Former Director General of Médecin Sans Frontières and the Fondation de France, Francis Charhon has been working for 35 years at the heart of French philanthropy. Today, he continues his commitment by sharing his thoughts, observations and analyses on his blog Chroniques Philanthropiques. In this interview for Défis Humanitaires, Francis Charhon shares his experiences in the non-profit sector and gives us keys to understanding the major challenges of philanthropy’s development.
Alain Boinet : Hello Francis Charhon, thank you for this interview on philanthropy. You created the Chroniques Philanthropiques website: why and what is its raison d’être? And for our readers who live in different countries, from the Sahel to Switzerland, from the United States to Belgium, how do you define philanthropy ?
Francis Charhon : First of all, thank you for interviewing me! To answer the question, Chroniques Philanthropiques was born almost 3 years ago. It is a blog that I wanted to create when I left my position at the Fondation de France because I thought it was interesting to have an independent space, capable of bringing to light the experiences of people or companies who are committed to developing philanthropic and generous actions. With this in mind, I decided to put experiences, forums and reactions on the screen. The blog is funded by 10 foundations. As a volunteer, I take my time to run this site and advocate for the development of philanthropy in France.
As far as philanthropy is concerned, the term is a bit complicated, because although it is internationally recognized, it is not the case in France. Here, when we talk about philanthropy, we think first of large donors and we quickly deviate to large American donors. We are not at all in the same system. First of all, the sizes have nothing to do with it. In France, foundations are small and are part of a much more regulated system. Philanthropy is an ecosystem with three interdependent pillars where each actor is important. I call them the actors of philanthropy, composed of the actors on the ground, i.e. the foundations and associations, the donors who allow the system to function, and the volunteers. Philanthropy therefore represents the commitment of individuals, companies or organizations to meet the challenges facing our society in all areas: from societal to environmental, from research to culture… Generosity and commitment are the two sides of the action of the non-profit sector.
Alain Boinet : What is the relationship between philanthropy and generosity ?
Francis Charhon : I think it’s the same thing. For a long time we had problems with terminology. We talked about the charitable sector, the third sector, the generous sector and finally we grouped all these terms under one name: philanthropy. It includes all generosity, the generosity of individual commitment via volunteers, donors and the commitment of all those who work in associations and foundations. I would say that generosity is truly a propensity of the heart while commitment is a realization of this propensity. We could simply call it citizen engagement.
Alain Boinet : Finally, philanthropy comes rather from individuals or organizations, so-called civil society, and not from states or international institutions.
Francis Charhon : That’s right! Philanthropy is a private sector activity. At the time it was called the third sector. Why? Because there was the corporate sector, the state sector and this sector of individual or entrepreneurial commitment. Private funds give organizations room for innovation and independence, but they also call for national or international public funds for certain projects.
Alain Boinet : What is your professional background and what is the link between your past activities and those you are carrying out today, as founder of Chroniques Philanthropiques and president of GRUPC, the emergency and post-emergency research group ?
Francis Charhon : A doctor by training, I started working at Médecin Sans Frontières in 1975. It was at the very beginning so the organization was small and we worked in 25 m²! We have grown a lot since then! I became President and then Director General until 1992. After MSF, I was Director General of the Fondation de France until 2016, 25 years. I also created the French Foundation Center. I was a director and President of the European Foundation Centre and I took part in the development of France générosité and the Comité de la charte de déontologie and many other things…
During all these years, I have actively participated, with other organizations, in the development of reliability, transparency and trust in the philanthropic sector. The most important thing, so that donors can be sure that these organizations are using their donations appropriately, has been to build trust between all the actors. This means good governance of the organizations, management rules, ethical rules, control rules….
Let’s not forget that the modern system in which we operate today in France is relatively recent. It is only about thirty years old and it has had to grow. There was obviously a tradition of generosity and in my blog, I published an interview about an organization called the Société Philanthropique. It was founded in 1780. This shows that there were already commitments to help the most needy of the time. Charity has always existed but it has been modernized, organized and has greatly progressed in our country.
Now we have a system that is reliable, secure, transparent and that develops both sociological and quantitative research on what philanthropy is today.
After leaving the Fondation de France, I thought it was probably useful to continue this battle for the recognition of philanthropy in France. I also continued to act at the international level, which has always been one of my great passions. I was vice-president of the MSF foundation and then I was asked to become president of the circle of foundations, acting internationally, of the French Center of Foundations. I was also asked to join the think tank on the emergency of the crisis and the post-crisis: the GRUPC, which I chair today and which brings together all the major NGOs.
Alain Boinet : In your experience, what are the major developments in philanthropy that you have experienced in France? Have there been any great moments or periods that have marked philanthropy ?
