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Optimizing Institutional Philanthropy

Global philanthropy is at an important crossroads. Seldom, if ever before, has a similar confluence of worldwide need, global wealth, and rapid innovation created an opportunity for institutional philanthropy to become such a powerful force for change and progress around the world. Swift and concerted effort is required if this potential is to be fully realized.

In light of this opportunity, the Salzburg Global Seminar recently launched a multi-year initiative on Optimizing Institutional Philanthropy for the 21st Century to imagine and identify those organizations, structures, policies and approaches that will create the most effective philanthropic institutions for tomorrow’s world. “We believe the moment is right for philanthropic leaders to identify actions they can take, in combination as well as singly, to reset agendas and stimulate more effective regional and global action,” said Stephen Salyer, President & CEO of the Salzburg Global Seminar.

The first meeting of the Initiative took place in December 2008*. Twenty-five experts and thought leaders from different geographic regions came together in Salzburg, Austria to identify constraints to innovation and bold practice in philanthropy and the major challenges philanthropy will be called on to address in the next 20 years, and posit how philanthropic institutions can best meet these accelerating needs. Participants focused on practical interventions that would stimulate the system and support increased resource flows.

There was consensus that institutions are not functioning optimally, constrained by policies, accepted practice, and legal and structural limitations. There was a call for foundations and other philanthropic institutions to work collaboratively across the sector as well as beyond it. While there are new actors challenging old practice (including new philanthropists, women-focused philanthropy, and Diaspora philanthropy to name a few), and new forms of philanthropy have been pioneered, traditional institutions, and so many of the structures and policies that guide them, remain relatively stagnant.


Drawing on just a few of the innovative and strategic ideas put forward, a framework for action has been developed for the Initiative beginning with the following priority threads.

  1. Philanthropic Futures Group: Take up fundamental questions and challenge current assumptions - including mix of grants, loans, and other investments vehicles, governance and accountability models, annual spend rates, advocacy, tax obligations, etc. - regarding the role, structure, and relationship of philanthropy to the societies in which it is chartered and in which it operates.
  2. Global Philanthropic Capital Project: Assess the feasibility of identifying methodologies and information systems that would better track philanthropic capital on a global basis, linking existing efforts in different regions. The project is being developed with The Philanthropic Initiative and will connect this work to other efforts underway. An international working group will be convened to develop the methodology for such an information platform, and devise a concrete work plan for the project moving forward.
  3. Cross-border/Cross-sector Strategy: Incubate and evaluate, across the SGS program, ideas for cross-border and cross-sector strategy, as well as ways to leverage institutions and groups to become more potent philanthropic players. Two examples of this activity are a seminar in 2009, in cooperation with the Women's Funding Network and with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, on leveraging philanthropic investment in women and girls; and an international meeting of public and private donors, with support from the Knight Foundation, on bridging development and independent media investment strategies.

Additionally, the initial meeting catalyzed a project on the “Ease of Global Giving” under the guidance of the Network of European Foundations’ Mercator Fund. The project will research the current state of laws and regulation with an eye to rules that inhibit cross-border philanthropy and to potential changes that could ease cross-border institutional philanthropic investment; and convene an expert working group to make recommendations to advance a positive and enabling regulatory environment for global institutional philanthropic work.

*The Initiative has received support from the The F.B. Heron Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

The initial meeting, held December 11 – 15, 2008, received additional financial support from The Atlantic Philanthropies and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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