take into consideration that in 2017 when we adopted our strategic planning, and our first ever Charter of accountability and a new membership fees/dues system (we lost 30 members in 15 months).

Today, Assifero has 100 members based in 15 regions (20% of the members in the southern ones), has doubled its budget with a sustainable system of membership fees and a portfolio of different funding sources and strategic multistakeholders partnerships (including a strategic partnership with Tech Soup on tackling the digital divide of Italian not-for-profit sector), has a sound result-based management of a team of 5 people, bespoke programs for family, corporate and community foundations, runs at least 10 events in different parts of the country in addition to the AGA and annual national conference, and has seen or is seeing 5 collaborative initiatives into place.

How did we do it: proactively looking for partnerships and collaboration. All kinds of collaborations and partnerships: from using university students to support us at different events to partnering with Bocconi university to carry out surveys and investigation on the sector.

Making a broad use of other networks.

Actually, having a clear idea what we are able to do by ourselves and what we have “to outsource”. We bring Italian delegations to the EFC, to Ariadne, and to the EVPA. Assifero would never be able to offer the stage that EFC is able to offer, and we bring there some Italian foundations, we invite them to speak. Assifero would never be able to offer Italian corporate foundations something like the European Corporate Foundations Knowledge Exchange that DAFNE initiated in 2016.

We co-organize, we invite, we connect our members to other networks, we make use of our convening power.

It was difficult to lead the participatory processes to build the consensus and the engagement around this new vision, to make this strategy sustainable in a member-driven organization.

In 2016 Assifero changed its name, mission, bylaws and adopted the first ever charter of principles of accountability for philanthropic organizations.

We benefited so much from using the 4Cs – capacity, capabilities, connections and credibility – framework to plan and then assessing our impact. This really helped us as an enabling framework.

But be aware, the time frame is not in months, but in years, and not 2-3 years, but 5 or more. I would say that we have already reached good results in terms of connections and credibility, and we are sufficiently on good track on capacity.

About expanding capacity, in 2017 Assifero obtained a major legal and fiscal reform for the sector that will enter into force at the end of 2019 and will have an impact in 5 years from now in terms of transparency and in 10 years from now in terms of accountability and sustainability of philanthropy, most probably also leveraging the volume, the quantity of philanthropic resources.

We still have to make all the difference on capability: professionalism, knowledge, skills are our challenge now for an effective Italian ecosystem of philanthropy. And I don’t think it should be Assifero in this phase to be the one working directly on that. We are making the case for an Italian research and a training center on philanthropy, based in one university but really connected with practitioners and community of practice.

Yesterday we said egos and silos are our enemies. Imagine coming from the country of PRIMADONNA and how much philanthropic foundation can be aloof, self- contained, solipsistic. Today, the challenge for Assifero is to prevent silos and mono-stakeholder bubble. Our challenge is to build effective partnerships at the national and international levels with other meaningful stakeholders on social change and today big common challenges, for example on the United Nations 2030 Agenda and the SDGs- Sustainable Development Goals: cross-sector collaboration and multi-stakeholders partnerships.

We are still not there in our traditional and limiting taxonomy, and not only in Italy unfortunately: we have to make human rights funders interested in supporting community foundations and the other way around for example.


CP Carola



Carola Carazzone

General Secretary at Assifero


About Assifero. ASSIFERO is the national membership association of Italian grant-making foundations and private institutional philanthropy.Founded in 2003, it currently supports more then 100 private foundations: family, corporate and community foundations.

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