Interview with Rosa Gallego: “We cannot but need to address the climate challenge. Foundations are responsible citizens of this world”

Interview

In this interview, Rosa Gallego (Spanish Association of Foundations)
discusses the role of philanthropy in tackling climate change, philanthropy ecosystem developments, community philanthropy movement and her personal story.

“I think the indicators are so clear now that people cannot look anywhere else to avoid the problem. If we do not address the climate emergency now, where we will be in 10 years? Foundations are citizens of this world, and we are responsible for the impact we have on the environment by looking at what we are doing and what we can do to contribute in a positive way to tackle climate change.” In this interview, Rosa shares her thoughts on the role of philanthropy in addressing the climate crisis, the developments within the philanthropy ecosystem in Europe and Spain, her commitment towards the community philanthropy movement in Spain, the differences between US and European philanthropy, her passions and personal journey.

By Dr. Hanna Stähle, Michelle Rossi and Karalyn Gardner

What is your personal life story, what values have shaped you as an individual?

I come from a very small family. It’s a family of very hard-working and honest people with great respect for others. This deeply impacted who I am. My parents have always encouraged me to study and to get a university degree to improve my opportunities, I am the first person in my family to have one. 

One of the biggest opportunities I had was receiving an Erasmus scholarship to study in the Netherlands. Besides Portugal, this was the first foreign country I visited at the age of 22. This experience enhanced my curiosity and fascination for international work and the possibilities we are given by collaborating at a larger scale and learning from others. 

Any particular inspiring moment that you would like to share? Have you met someone who made a difference?

I am always very impressed by humble people that take others very seriously and listen to them even if they are extraordinarily wise. One of the persons I admire is Rien van Gendt

When I started working at the AEF, during my first EFC conference, I listened to him talking about the governance of foundations, and I was quite impressed by his knowledge. He is not only highly intelligent, wise and has great expertise, but he is also very curious and keen to share his knowledge with humbleness and when he commits to do something he never fails to do so.

You have been working for over 20 years with the Association of Spanish Foundations (AEF). How has the sector evolved in these years; what trends have emerged?

“As a membership association, you can move the sector along by advancing certain topics.”

The sector has changed enormously, so it has society in Spain, and we have been the direct witnesses of this at AEF through our near 850 members. I see three key trends and developments emerge:

  • The first one is how foundations have professionalised their activities and management. Running a foundation implies two distinct aspects: you need to know the theme you are working on, but you also need a very strong organisational management able to comply with several legal obligations and administrative requirements. We have seen a huge improvement in that.
  • The second aspect is that foundations have become aware of how important is to communicate their work to the public. I will bring you the example of how the AEF has encouraged its members to put their annual accounts on their websites to bring transparency and support the reputation and trust of the sector. This demonstrates that, as a membership association, you can move the sector along by advancing certain topics. 
  • The third element is cooperation. The meaning of cooperation has changed within the sector: it started as cooperation among foundations, but, in the last years, it has shifted towards more enhanced cooperation with other sectors. In more concrete terms, especially when it comes to cooperating with the private sector, foundations several years ago would essentially look for economic resources to support their programmes, while now, they look for partnerships in which each institution, foundation, and company, agree on the best way each of them can contribute to a project that will benefit society. 

It is important to relate this development with the changes in our societies, with citizens increased concerns on new topics and with increased interest in collaboration.

If you look now at the European level, what trends and developments have you seen within the philanthropy ecosystem?

We have become much broader in the scope of what we do at the legislative level: we are not only concerned about those regulations affecting foundations because they are foundations, but we have moved one step higher to have a voice in those spheres of society where foundations can act, such as education, environment, culture, gender equity, racial justice, etc. Foundations are finding their place in these domains, engaging with other stakeholders outside of the sector and becoming more sophisticated in the topics they deal with.”

It is similar to what we have observed in Spain. When I look at what we as support organisations were concerned with some 15 years ago, and what key issues are now, it mirrors the shift in focus at the foundation level.  At the time, most of us, support organisations, were what can be defined as “transactional organisations”, to which members paid a fee to get a service, as everyone faced similar challenges and needed to learn about basic administrative things such as: how to prepare an annual report, file taxes, etc. This had to do with, among other things, the need to comply with the growing legal and fiscal regulation requirements towards philanthropy. 

Now the role of philanthropy infrastructure organisations has changed a lot, and this is also because foundations have changed too. We have become much broader in the scope of what we do at the legislative level: we are not only concerned about those regulations affecting foundations because they are foundations, but we have moved one step higher to have a voice in those spheres of society where foundations can act, such as education, environment, culture, gender equity, racial justice, etc. Foundations are finding their place in these domains, engaging with other stakeholders outside of the sector and becoming more sophisticated in the topics they deal with.

