Delphine Moralis, EFC: “Today’s crisis calls for strong leadership that focuses on connections, on building bridges, on purpose”

Interview

Interview

In September 2020, Delphine Moralis became the first female CEO of the European Foundation Centre (EFC). She brings a vast experience of working in the non-profit sector and a unique vision of strong leadership. In this conversation, she shared with us how her sons see her job, her thoughts on partnership with the EU and her hopes for a joined-up European philanthropy umbrella organisation.

by Dr. Hanna Stähle and Karalyn Gardner

Read here two other interviews in our series on female leadership in European philanthropy:

“I have to warn you, I am really tired – my 8-year-old son woke us up at 2 AM last night, in tears, realising he had forgotten to do his French homework. Hence, none of us slept,” Delphine said, laughing, and this is how our conversation began.

What is it like, as a working mother, juggling parenthood and a demanding leadership position in these challenging times?

I think it is a struggle for many working parents and it requires permanent planning and a focus on efficiency and effectiveness in everything you do. On a day-to-day basis, this can be quite a challenge. If you want to be an engaged parent, you have to juggle many things at the same time. Having the privilege of holding a leadership position, I want to champion being a mother, while also being the best leader I can be for my organisation. I am hoping that, with other parents out there who are juggling similar challenges, we can set the tone for an empathic, flexible leadership style that allows a diverse group of people to contribute while finding their personal balance as well. And for me, it is also a chance to show my sons what it means to contribute to society, to work in a mission-driven and values-based environment and to do something that you love. I am hopeful that this will somehow be inspiring for them as they grow up. And meanwhile, my sons are a source of daily joy and they always keep me grounded.

The role of leaders is changing:  the recent Edelman Trust Barometer demonstrates a crisis in global leadership, as people no longer trust political, societal, even religious, leaders. What are your thoughts on this? 

Today, we are experiencing so many crises at the same time. People are faced with a situation in which information is no longer trustworthy at face value. This is discomforting. Global leaders have, over the past years, increasingly been pushing an agenda of fear, rather than hope, an agenda of division, rather than an agenda of unity. And that at a time when the world is facing a pandemic affecting everyone’s life in every possible way. Today’s crisis calls for strong leadership that focusses on connections, on building bridges, on purpose. This is a style of leadership that I have always believed in as I have seen what it can do when people are given the opportunity to excel, to talk through conflict, to have a healthy dialogue around their opposing opinions. Leaders need to grasp the opportunity of the crisis and put a more humane face on what it means to work together. We often approach people from the perspective of their job description rather than from the perspective of who they are as a person. I think we could do so much more if we took the person out of the shadow, if we looked at the richness and diversity of what people are willing and excited to contribute. Once you take this approach, of putting people at the centre of your relationship with them, trust becomes easier, more sustainable and organisations become more resilient. 

Global leaders have, over the past years, increasingly been pushing an agenda of fear, rather than hope, an agenda of division, rather than an agenda of unity. And that at a time when the world is facing a pandemic affecting everyone’s life in every possible way. Today’s crisis calls for strong leadership that focuses on connections, on building bridges, on purpose.

You have spoken about the importance of getting to know individuals, beyond their job titles. What is your personal story, Delphine, what values drive you as a person?

I have always been someone who brings people together, ever since I was a little girl.  I didn’t have the easiest of childhoods, in part because of losing my mum at a young age, but going through this hardship has, I believe, both built my resilience and put me on the lookout for the wellbeing of those around me. A lot of my happiness comes from a shared sense of understanding with other people, as colleagues and co-workers contributing to a common mission. Other than that, I studied philosophy at University which allowed me to develop an ability to connect the dots and to see potential in the bigger picture. I then studied European Studies and this too has shaped who I am; I am a firm believer in Europe, and I think that multilateralism is the only way to tackle some of the big questions out there. The experiences I have since had professionally with Missing Children Europe and Terre des Hommes, and the opportunities I have had to work with inspiring people who lead with humility, boldness and vision have further strengthened my belief in the fact that positive change is possible, even amidst the unending complexity of things.

European philanthropy has witnessed some important shifts in the last months. Roberta Bosurgi joined EVPA as its first female CEO, Kirsten Hommelhoff became the first female CEO of the Association of German Foundations and Carola Carazzone was elected as Chair of Dafne. Is this indicative of a change in the philanthropic sector? 

Yes, I think this does indicate a change. The many conversations I have had on this topic so far confirm this. The mere fact that you are asking this question is testimony that female leadership is not considered to be the norm. I was in fact surprised by how much emphasis was put on the fact that I am a woman. I hope that we can evolve to a situation where the gender of a leader is a non-issue. There is also, more broadly, an increasing sectoral interest in making equity, diversity and inclusion a reality, which goes far beyond gender issues alone. I think we do need to continue on this journey of making diversity, equity and inclusion a reality, which requires us to take an honest look at who sits around the table, how we recruit people and what kind of opportunities we offer. I don’t think we should shy away from systemic conversations around power. Thinking through what this means for us as a sector will better equip us to realise our missions. 

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Delphine Moralis, CEO of the EFC. This photo was used with the permission of the EFC.

I was in fact surprised by how much emphasis was put on the fact that I am a woman. I hope that we can evolve to a situation where the gender of a leader is a non-issue. There is also, more broadly, an increasing sectoral interest in making equity, diversity and inclusion a reality, which goes far beyond gender issues alone. I think we do need to continue on this journey of making diversity, equity and inclusion a reality, which requires us to take an honest look at who sits around the table, how we recruit people and what kind of opportunities we offer.

How would you go about discussing these issues? 

