The Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind (FPH) is a Swiss foundation that makes grants to civil society movements and organisations to support their actions in favour of a social and ecological transition.
At a time when public funding for civil society organisations is decreasing rapidly and might never rise again, eyes are turning to philanthropic activity and the questions it raises: who defines what is in the general interest, and what assets belong to the public? What gives philanthropic actors the right to choose the beneficiaries of their funding, without any type of democratic control over their decisions?
These questions are always on the table during discussions at FPH.
We are conscious of the fact that our position as donor introduces an imbalance to relationships. The money that the foundation possesses gives it undeniable power: the power to control funds and decide on their use. While FPH statutes provide a framework for its actions, and the Supervisory Authority guarantees their legality, the way goals are implemented, and which organisations receive funding, are decisions made collectively by a small group of people: Board members and the team of FPH employees.
We are also aware of our schizophrenic position: the funds we use for philanthropic actions come primarily from financial investments in companies that are quoted on the stock market—and are thus part of an economic system whose basis in profit and consumption we decry on a daily basis.
We do not pretend to be able to resolve these contradictions, but we do take them into account at all levels of decision making.
For example, we favour long-term investments and refuse both high-risk investments and dealings with companies whose business activities are diametrically opposed to the foundation’s goals (like arms sales).
Reflection on asset management has been an important part of the foundation’s work ever since it was created. Nowadays responsible investing is discussed widely and there is more choice than ever in the content of portfolios. In time, we hope to go beyond simply excluding shares in companies whose activities are in contradiction with our values. We would like to implement a more assertive and committed investment policy: disengagement from fossil fuels, direct or indirect investment in renewable energies, investment in organisations that work directly to improve social welfare, etc.
Finally, the foundation’s assets include real estate. While some are rental properties, a significant portion have been transformed and now contribute to the foundation’s philanthropic action.
For example, the building located at 38 Saint-Sabin, which houses the Parisian offices of FPH, has undergone an ecological renovation and is now well-insulated, has heat-recovery ventilation, requires no air-conditioning and has dry toilets and photovoltaic panels. Nine associations are housed free of charge at the site, and two meeting rooms are also available to a wider community that shares the foundation’s values.
Another FPH property, the Villarceaux Bergerie in the Vexin region, is a vast domain that has been completely transformed:
=> the agricultural part of the domain has been converted to organic farming;
=> the main farmhouse has been renovated and is now an environment-friendly welcome centre and site for seminars for civil society organisations that share the foundation’s values;
=> a market gardening business will soon be in operation at the site;
=> premises have been made available for a consumers’ cooperative, etc.
The justification for philanthropy is that it strives for the common good,. That is what guides all our endeavours. FPH supports civil society so that it can act as a counterweight to governments, demanding that they be held to account; it also provides support so that civil society can suggest new approaches. In doing so, FPH contributes to strengthen our democracies.