Foundations see a bigger role to play in the future of cities

Warsaw city buses provided the transport for participants of the European Foundation Centre's conference this month. (Krzysztof Kuczyk/European Foundation Centre)

WARSAW, Poland — Combating nationalism, strengthening public institutions and re-discovering solidarity were the main topics of discussion when philanthropic leaders from across Europe and around the world gathered here this month.

But the future of cities was also part of the conversation — and in particular, what role foundations might consider playing in it.

The European Foundation Centre’s annual conference featured two panel discussions on cities. One focused on opportunities for foundations to partner with groups working on making cities safe and inclusive, particularly for women and children. The other highlighted opportunities at the intersection of the fights against climate change and inequality.

It’s a poignant time for the philanthropic sector to consider these questions. After a busy two years of diplomacy that produced a series of global agreements on climate change, sustainable development and urbanization, foundations are taking stock of what comes next. At the same time, government aid and other public-sector development funding is slowing down. That means groups looking to build stronger cities are increasingly seeking resources from philanthropy and the private sector.

Strong turnout for the two panels suggests a growing interest in funding work in cities. But lots of questions remain about how to find local partners and achieve at the city level what philanthropy craves most: impact.

Below are four takeaways from Warsaw, based on presentations from the two panel discussions and interviews with conference participants.

1. Cities represent a potential growth area for foundations

It’s likely that more philanthropy in the future will be directed toward work in cities — if only because so many more people will be living in them.

Roughly half the world’s population already lives in urban areas. That figure will be two-thirds by 2050, with most of that growth expected in developing countries. Anika van den Bergh, deputy director of ActionAid Netherlands, a global foundation that fights poverty and injustice, said rapid urbanization has “huge implications for everything we do”.

“It’s a shift over time,” van den Bergh said. “We see a big trend now with migration from rural to urban areas. So if we want to really engage with marginalized communities, then our work is going to be shifting more and more toward those urban areas.”

Part of the interest in cities comes from a growing sense that it’s easier to make change happen at city scale than at the national level.

[Read: Habitat III is ‘third act’ for growing philanthropic focus on cities]

“Within local governments everywhere in the world, you have really good grounds to test solutions,” said Sébastien Marie, the city of Paris’s “chief resilience officer” — a local-government position funded via the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities project.

“I would encourage [foundations] to work more closely with local governments, because the power of the cities is growing more and more,” Marie said. “The state level is stuck in diplomatic, economic and political issues, but on the local stage, elected officials are close to the inhabitants, close to the problems, close to the private sector. It’s more concrete. It’s more real to try solutions.”

“If we want to really engage with marginalized communities, then our work is going to be shifting more and more toward those urban areas.”

Anika van den Bergh
ActionAid Netherlands

To generate more interest in cities, the European Foundation Centre’s Funders’ Forum on Sustainable Cities is planning a September gathering in Copenhagen. The idea is to bring funders together to learn about urbanization, meet local officials from different cities, and explore ways foundations and local authorities can partner with each other.

Ali Khan, who manages the cities forum, told me the philanthropy sector still has a lot to learn in this area. Many of the European Foundation Centre’s members fund work in the cities where they’re based, Khan said, but they don’t necessarily identify themselves as contributing to the broader goal of sustainable urban development.

“The sustainable urban development aspect should be a given, but it’s not,” Khan said. “Even though foundations work at a local level and have impact in the city-region they work in, they don’t always look at it from that perspective. They don’t necessarily connect it to the local authority. They do what they’re doing without ever thinking of themselves as ‘urban actors’.”

2. Cities are a good venue to achieve multiple goals at the same time

The goal of creating more-sustainable cities dovetails nicely with the mission statements of many players in the philanthropy sector.

If your goal is combating climate change, you have to tackle it in the places where 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions come from. If you want to fight inequality, you have to look in cities, where the greatest concentrations of both poverty and wealth exist. Many core philanthropic causes — improving the lives of children, empowering women, bolstering civil society or supporting arts and culture — contain deeply urban dimensions.

That’s another reason foundations are increasingly focusing on cities: Because they’re great places to achieve dual outcomes.

Anne Skovbro of Realdania, a Danish philanthropic association whose work focuses on improving the quality of the built environment, cited several examples of this kind of thinking. Promoting energy efficiency in buildings doesn’t just reduce greenhouse-gas emissions but also allows families to spend less money on energy. Public transit improvements don’t just take cars off the roads but also ensure that people who can’t afford a car can get to work.

“When you look at climate solutions in the toolbox, some of them are very beneficial when it comes to social and economic issues, as well.”

Anne Skovbro

“When you look at climate solutions in the toolbox,” Skovbro said, “some of them are very beneficial when it comes to social and economic issues, as well.”

Likewise, Sonia Medina, executive director for climate change with the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, pointed to the foundation’s work with cities in China as examples of projects with integrated outcomes. The foundation worked with Energy Foundation China and mayors in 13 cities to develop sustainable city design principles that made it into the country’s latest five-year plan. They also worked with cities that are committed to peaking their local carbon emissions earlier than the government has pledged to do nationally, and collaborated with the city of Shenzhen on carbon pricing and air-quality legislation.

