An unorthodox meeting becomes a 30-year partnership

This blog post originally appeared on the European Foundation Centre website.

One early morning in August 1990, Mott Foundation Chairman Bill White was on a tour bus in Krakow, Poland, while attending the Johns Hopkins Second Annual International Fellows in Philanthropy Conference. The trip was delayed, and he was stretched out on a pile of luggage in the back of the bus, trying to get some sleep. According to Bill, John Richardson was regaling the bus about a new organisation he was leading that would become the European Foundation Centre (EFC). John was doing a bit of impromptu fundraising for the EFC, which he said would bring together all of Europe. Persuaded by the vision — and in need of a little peace and quiet — Bill agreed to support the idea, and a decades-long partnership was born.

I’ve heard this story many times over the years, and while I wasn’t on that bus, I can absolutely picture this entertaining exchange. Although Bill claims he just wanted John to stop talking so he could sleep, I have no doubt he was earnest about his eagerness to help John realize his vision for the EFC. He’s always been very passionate about the need for and importance of strong, effective infrastructure for philanthropy. Bill had been around when the 1969 U.S. Tax Act was passed, which fundamentally changed the way U.S. foundations could operate. That experience underscored how vulnerable the philanthropy sector could be without strong infrastructure that could bring foundations together in common cause to learn, develop best practices and — most important — advocate on behalf of the sector. Today, with so many attacks and threats to philanthropy in countries around the world, the need for a resilient infrastructure is clearer than ever.

As we mark 30 years since the birth of the EFC and the fall of communism in Europe, we can also reflect on our own institutional history and the evolution of the Mott Foundation’s Civil Society program. In that same year, Mott launched its grantmaking to Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and Russia. The energy and enthusiasm that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall radiated throughout the philanthropic world and represented a historic opportunity for us to step up and partner with European philanthropy leaders to help foster civil society in CEE.

Supporting the EFC offered an opportunity for Mott to share our experiences and help the evolving European philanthropy sector start on strong footing — but it certainly wasn’t a one-sided deal. Bill knew EFC could be a critical partner to an American foundation looking to work in the region. Afterall, if we were going to be effective, we would need to learn all we could from our European counterparts, and EFC provided the needed space to forge those connections that would lead to successful philanthropic partnerships.

That chance meeting in Poland led to several fruitful partnerships that sparked innovation and encouraged solidarity with nonprofits and foundations in CEE. From the Orpheus Programme, which offered essential early technical assistance to emerging associations and support organisations throughout the region, to a small interest group that grew to become Grantmakers East Forum, EFC has shared knowledge, built capacity, and provided a vital cross-border platform for not only European — but also global philanthropy.

Looking ahead toward the next 30 years and beyond, strong partnership and collaboration will be more important than ever as we face the challenges ahead. The same sense of solidarity and connectedness that helped build and strengthen civil society in post-Cold War Europe, will be needed to push back on threats against the vibrant, open space for civic engagement that we’ve worked so hard to create.

We know all too well the pressure facing civil society in the United States, Europe, and communities and societies around the world. Philanthropies cannot take for granted our right to exist, the ability to do the work we do or the kind of trust we want others to invest in us. Which is why Mott remains focused on strengthening the advocacy efforts of EFC and other key global infrastructure organisations with the same enthusiasm Bill and John had in the early days. After all, we’d never want to see a world where civil society fades away because we didn’t do all we could to protect it.

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