PEX has been important in creating a platform for fostering connections and enabling philanthropy networks to bring new topics to the table and move forward as a sector.

You have been witnessing and co-creating the birth of PEX and now you have been elected in the first democratically elected PEX Co-Creation Council. Could you comment on the role of PEX and where you see it in the philanthropy ecosystem in Europe? How do you see its role in the community in the future?

An organisation must take risks. If you do not take risks, you cannot make big leaps in what you are doing.”

PEX is a brilliant idea. PEX is the realisation of the ecosystem view of the philanthropic sector in Europe that WINGS has been highlighting in its research for several years. Dafne has dared to turn this thinking into reality. Dafne was well-known, respected in the sector, innovative and, I want to really emphasise this, able to take the risk to do it. An organisation must take risks. If you do not take risks, you cannot make big leaps in what you are doing. 

The ecosystem needs a place to meet, interact and see how diverse the sector is. If not, we can lose opportunities, connections, and inspiration. PEX provides this space!

Looking back at the evolution of the PEXcommunity in this almost two-year journey, what have been your key learnings? What must be celebrated and what have been the failures? 

We are very good at reacting to crises. Both PEX and individual organisations were very quick to respond to the pandemic by giving support to immediate needs and keeping people connected during the worst days of one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime. “We are together going through” this was the signal and the offer. 

A key learning is how important was that the community had already been formed. Having had the first PEXforum in person, we managed to build a shared idea of what PEX was meant to be and what it could achieve. Those were solid bases in which activity continued since travelling in person had been stopped.

But overall, the greatest success is to have created a new space that did not exist before in which shared interests have developed into different ways: working groups, publications, webinars, etc. that have allowed us to work on issues in a collaborative way. We have succeeded in a blended and flexible approach that surpass the “identity” of the organisations participating and harness the knowledge and capacity to work of membership associations, networks, individual foundations and donors. 

This has never happened in Europe before at this scale in our sector, and it’s proving a source of collective intelligence. A very exciting example is the Philanthropy Coalition for Climate. The PEXforum in Madrid was the place where the idea started and less than 2 years later, we are connected and coordinated to work at the national, regional, and international levels, as it has never been done before in our field. 

PEX has worked as a connector on different levels, as a source of inspiration and shared knowledge to make efficient use of scarce resources, using its flexible, participatory, and collaborative approach. 

Regarding failures, I would not yet call it one, but I mention two very distinctive topics to be aware of. The first one is that PEX can lose its flexible way of working and transform existing initiatives into endless programmes. The second one is that there has to be strong participation of the community and if that stops being the case for certain projects, we have to be pragmatic and stop what may cease to be an energizer of the community. 

The climate crisis is one of the biggest challenges of our time. Yet only 2% of philanthropic giving goes to climate. How do you see the role of philanthropy in addressing the climate crisis?

I think the indicators are so clear now that people cannot look anywhere else to avoid the problem. If we do not address the climate emergency now, where we will be in 10 years? Foundations are citizens of this world, and we are responsible for the impact we have on the environment by looking at what we are doing and what we can do to contribute in a positive way to tackle climate change.”

Before the pandemic, there was a barrier for foundations to work on this topic together, especially for Spanish foundations, not so active in international activities but for the last year and half meetings are taking place online, resources are being shared and this has democratised the process, gathered and involved a diverse group of people in the conversation.

The role of philanthropy in tackling climate change is very well expressed in the pillars of the several commitments that have been issued and signed by foundations in the last months, and that are all part of the International Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change:

  • educate and learn
  • commit resources
  • integrate a climate lens in programmes
  • select investments of endowments and assets aligning them with the principles of implementing a rapid and just transition to a net-zero economy
  • take action to minimise the impact of operations
  • exercise influence and advocate for the cause and do so on a transparent way
  • transparency

These are pillars of action that can be easily adopted by foundations working in any thematic field. It is of paramount importance that foundations understand that this is not anymore, a topic only for foundations working on the field of environment and climate, it is a shared responsibility for all!

We have talked about collaboration at the beginning, and you have said this is one of the trends emerging at both the national and European levels. This summer, the European Commission has launched the Fit for 55 packages, following the announcement of the new EU Green Deal in 2019. How do you consider collaboration with policymakers for philanthropy?

Philanthropic organisations are now considered a specific actor of civil society. The sector is very diverse, and now, it is important that, independently of their focus of action, all foundations acknowledge this role and step up.”

We have made significant progress in very little time on the EU’s perception of philanthropy. Philanthropic organisations are now considered a specific actor of civil society. The sector is very diverse, and now, it is important that, independently of their focus of action, all foundations acknowledge this role and step up.

What do you think about the community philanthropy movement? This has been a high priority topic on our agenda and there have been a lot of developments. Tell us about your passion here.  

