While foundations contribute to promoting democracy with the work they undertake, as private organizations working for the common good, they also have “democratic” legitimacy. Examining in depth the relationships between philanthropy and democracy was the object of a study, commissioned by the Fondation de France Philanthropy Observatory and conducted by two independent researchers: Nicolas Duvoux, a sociologist specialized in French philanthropy, and Sylvain Lefèvre a policy scientist based in Montréal. The study was presented to experts, on December 7. Here is a brief review of the key lessons learnt.
“There is a constitutional tension in philanthropy, which lies somewhere between the source of private funding and its destination, that is, the common good,” explains Sylvain Lefèvre, highlighting how this tension has resonated very differently depending on the period. At a time when huge issues linked to the climate crisis are being tackled, as well as the rise in inequality and a direct challenge to the democratic model, it is important to reflect on the role and legitimacy of philanthropy. According to Axelle Davezac, the Chief Executive Officer of Fondation de France, “it is critical to ask ourselves about legitimacy when working in a foundation. It requires both humility and responsibility. How can we build a collegiate model to make good decisions and identify the most effective projects?”. She says that “it can only be done with a cross-cutting approach bringing together all those involved in our work. It represents a major shift of stance and a guarantee of effectiveness, which requires not being in instructor mode, but promoting continuous learning.”
Sylvain Lefèvre has also called on “philanthropy to reinforce its democratic legitimacy thanks to strong involvement from those most concerned, assessing and debating its mission and thinking of common capital as a use case.”
Philanthropy, government and civil society: a kaleidoscope of relationships
The legitimacy of philanthropy is also based on the essence of the topics it wishes to work on, and the way it does so. Working together with governments on public policies, “philanthropy is the child of society to which it belongs. The forms it will take are strongly linked to the type of government in which it operates,” highlights Nicolas Duvoux. It can act as “checks and balances if a cause it supports isn’t progressing very fast.” He cites a French example concerning the difficulty in implementing public policies that combat discrimination effectively. Open Society Foundations has stepped up to address this problem and demonstrated the force of “looks-based checks” (contrôle au faciès).
He also highlights that one of philanthropy’s specificities is that "it occurs over the long term. It doesn’t have to meet short business or electoral deadlines, nor does it make it an instrument for preserving resources, but instead a tool box for reforms and innovations in society.”
Thanks to a wide range of projects, philanthropy players can explore new territories, experiment new solutions and take risks.
To read the study (in French) download “Philanthropie et Démocratie enjeux et perspectives pour les fondations au XXIe siècle ?” (Philanthropy and democracy, challenges and outlook for foundations in the 21st century)