European Day of Foundations and Donors 2020: Are foundations able to demonstrate their power and examine it?

Foundations should explore the power they hold more openly, says Kone Foundation’s Executive Director Anna Talasniemi in a discussion with Ulla Tuomarla, Vice Dean of the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Arts. The discussion was organised to highlight the European Day of Foundations and Donors on 1 October. Talasniemi will begin study leave at the start of next year, and Tuomarla will stand in for her. Overall, foundations should better highlight their role as opinion-leaders in society, Tuomarla says.

Anna Talasniemi: What do foundations look like to you from the point of view of academia? Let me get right to the point: what do you think they could do better?

Ulla Tuomarla: Of course, foundations and their importance are well known in academia. Their role and contribution to the financing of research in Finland is indisputable, as is the value of that contribution. Universities and foundations share common goals, such as supporting high-quality research.

The way foundations operate in all their heterogeneity, on the other hand, may seem a little secretive to those on the outside. That’s why I would encourage all foundations to both take charge of their role and better reflect that role as an opinion-leader in society. Foundations’ visibility and voices as social instigators should be strengthened.

Now I’m going to flip the question back to you. What do you think foundations could do more or better?

Talasniemi: I think you phrased it very well when you said that foundations should highlight their role as opinion-leaders more. Being an opinion leader has a direct link to power, and I believe that foundations should examine their own power more boldly and openly.

One of the aspects of exercising power in a responsible way is transparency. At Kone Foundation, we have striven to make the grant application and evaluation processes more transparent. We could do this more extensively, even while retaining the anonymity of the experts who evaluate the applications.

It would be fascinating to examine what Finnish foundations and Kone Foundation in particular could learn about the kind of work that is called, for example, participatory grantmaking or participatory philanthropy or, most recently, feminist philanthropy. These involve shifting the decision-making power over funding to the communities whose activities are being funded. This is thought to ensure the best use of the money.

We could consider the peer review of art and research where artists and researchers evaluate other artists’ and researchers’ applications one example of such grant work.

What kind of dialogue do you think funders need to have with research communities?

Tuomarla: Of course, it’s important for researchers to know where they can get funding for their research and what kind of research is funded by each funder and programme. This is particularly important in the early stages of a researcher’s career when they are not on the university’s payroll and don’t receive funding from a project lead by a university.

In order to better understand research funding as a system, it would be a good idea for foundations to participate in the debate on research funding taking place in various contexts and in political debate on research in general. It’s also important for researchers to be able to trust that grant processes are managed in a trustworthy way and that their quality is high, meaning that the best applications succeed. Of course, this is all tied to foundations’ reputation.

Dialogue between funders and researchers working under a grant will without a doubt bring benefits to both parties: the foundation gains insight into current research themes and the researcher’s everyday life, while the researcher feels that they are part of a larger group and community. Researchers working under a grant still belong to the academic precariat in Finland and often long for a community to belong to and network in. The funder could play the role of a facilitator in this, just as Kone Foundation does.

Talasniemi: Dialogue and community are key issues for Kone Foundation and highlighted in its strategy. We use the metaphor of a well: people gather at the well to fetch water and at the same time they meet and talk. Now that these encounters have to take place online, we are considering what other ways there are to implement a well like this.

In addition, we can try to ease the precariousness of researchers’ and artists’ lives by being active in matters relating to the position grantees find themselves in. We have striven to resolve this through long, decent funding periods. Another good question to ask is whether the current grant system is contributing to the creation of a precariat, and if yes, what should be changed.

Tuomarla: What kinds of changes have you observed in the Finnish foundation sector in recent years? What do you think the future holds for foundations?

Talasniemi: More than ten years ago when I started working in the foundation sector, it was still very common for foundations to keep a very low profile. Grants were awarded, but they were not talked about much.

It’s not that there was anything fishy going on; foundations just played their designated roles which didn’t involve making a lot of noise about themselves. The idea was to let the money granted for a good cause speak for itself without ever mentioning the foundation, let alone providing information about it. Many foundations have recently made much more effort to communicate about the work they finance in a great way.

At Kone Foundation, we are well aware of the pressure foundations are facing in the midst of the changes going on in our welfare state. One of the great strengths and assets foundations have is the diversity among them, and I believe that a good future is one where foundations have the courage to both preserve their own special qualities and renew themselves as the world around them changes.

Kone Foundation has changed enormously over the last ten years, and the ever-changing society around us makes sure that we won’t stand still in the future either. How do feel about starting your new job as my replacement?

Tuomarla: I couldn’t be more excited! I’m hugely thankful for the opportunity to take a peek inside the foundation sector and learn more about the work of this foundation that I have long admired. I’m immensely curious about and fascinated by the work I will be doing. At the same time, departing from a path you know well takes quite a bit of courage, and I’m actually a little nervous!

Heljä Franssila