Last week, I spent a day at the Colombian Embassy with 35 foundations from Colombia. The group was comprised of corporate and family foundations, members of the Association for Family and Corporate Foundation in Colombia (AFE), who co-hosted the event with the Council on Foundations. The goal of the day was for the Colombian delegation to learn more about the Council’s work and American philanthropy. Beyond that discussion, we unearthed shared trends that can only be discovered by a meeting of people from two very different places. The United States is a developed country with an established philanthropic sector. Colombia is a developing country for which philanthropy, particularly on the giving, rather than receiving end, is relatively new. Though American philanthropy had a substantial temporal head start on most of the world, our day with the Colombians showed me that some of the most exciting work being done in philanthropy is as new to us as it is to them and creates a space where we have much to learn from each other.
The panel on social innovation, which covered topics from social entrepreneurship to socially-responsible investment, grabbed the attention of the room. The panelists spoke the language of business, one the largely corporate foundation audience knew well. When Diana Sierra and her company Be Girl exhibited how it is possible to do good simply by starting and operating your own business – that was a message everyone could take home. A 2015 report from UBS and Harvard elaborates that social innovation projects are viewed in Colombia as more of a strategic, long-term commitment to creating a better society, whereas "charity" is more of a short-term alleviation of problems. The growing popularity – especially among younger cohorts – of social entrepreneurship, socially responsible investing, and other types of social innovation seems remarkably parallel between our two countries.
The delegation was also eager to learn more about how they could engage their elected officials to think about philanthropy when writing new laws and establishing new regulations. In many ways, the easiest tools for U.S. foundations to employ are equally feasible for Colombian foundations. Both can build relationships with elected officials by inviting them to community events. Both can contact representatives through social media, where a surprisingly small effort can demand the attention of a lawmaker. In both countries, the government is willing to work with its philanthropic sector – virtually all of the foundations in the room are engaged in some sort of public-private partnership. There is no special structural advantage that U.S. foundations enjoy over Colombian foundations when working with their elected officials, so our lessons learned can be readily employed by one another.
The U.S. and Colombian philanthropic sectors have unique traits as well, shaped by their cultures, histories, and geographies. For example, Colombian foundations are less siloed in structure than in the United States. There is less distinction between family, corporate, community, and operating foundations. Some of the corporate foundations have geographic areas, ranging from a province to the customer service area, built into their mission statements. Some families do their giving through their corporate foundations for cultural and societal reasons.
One unique aspect to Colombian philanthropy – which I found both interesting and sobering – is the necessity to participate in the “peace process” currently underway in Colombia (a reference to the hopeful conclusion of a long conflict between the government and FARC rebel group). The aftermath of this conflict is one that presents a challenge which philanthropy is uniquely poised to tackle. I was both impressed with the delegation’s consensus to be a part of that and thankful that such a challenge is not present in the United States.
The United States and Colombia are not wholly different and incomparable places, as tempting as it may be to believe as much. In both countries, philanthropy is addressing healthcare, education, social inequality, sustainability, and the environment, amongst other things. With the recognition that we share problems comes the realization that we should share solutions. With the launch of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a worldwide development effort from 2015-2030, this has never been truer. AFE is a key partner in the SDG Philanthropy Platform, a multi-party collaborative effort to achieve and measure philanthropy’s role in the new goals.
It was on this theme of commonality and shared goals that Colombian Ambassador Juan Carlos Pinzon, AFE executive director Carolina Suarez, and Council president Vikki Spruill closed out the day. Vikki’s speech highlighted how the philanthropic sectors in both countries can lead together with civility and shared purpose to create a future for communities both within our respective nations and those that transcend borders.