Hindsight is always 20/20…

by Filiz Bikmen, founder and advisor at Constellations for Change, and the Founding Director of Esas Sosyal, in Turkey. Author of WINGS recent Philanthropy Networks: Creating Voice, Value and Collective Impact.

This is a proverb, (idiomatic) which means: In hindsight things are obvious that were not obvious from the outset.[1].In this blog, I’m sharing some reflections and aha! moments -exclamation of understanding, realization, invention, or recognition- and lessons learned, while writing the WINGS guide Philanthropy Networks: Creating Value, Voice and Collective Impact.

Since 2002, I’ve taken been active in multiple points of the philanthropy support ecosystem that included managing a foundation network (TUSEV), being a member and board member of networks of networks (WINGS), being on the foundation member side at Sabanci Foundation and active in thematic networks as well as Governance organs (both at the EFC). And more recently, taking on a consultative role (as an advisor to global philanthropy networks including WINGS, a researcher and author for the European Philanthropy and Social Investment Infrastructure project, and so on). As such, writing this guide for WINGS sparked many reflections from this 18 year journey, with regards to value, voice and collective impact of philanthropy networks. Here are a few that I’d like to share:

  • The reflection: Developing capacity in member association management –TUSEV is a membership based organization, and relies heavily on fees and participation of members. Fees contribute to financial sustainability, but more importantly, are an indicator of member support which is needed for TUSEV’s representative credibility of the foundation sector. During my tenure, we focused a lot on how to convey value to members and set up a balanced fee system to encourage payment. This was a challenge, mainly because we lacked guidance and benchmarks to follow. What to do in cases of nonpayment was particularly tricky, since philanthropy networks are not typical membership associations that can draw hard lines when fees are unpaid. As a member of WINGS, we participated in peer-learning events that contributed to navigating philanthropy network management, but this was a more technical issue. Speaking with network leaders when writing the guide for WINGS, I realized that these challenges continue for many membership-based organizations.

The aha! moment: Managing philanthropy networks requires tapping into fields a bit outside philanthropy per-se. When doing research for the guide and resources section, I was surprised to learn that there are a wealth of resources available from the association management sector (for example https://www.asaecenter.org/about-us ) which offers a wealth of know-how and resources, much of which can be adapted/made applicable to philanthropy networks- such as the basics of setting up membership structures, fees, marketing and member relations tips and so on.  Lesson learned: Efforts to increase the value, voice and collective impact of a philanthropy network will be amplified with an equal focus on investing in know-how, staff, systems and policies on association management issues, to ensure the long-term health of the membership network.

 

  • The reflection: The value of advocacy and enabling environment programs – One of TUSEV’s main aims is advocating for an enabling environment, which in Turkey comprises two legal forms- foundations and associations. Among its founding members were Turkey’s largest foundations (asset-wise), and today a majority of membership are foundations. In earlier days, this created a perception of TUSEV as a club of wealthy foundations and set apart from ‘on the ground’ civil society actors. In 2003 there was a mandate to reform of laws that would re-instate freedom of association (among EU’s accession requirements known as the Copenhagen Criteria), an issue which concerned associations more so than foundations. While TUSEV members did not express any outright objections to this work per se, the leadership had to clearly explain why it was necessary to take an active advocacy role on an issue that did not necessarily relate directly to a majority of the member constituents which were foundations. During the process of working on the EPSII study and WINGS guide, I realized that many network leaders and foundation members struggle with making the case for more advocacy programming, especially when it concerns sector issues that are not necessarily specific to their membership.

The aha! moment: This work increased TUSEV’s expertise, credibility and role as a thought leader on advocacy issues. It allowed TUSEV to assume a bridging role between foundation and NGOs / civil society sectors, often operating in separate sub-ecosystems within the Third sector. TUSEV was able to channel the power and access of wealthier (asset –rich) foundations which had credibility and influence in the eyes of Ankara decision makers to give voice to broader civil society in a way that helped move the agenda (and ultimately new laws and regulations that emerged) forward. Lesson learned: Advocacy is a critical role for many philanthropy networks, and they have much to offer and gain from engaging in reform efforts not only directly related to their core membership, yet are critically important to creating a more cohesive and enabling environment for the sector.

 

  • The reflection: Making the case for active engagement of a private foundation in philanthropy networks– Transitioning to Sabanci Foundation from TUSEV, I had a high awareness of the value of philanthropy networks. When I joined, the Foundation was a member of EFC, but aside from paying fees and perhaps attending an AGA conference, engagement was limited. It took time and effort to encourage leadership that a Turkey-based/focused foundation such as Sabanci (one of Turkey’s main conglomerates, founded by a leading industrial family) had a lot to gain from deeper engagement in regional and global networks. It started slowly, with participation in the EFC Disability Thematic Network, an issue close to the heart of Sabanci Foundation. From there it gradually expanded to other engagements and eventually being voted on to the Governing Council, of which I was the representative at the time. Membership in the Synergos Global Philanthropy Circle followed, along with content contributions to Alliance Magazine and eventually Sabanci becoming a sponsor. It was not a smooth journey; there were times when management questioned the international travel and time spent in meetings. But when the value of engagement became apparent, it provided reassurance to stay on this path. Several years later, while interviewing nearly 30 European foundation leaders for the EPSII study, I realized I was not alone- many professionals working in foundations continue to face the challenge of making a case to their leadership for more engagement in networks.

The aha! moment: Looking back, I see that our philanthropy network partners on the outside helped me promote this engagement on the inside by helping me answer two critical questions: How will engagement help further the work of the foundation in X country/field? How will this return on investment be measured (visibility, know-how, expertise transfer, new partnerships, etc.)? They facilitated the process by offering several options on the value spectrum for members to be engaged- opportunities for connections (conferences, affinity groups), taking on roles in governance, offering the foundation visibility to share its work and also to reach potential partners. Lesson learned: When leadership and staff of philanthropy networks have a good sense of the challenges facing professionals within foundations, they can work closely together and craft the right approach for promoting the transition from passive to active engagement.

 

 

This is part one of a series of blogs to be forthcoming by Filiz Bikmen, author of WINGS publication Philanthropy Networks: Creating Value Voice and Collective Impact.

[1] Wiktionary.org

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