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Creating a Value Base for Transparency in Europe
May 25, 2011

(Lisa Jordan is the executive director of the Bernard van Leer Foundation, based in the Netherlands. The mission of the foundation is to improve opportunities for children up to age eight who are growing up in socially and economically difficult circumstances. The foundation sees this both as a valuable end in itself and as a long-term means to promoting more cohesive, considerate, and creative societies with equal opportunities and rights for all.)

Lisa Jordan On the eve of the European Foundation Centre's Annual Meeting, I find myself musing over articles regarding issues of transparency and accountability. Helmut Anheier recently wrote an article in Alliance Magazine calling out European foundations for their lack of transparency and accountability ("Nagging issues for Europe's Foundations"). Gerry Salole, chief executive of the European Foundation Centre (EFC), and Luc Tayart de Borms, managing director of the Kind Baudouin Foundation, wrote an eloquent response in the same magazine issue, conceding some charges but also dispelling certain "myths" about the practices of European foundations.

We could actually benefit the most from sharing our basic information with each other because it helps all individual foundations to be more visible; it adds credibility and weight to our actions as a sector... These are not simple issues. With experience in the United States and Europe in prominent foundations and an avowed practitioner of transparency, I am constantly challenged by the complexity inherent in being transparent, never mind accountable. Here are a few examples that showcase that complexity:

Shared norms and values

The challenges we encounter with the principles of transparency and accountability are not unique to the philanthropy community; they cut across the whole of Europe and across every sector. Concepts that rise to the level of being norms require shared values, but it seems transparency and accountability are still being negotiated. I don't know what the view of Europe looks like from Spain or Germany, but from the Netherlands it is pretty apparent that European nations and peoples have not yet agreed on a normative transparency practice. The differences amongst cultures are very large, with the value of transparency assigned quite highly in places like the U.K., and privacy rights and the concomitant willingness to trust valued highly in other cultures. A comparison with the United States on these issues leads to unrealistic expectations because the U.S. has culturally shared national norms and values on transparency and accountability, as well as specific laws for the philanthropy sector to reinforce them. Europe has neither.

Just this week I bumped up against this issue when what I considered to be a "normal" transparency practice—listing how much money the Bernard van Leer Foundation has invested in each project supporting Roma children—was in fact not the shared norm amongst 12 European foundations all supporting Roma communities. Other types of information were shared but the level of investment, not. Shared norms and values are an essential first ingredient to greater transparency.

Defining the stakeholders

Defining the stakeholders whose needs could be met by greater transparency and accountability would be an important, persuasive argument for foundations in Europe to understand the value of creating a common information source about our work and, more critically, the rationale to invest in it. But, the stakeholders demanding greater transparency and accountability from European foundations are not readily identifiable. Is it the beneficiaries? The media? The national governments? These stakeholders continue to firmly identify and operate within a national context. National governments are demanding transparency within their own national borders. Beneficiaries, a primary stakeholder for any foundation, are themselves not identified as Europeans—an important condition to becoming a stakeholder in a European context. And the pan-European media like Euronews is not yet focusing on European civic stakeholders of any sort.

Oddly enough, the key stakeholder that comes to mind is European foundations. It is us. We could actually benefit the most from sharing our basic information with each other because it helps all individual foundations to be more visible; it adds credibility and weight to our actions as a sector; it makes us smarter in our daily actions as we can more easily share knowledge on common themes; and lastly, it keeps us from wasting scarce resources by eliminating duplication of efforts.

Moving forward

The place to watch for greater transparency is in foundation collaborations. The EFC Forum for Roma Inclusion as noted above has just begun to develop a shared database on projects supporting Roma communities. What information is considered "normal" to share becomes an immediate point of discussion and through that discussion standards are developed. Other collaborations like that spearheaded by Mama Cash on gender issues generate an immediate need and value for greater transparency.

Fortunately, we are all much better equipped today to actually improve our practice as technology gains and networks grow. The creation of the EFC and the Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe (DAFNE) and a common currency help to resolve many of the obstacles formerly making it difficult to gather and compare information across the continent. When we are able to develop common European philanthropic transparency practices we will be in a much better position to address transparency's big sister: accountability.

— Lisa Jordan

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About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
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    Foundation Center

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