“There is a specific and valuable knowledge behind how you give money to social organisations to contribute to social change, and this relies on the knowledge of community foundations.”

Fifteen years ago, when I attended a peer exchange event of WINGS in Washington, I met Monica Patten, CEO of Community Foundations of Canada. I was impressed by her explanation of what a community foundation is: a philanthropic institution within a specific territory that gathers resources, seeks opportunities, and gets people interacting in different areas of interest for that territory. Most foundations only work in their field of action without seeing connections with others. This is a Eureka moment in which I realised that philanthropy and foundations can work on the basis of a territory and with the scope on numerous topics. 

I came back to Spain and started talking about this foundation model, but the sector was sceptical that this could be applied to Spain. I kept studying the phenomenon, witnessing how community foundations were raising in countries without any tradition of this model, like Romania, Italy, Germany, Czech Republic, and France. 

Community foundations are institutions that provide community leadership, identify assets that can serve to solve existing needs, and raise community philanthropy and solidarity to channel it to grassroots organisations. In Spain, we have a very well-developed social sector, there is a missing link among them and donors at the local level and we also lack institutions that identify opportunities and assets in a community and put them at the service of grassroots organisations. The community leadership role should be improving coordination among actors, being them public, private, non-profit and donors, in acting with a territorial lens. Also, it should offer donors enhanced opportunities to make their philanthropic or solidarity actions more strategic and impactful.  The main challenge is to educate on the importance to build resilient institutions, able to play a role in the medium and long term to gather knowledge and strengthen the sector.

Last week, I was talking with a businessman, owning a small company, who wanted to donate 20.000 euros/year to the non-profit sector in his area. He told me that after many years he realised there is a specific and valuable knowledge behind how you give money to social organisations to contribute to social change, and this relies on the knowledge of community foundations. He said, “we were the ATM, now we are part of the programme”. If people start feeling to be part of the projects and their communities, with the support of community foundations, many things will change.

One thing of great interest for us is what is going on in the USA where the sector is much more developed and has a long tradition of giving.  In 2020, you joined the Board of Candid, former GuideStar and Foundation Center. What has been your experience so far? What are the differences between US and European philanthropy? What are the similarities? What can we learn from Candid in terms of data collection and analysis? 

I think it is hard to compare these two different realities. There is a big difference: Europe is not a country; the United States is. This may sound obvious, but there is a tendency to say that the philanthropic sectors are equivalent in size, but European philanthropy is fragmented and most of the European foundations do not feel they are interacting in the European space. It is also important to emphasise that the tradition of giving in Europe, though very old, is different to the foundation movement in the US: the first golden age of American philanthropy came at the beginning of the XX century in a very specific society that was very different from the realities of most European countries at that time.

In the USA, foundations’ connections are stronger, and the support ecosystem is much more developed. This is since it serves a much larger constituency but also because a significant number of foundations understand the value of infrastructure and how much this contributes to increase the impact of their own work.

Candid is a good example of that. The Foundation Center was set in the mid-1950s by several foundation leaders to create a “strategic gathering place for knowledge about foundations,” positing that transparency would be the best defence against congressional inquiries about private foundation activities and spending. This was an exercise of transparency and visibility for the sector which gave the chance to show what foundations were doing and make their activities understood by broader society. The evolution of this exercise of transparency, now, is not to tell what the sector is, but what it is happening, what are the gaps, trends and how it can work in a better way. Candid is no longer a database but a knowledge producer that informs what the philanthropic sector can do. This is what makes Candid a completely different organisation from its predecessors. 

European philanthropy should learn from this that investing in these kinds of organisations helps in bringing knowledge, information, connections and, thus, increasing the potential of the sector.

If you were to give advice to your younger self, what would it be? What would you recommend young women working in philanthropy?

Do not be scared and take risks. This is something I have always struggled to overcome, but when I look back, I think, “this was not that difficult, why did I doubt that I could do that?”. Be empowered and self-confident!

rosa gallego primer plano 4 edited

Rosa Gallego is Director for International Relations and Community Foundations at the Spanish Association of Foundations (AEF). Since September 2020, she is in the lead of the program to support the creation of community foundations, in collaboration with the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and Daniel&Nina Carasso Foundation. She currently serves as a member of the Board of Trustees of Candid. Between 2015 and 2020 she has been a member of the Board of Directors of WINGS and, from 2009 to 2017, she chaired Dafne. Previously to the foundation sector, she worked in the education field at the American Field Service in Spain and UK and in responsible tourism as Secretary-General at International Young NatureFriends in Brussels. She holds a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from Complutense University and an Advanced Management Programme from Esade Business School. She studied International Business at the Hanzehogeschool in Groningen (Netherlands) as an Erasmus grantee.

Find Rosa on Twitter @irosagallego and LinkedIn