“I often get the question: ‘You’re a children’s foundation — why are you working on climate?’,” Medina said. “I always respond, ‘I don’t see how you can’t be working on climate if you care about children.’”

3. Partnerships are especially important — and challenging — in urban settings

If there are many goals that can be achieved in cities, there are also many stakeholders to engage — local authorities, NGOs, citizens groups, researchers, businesses and others who have a part in the urban future. Foundations working in cities inevitably need local partners.

For example, the Bernard van Leer Foundation has been partnering with local authorities in several countries to make cities more child-friendly, said Neil van der Meer, the foundation’s operations director. In Bhubaneswar, India, the foundation worked with the city planning body to set up centres within government to set policy, develop guidelines and train local officials in urban planning for healthy childhood development. In Istanbul, the foundation is supporting sub-municipal jurisdictions to gather and map data on where young children are located in order to improve play spaces and other family services where the needs are greatest.

[Read: Seeing Indian cities through the eyes of children]

“We’re always looking for partners — it’s in our DNA,” van der Meer told me. “It’s a complex problem that needs to be looked at from all the different angles, and you can best do that when you engage people from different thought patterns.”

“We’re always looking for partners — it’s in our DNA.”

Neil van der Meer
Bernard van Leer Foundation

Jesper Nygård, CEO of Realdania, said philanthropy must play the role of convener, to bring together the multiple parties necessary to solve complex urban problems. “I see our role as being a catalyst, to bring together civil society, the public sector and private sector, who in a lot of cases don’t cooperate,” Nygård said.

Working with many partners in complicated urban settings can be challenging, however. Van der Meer and van den Bergh presented a new project that’s just getting underway in Recife, Brazil, intended to improve public services in impoverished neighbourhoods and engage community members more deeply in urban planning. It’s a collaboration among ActionAid, the Bernard van Leer Foundation and the Oak Foundation, working closely with a half-dozen local NGOs that already engage with women, children and other groups in the city.

Collaborating in this way allows different partners to build on each others’ strengths. “Joining forces,” van den Bergh said, “is better than going it alone.” However, she acknowledged that big collaborations, particularly in complex urban environments where many political, economic and social interests converge, can be challenging. “Working in an alliance, as amazing as those six different organizations are in the work they’re doing — it’s also very complicated to get everybody on the same page,” she said.

4. The role of the Sustainable Development Goals is still emerging in philanthropy circles

There was not very much talk in Warsaw about the Sustainable Development Goals — that’s the U. N.’s global framework for coordinating efforts around ending poverty and hunger, combating inequality and disease, and building a more just and stable world. The SDGs are intended to get the world’s major decision-makers, philanthropy included, pushing in the same direction when it comes to development priorities.

A major selling point of the SDGs was that they are intended to be relevant across both the Global South and North. What’s more, cities are critical actors in implementing the goals. One of the 17 goals specifically aims to build “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” cities. And all of the others, in one way or another, touch on work that must happen at the city level.

At least in Europe, however, many foundations aren’t seeing it yet.

“In Europe, the SDGs are still seen as something for the developing world,” the European Foundation Centre’s Khan told me. “Many foundations say, ‘We don’t have anything against it, we believe it’s right, but we don’t see how it will change our work.’”

“We see [the SDGs] as a galvanizing force for philanthropy in the U. S. and around the world.”

Natalie Ross
Council on Foundations

By contrast, an effort in North America by the Council on Foundations appears to be stirring interest in the SDGs. The council has held SDGs-related events for the local philanthropic communities in the U. S. cities of Jacksonville, Little Rock, Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco. Natalie Ross, who heads the council’s international programme, told me the SDGs have been useful as a tool to spark a common conversation among foundations that work primarily in the United States and those who also do work in the developing world.

“What we found is the SDGs are really malleable,” Ross said. “They’re able to be made local and contextualized based on what’s going on within a specific place — whether a city, state, region, or country. We see them as a galvanizing force for philanthropy in the U. S. and around the world.”

While familiarity of the SDGs in the United States remains spotty, Ross said, she’s found it to be a framework that U. S. foundations can identify with. In each session, the 17 goals are posted on a wall, and participants post sticky notes next to thematic areas they are working on. The exercise gets them talking about who is funding what issues locally — and where the gaps are. Ross said the council is planning more events in cities around the United States, as well as one in Mexico City early next year.

Khan hopes the September meeting of foundations and local authorities in Copenhagen will stir up more interest in Europe. “We’re going to talk about local-authority-philanthropy partnerships, we’re going to give examples of interesting initiatives from different parts of the world, and we’re going to link that to the SDGs,” he said. “There’s growing interest, but there is a long way to go.”

(Disclosure: Travel costs in preparation of this article were paid for by the European Foundation Centre’s Funders’ Forum on Sustainable Cities.)

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary

Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.