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The Makings of Catalytic Philanthropy

In many German cities children with a “Migrationshintergrund”, in other words those with an immigrant background, make up 50% of most classrooms. Evidence, such as the latest PISA study, tells us time and again that our school systems are often failing to graduate this part of the population, let alone prepare them for jobs. It is a daunting challenge that will shape German society for years to come. However, integrating such a diverse set of cultures and skills into the fabric of our society is also a wonderful opportunity. The question is, can philanthropy, with its limited resources, play a role in unlocking opportunities for these children and their families?

I think so. I recently had the opportunity to speak at a convening of foundations working on issues of migration and integration. Sponsored by the Bundesverband Deutscher Stiftungen, Germany’s association of foundations (Europe’s oldest and largest of such bodies) and two leading German foundations, the Robert Bosch Stiftung and Stiftung Mercator, the day-long event brought together 20 or so foundations to discuss what they could learn from mistakes and failures in their efforts. The title of the event is already telling about the spirit of this group: they are open to admitting that past efforts may not be achieving change at scale. A new way of operating is needed.

Throughout the day, the foundations discussed how to move from funding small, innovative projects, to fundamentally addressing the issue at national and local levels. They spoke about new tools that would be needed, the need to come together around collective impact strategies, how to break down institutional barriers that would prevent their foundations from embracing a new modus operandi, and the importance of a learning-oriented evaluation culture in all of this. They left the event with a series of concrete action steps to work on together, for example:

  • creating a tool-kit for the field of lessons learned by foundations tackling this issue
  • developing a check-list to help foundations address issues of integration across all of their program areas
  • combining resources to fund an innovative national advocacy campaign.

I left the convening feeling highly energized. I look forward to seeing what this group of dedicated foundations comes up with over the course of the next year.

Valerie Bockstette

Former Managing Director, FSG