A Timely Call for a Trust-driven Approach to Philanthropy

by Rolf Alter and Timo Unger, Philanthropy.Insight


Concerns for “good” philanthropy are not really new, starting with Turgot’s famous 18th century call to destroy the foundations¹. By now, codes of conduct – all-present instruments of prescription of ethical behaviour – have been in existence for quite some time, and toolkits have been developed in different shapes and forms. But the question remains: Are they making a difference to behaviour, attitudes, action, results, or perception of philanthropies and foundations in particular? And more precisely: Does the focus on impact suffice to pass judgement on them?

Looking at the low levels of trust in civil society, doubts are called for. There are many factors at work that undermine philanthropy and foundations. Not least scant public knowledge or awareness of philanthropy; more importantly, a world in disruption, the disappearance of certainties of any kind, economic, social and political divides are influencing the role and potential of philanthropy. The question of compatibility of philanthropy and democracy has been tabled by well-known experts and academics such as Rob Reich or Helmut Anheier most recently in no uncertain terms.² If foundations want to respond to these challenges, another symbolic declaration or yet another standard, well intended as it may be, will not help.

This is where Philanthropy.Insight comes in.

The initiative launched by Rolf ALTER and Rupert STRACHWITZ proposes a framework for working towards a trust-driven philanthropy. Consultations and bilateral discussions with foundations, academic experts and philanthropic practitioners since the launch of the initiative 12 months ago have confirmed the support for a novel way of philanthropic leaders to make use of today’s disruptive dynamics and pivot the decline of confidence into their ability to contribute positively to society.

Building and rebuilding trust is recognized as the central condition for creating a new ecosystem of philanthropy which will enable to roll out the full potential of giving. However, getting there, requires more than vowing to improve, more than symbolically expressing the will to reform by declarations and demands on others. Being hard to gain and easy to lose, trust is no category like any other. Therefore, inaugurating trust as central element of philanthropic action requires strong allies who are ready to devote their capabilities and capacities to move from promises of salvation to authentic representation of philanthropic action.

Philanthropy.Insight wishes to render building trust operational by decomposing this central issue into five tangible criteria: Commitment, Public Purpose, Relevance, Performance and Accountability. These should guide the strategic orientation of philanthropic institutions as well their day-to-day action. The proposition addresses philanthropic actors who are convinced that to be trusted by citizens, beneficiaries, government, the media and civil society co-actors is key to a more effective, more honest and thus, more appreciated form of philanthropic activity. The criteria are each equipped with three underlying qualities to illustrate their central

P.I Criteria_blue


Take Commitment – a vital element to organically generating trust – as an example: Its
underlying qualities Compassion, Understanding and Respect indicate possible pathways on where to start from in pursuing commitment: Is the organization imbued by a spirit of compassion? Does this compassion permeate to programs, project and actions? Does
compassion consistently take precedence over other goals the organization may pursue? Is understanding the situation of targeted beneficiaries and recipients informing philanthropic action? And is respect for the beneficiaries or recipients part and parcel of all stages of design, implementation and evaluation of philanthropic action?

Or take impact – for a long time the dominant measure of philanthropy: Philanthropy.Insight suggests considering impact as one of the qualities of Relevance together with sustainability and effectiveness. Action should make a difference, leave a lasting mark, and undergo evaluation with the participation of beneficiaries.

Phase 1 of the project ended with the publication of a research paper
(https://web.maecenata.eu/images/MO%2031%20Philanthropy.insight.pdf) and a
presentation in Paris in May, 2019. While anybody is free to apply these criteria on his/her own, in phase 2 of the project, the criteria will be tested through case studies, and necessary modifications based on the experience gained will be explored. This is of particular relevance due to the geographic scope of the Philanthropy.Insight project. It is intended to include OECD countries, the Muslim world, and the Global South.

Shared leadership among the partners of Philanthropy.Insight is central to the approach, both as drivers of case studies and in guiding the strategy and operations. Furthermore,
partnerships are also sought with research partners and with funders of the initiative.

Philanthropy.Insight intends to host working sessions, report on results, and mobilize,
disseminate and communicate work in progress, in order to ensure that a wider audience may benefit from and join in the discussion.

At this point, we are seeking comments of any kind from any interested party. In the end,
working with peers and stakeholders, drawing on their experiences and prospects and
incorporating academic research, we wish to see the Philanthropy.Insight criteria serving current and future donors as well as philanthropic institutions as they grapple with their role in society, maximize their contribution, involve beneficiaries, favour dialogue and openness, and live by transparency and accountability.


1. Oeuvres de Turgot, Fondation
2. Just Giving, Reich 2018; Philanthropy vs. Democracy, Anheier 2019


Rolf Circle Picture


Dr. Rolf Alter




Timo Unger



Philanthropy.Insight is an innovative instrument for looking at international philanthropy. Its core is a pentagon of interdependent and interlaced criteria as a baseline scenario of a trust-driven approach. To make these operational, a forum for a dynamic and collaborative group of international foundations is set up, to test the criteria against their past experiences and future ambitions. Philanthropy.Insight ultimately aims at altering current philanthropic action.

You can contact them directly at ra@maecenata.eu, or tu@maecenata.de for questions and comments.

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