I think it starts with putting the right policies in place in an organisation and developing a culture that champions gender equality – and equity all-together. You don’t however need to be a female to champion gender equality and uphold an approach that brings the full spectrum of engaged people together in conversation. It is also, as a leader, about being brave enough to stand up for what you believe in. 

What excites you about your new role? 

First and foremost, I am excited about the potential for impact the sector has. Philanthropy is such a strong force for good and there are so many challenges that we need to address together. While we are of course a smaller player in the grand scheme of things, we have a unique ability to act as a catalyst for change. Secondly, I am excited to work with such a fantastic group of members and colleagues. Every conversation that I have had so far strengthened my belief that philanthropy brings people together with a deep commitment to the mission that they serve and the vision that they uphold. This is a great opportunity. I am, lastly, also excited and humbled to join an organisation with such a strong legacy. It is wonderful how the EFC has become a lighthouse for the sector. Alongside this, I am excited about the accelerated journey of transformation the sector – and with that, the EFC – is taking, which has been strengthened by the changes in leadership across the sector, by philanthropy’s amazing response to the crisis and by the collaboration that is happening between Dafne and the EFC.

How did you see philanthropy when you were still working in the non-profit sector?

In my previous roles, I had the opportunity to work with several foundations and I found these conversations profoundly enriching because I realised that foundations have so much more to bring than financial means.  I however believe that the broader philanthropic sector, seen from the perspective of NGOs, looks quite opaque and difficult to navigate. More can be done in terms of building trust and dialogue not only between individual funders and their grantees but between the sectors. Access to funding is an existential question for all NGOs and many decisions they make are driven by funding opportunities and application or reporting requirements imposed by the funders, with these requirements not always covering the full reality or need on the ground. In addition, NGOs who happen to have a privileged relationship with a funder will in many cases and for understandable reasons guard that relationship quite jealously. This means that the right decisions are not always taken which is a missed opportunity for everyone. I would love for philanthropic organisations to break that cycle, continue the shift to more trust-based granting and push for more alliances between NGOs so that we focus on the impact instead of individual organisations financial needs or on the (at times) too rigid application or reporting obligations. 

I however believe that the broader philanthropic sector, seen from the perspective of NGOs, looks quite opaque and difficult to navigate. More can be done in terms of building trust and dialogue not only between individual funders and their grantees but between the sectors. 

A more regular dialogue between the philanthropic sector and NGOs would help address issues which remain unsolved. From the perspective of child rights for instance, there are pockets of violations that remain widespread, underfunded and extremely difficult to tackle, such as violence against children: 1.7 billion children are affected by violence worldwide. If you unpack this further, in terms of child sexual abuse for instance, boys make up 30 percent of the victims but only 3% of the funding that goes towards tackling the sexual abuse of children is directed towards boys. This shows how many conversations need to be had with funders about the real needs that we see on the ground.

What is your take on this dilemma that philanthropy faces, looking both at the vast challenges ahead and the limited resources of the sector?

We need to make sure that the opportunities are there for philanthropic giving to increase. There is also more we can do in terms of thinking outside the box, becoming bolder donors that bring funds, knowledge, expertise and connections, and being patient actors. These elements allow us to be very relevant, even if our resources are limited. 

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Delphine Moralis, CEO of the EFC. This photo was used with the permission of the EFC.

What opportunities do you see for advocacy and being an ally of the EU?

If you look at the commitments of the von der Leyen Commission, there is so much that aligns with the philanthropic sector. This is an amazing opportunity for us to pull together, and for the EU not to miss. I am a firm believer in cross-sectoral partnerships and now is the time to deliver on this. We need to make sure the barriers to philanthropic giving are reduced and that we unleash the potential of philanthropy, especially in the context of the current crisis. And it is great to see that the momentum for breaking down barriers is building, with more EU stakeholders now aligning with the agenda of a Single Market for philanthropy.

How do you want to communicate philanthropy to policymakers so that they better recognise its contribution?

I think that like many sectors, we too easily assume that others understand the narrative we are used to hearing within our own echo chamber ecosystem. We need to look at ourselves from the outside in: what does philanthropy mean for those who are not part of our family, and use this perspective as the starting point of the conversation. We need to think about how we tell that story and equip ourselves with a narrative which is understandable to and resonates with the people we want to partner with.  This story of philanthropy in the sense of how it benefits society is perhaps stronger than the one relating to the means we put to achieving change.

When you think about the challenges and opportunities ahead in the coming, very critical decade, what vision do you have?

The world is going through critical times, with many crises – some of them existential for humankind and everything around us – being closely interconnected. At the same time, I do believe there is an opportunity to build back better, with recent political shifts, with a generation of young people who are calling for change and who hold us accountable, with new solidarity arising everywhere. As a sector, we need to put the urgency of the challenges out there before our individual organisational interests. This is also particularly important for the developments between EFC and Dafne. My vision for our new organisation is that we will be able to catalyse the sector to deliver on its collective mission. We need to remain close to our members, both individual foundations and national associations, to make sure we listen, understand their needs and help them in building collaboration, leveraging knowledge, advocating for necessary change, thinking ahead and innovating. We have, especially as a joined-up organisation, an opportunity to be a bridge-builder in the ecosystem and beyond and, with that, to be a thought-leader for the sector that remains self-critical, always learning and improving, and that remains humble in the way that it delivers on its mission. Together, we can be such a strong voice, and that at a time when the world needs philanthropy to be at its best.

We have, especially as a joined-up organisation, an opportunity to be a bridge-builder in the ecosystem and beyond and, with that, to be a thought-leader for the sector that remains self-critical, always learning and improving, and that remains humble in the way that it delivers on its mission.