European policy responses for philanthropy and civil society: How are governments reacting in the light of the COVID-19 crisis?

By Michael Mapstone, Director of International, CAF

It is vital that governments recognise and value the crucial role of civil society and philanthropy in the immediate response to the Coronavirus crisis and for the rebuilding efforts that will be needed. Currently, governments are responding to the crisis in various ways, on the national and EU-level, and many measures apply directly or indirectly to civil society, philanthropy and the wider giving environment. Governments must now fully consider how the sector can be harnessed to support and complement their own rebuilding efforts.

Within that there is a range of interlinked issues that policy-makers have to consider now. For example, supporting civil society’s ability to continue serving the needs of communities affected by coronavirus now and in the immediate future; and ensuring that a strong civil society sector exists once the peak of the pandemic has passed. Policy responses can be designed to incentivise philanthropy and giving as a means of resourcing civil society. And they can be targeted at leveraging philanthropy and civil society to have a better response to the crisis.

What can we learn from actions taken by countries to respond to the crisis? What must be different next time around?

At CAF we’re interested in recording what is happening across countries and have created a ‘living repository’ of good and bad practice in European policy responses for philanthropy and civil society. We invited leaders from the European philanthropy and foundation sector to discuss the different governments’ activities and have consolidated the outputs of this discussion in a paper that will be published later this week. Although policies on philanthropy, individual giving and the wider support for civil society vary across European states, we can make some broader observations.

Civil society as an afterthought

Seeing many stimulus packages “retrofitted” for the sector and few tailored responses, the question arises: is civil society an afterthought for too many governments during this crisis? This, and the more narrow view of giving to fill gaps in the COVID-19 response shows we need a stronger and more unified collective voice advocating for the value and necessity of civil society and philanthropy’s role in resourcing a strong and vibrant civic space. Overall, there not only seems to be a lack of strategic involvement from governments that puts civil society at the heart of the response, there is next to no recognition that civil society has been at the heart of the response from the start. The concern is that the assumption that charity services can just “stop now and resume later” mean governments continue to fail to understand civil society organisations’ (CSOs) operating environment and funding ecosystem – but also the crucial role they play for communities to withstand the socio-economic and health impacts of the crisis. When support was offered, it was because of successful civil society advocacy.  Proactive approaches were lacking. One could argue that given the size of the potential recession, policy-makers had other priorities. But it also poses some tougher questions for governments (and us!): Despite civil society being part of our history and culture for centuries, is it’s value and contribution to society really understood? But also, and perhaps more importantly now, what is our role as organisations and networks representing philanthropy and civil society in ensuring that this failing is addressed? We clearly need to be doing something differently and we need to start taking action now. 

Leveraging philanthropy and individual giving – what or who’s got to give?

While there are a few ‘centres of excellence’, policy levers for the COVID-19 response – on average – have widely not been adequately designed or implemented to leverage philanthropy and giving, and we have even seen in a few states some regressive moves that infringe on the operating environment for civil society. At the same time we are still seeing an increased interest in philanthropy and giving (e.g. on EU level), despite this being somewhat instrumentalist and more focused on specific sectors and cause areas (such as health). But we have also seen a lot of positive developments. The UK and Ireland for example introduced tailored stimulus packages and match-funding for private donations. Italy introduced specific tax incentives for charitable donations targeted at tackling the crisis and Belgium has introduced income tax deductions for gifts-in-kind to hospitals. 

Public authorities across many countries started to use a more flexible and trust-based approach to funding and reporting, which could signal a moment to take forward improvements in the civil society operating environments longer-term. We are collecting a repository of good and bad examples across various policy levers from different countries in this framework

Where to go from here?

We all know the cliché that when there is a crisis there is an opportunity. Our task now is to turn this opportunity of temporary interest in philanthropy into a more permanent reality, and define a clearer role for it and civil society vis-a-vis the state. Instead of retrofitting wider economic bailouts to CSOs, governments should learn the lesson to take note of CSO needs, legal forms, operating and mixed-income models early on when designing tailored policy measures. Philanthropy should be leveraged as a strategic partner in this endeavour – rather than being left without guidance to identify “the deserving” and fill any gaps – with multi-stakeholder partnerships, and incentives to leverage a corporate response. 

Beyond just raising this additional resource, questions are emerging on the effective and equitable distribution of funds, spotlighting lacking or underfunded civil society infrastructure. The case for long-term vision and preparedness, mechanisms for collaboration, foresight and resilience in philanthropy must be made now, as the cost is borne by the most vulnerable in society. Which parts of civil society are being seen? Who will be left? Can we afford to take chances given the challenging insights around CSO survival?  (eg: refer CAF America and CAF’s polling).

At CAF, we are keen to find answers to these questions while recognising the importance of the work being done in parallel by other experts and organisations around similar issues.  Our discussions to date have focused on Europe and we welcome the opportunity to share with and learn from our global colleagues and peers.

How must we be better prepared? And, importantly, what are the root causes to address (e.g. weaknesses and low resilience on the side of some CSOs, exacerbated by an unclear understanding of the role and value of civil society and philanthropy on the side of governments) so we are not left fighting symptoms?

We see our work as part of a continuing and evolving exchange with interested stakeholders. Please get in touch and do share your good and bad practice examples in this framework. 

The National policy responses for philanthropy and civil society across Europe in the context of COVID-19 report by CAF can be accessed HERE.


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Michael Mapstone, Director of International, Charities Aid Foundation (CAF)

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