Francis Charhon : Although foundations already existed, there was the creation of the Fondation de France in 1969, following the important work of a State Counselor, Michel Pompey. Its purpose was to develop foundations in France through the system of sheltered foundations. This creation marked a real breakthrough, the principles of which can be found in a visionary book on foundations written by Mr. Pomey at the time, bringing an Anglo-Saxon perspective to philanthropy. Then, in 1996, a group at the Conseil d’Etat worked on the modernization of foundations in France and produced a report that led to a number of measures. In July 2003, the Aillagon law was created, the major philanthropic law in France today. It is important for two reasons. First, it stabilized the tax system, which is generous in France. Second, it formalized the recognition of foundations as essential actors in French society. The Prime Minister at the time, Mr. Raffarin, explained in a speech that this sector of philanthropy was very important because the State could not do everything and that it needed to have operators like associations and foundations. In fact, he recognized this idea that the State could delegate a certain number of responsibilities to organizations that were capable of assuming them.
There were also the great collections after Abbé Pierre’s in 1954, the restaus du cœur with Coluche, the Sidaction or the famine in Ethiopia, which put forward the popular donation in a very visible way. Another major step was the introduction of the wealth tax part of which could be given to foundations, which contributed to their development. After these strong moments, we entered a more confused period where the State did a bit of a mess by creating various statutes of foundations (university foundations, hospital foundations, partnership foundations…) and endowment funds without any real coherent vision for the sector. This proliferation of foundation statutes is, in my opinion, detrimental.
It is the fashion of the current demagogy. When there are proposals, everyone jumps on them because they think they will do some good and finally, we find ourselves with tax differentiations that are becoming more and more complex and ceilings in all directions.
There is also legislation that complicates the action of associations and NGOs such as the Republican Commitment Contract, the screening of beneficiaries of international aid… Beyond administrative or fiscal issues and the increasing blockages that exist, we must never forget that there are men and women all over the world who commit themselves, sometimes at the risk of their lives, to bring relief, hope and humanity to suffering populations.
There is a lack of coherent governance of philanthropic action at the state level.
Alain Boinet : Since generosity exists everywhere and in very different forms in each country, whether in France, Europe, the United States or in the otherwise very diverse countries of the South such as the Emirates, Saudi Arabia or India, is it possible to categorize or distinguish various forms and histories of philanthropy? How do you see the future of philanthropy in the world ?
Francis Charhon : Philanthropy is developing in the world in a significant way. A lot of work has also been done in response to this. I mentioned earlier the European Foundation Centre. The latter has made it possible to create interconnections between the foundations of the countries of the European Union. The establishment of Transnational Giving Europe (TGE) is a good example. This system has made donations between countries more reliable and therefore has helped support important causes.
Other international organizations have been set up such as the Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support (WINGS),
a worldwide organization of Grantmakers (donors). There are also regular meetings that still allow us to work on standards, to know the activity of our neighbors and especially to establish relationships between different organizations linked by common axes of intervention. I think that the future lies in alliances between organizations, local authorities, states and donors.
It is also important to note that the number of rich people is increasing significantly in the world, with unfortunately a growing gap between the rich and the poor. Thus, an important African philanthropy is developing in Senegal, Nigeria and in many other countries where entrepreneurs, for the most part, are creating their own foundations. There is also the African Philanthropy Forum which brings together African philanthropists once a year or every two years. The same type of gathering exists in the Middle East, India and East Asia. Obviously, the forms of philanthropy are correlated to culture and are part of the cultural heritage of countries around the world.
Alain Boinet : Today in France, what are the main difficulties, not to say obstacles, encountered by philanthropy and by the organizations, associations and foundations that mobilize and implement it? What should be done to free it, to encourage it and to promote it ?
Francis Charhon : As I said earlier, there is first of all a real problem of state governance because there are many players in the philanthropic world and each ministry tries to benefit its own sector by putting in place this or that measure. However, we have always fought and continue to fight so that there is no tax differentiation by cause. That is to say, culture should not be more important than poverty or more important than illness, which is itself more important than this or that social cause. Today, nobody manages this sector at the State level, or rather, everybody intervenes, which in reality means nobody. In fact, the governance of philanthropy should be revisited, by setting up a mixed system with participants from the State without the latter having a majority, a bit like the High Council for Associative Life in the end, but with a broader scope and which would be a decision-maker and not just an advisor.
At the moment, there is no need for specific sectoral measures or tax improvements. I think that the battle is really in these questions: what does it mean to have an important philanthropic sector in France, and how is it recognized? How does it serve the citizens and how can they participate in its action? These questions suggest a strong political ambition because they mobilize citizens on projects that concern them directly at the level of the street, the block, the neighborhood, and sometimes even more broadly… and this recreates the social link that is dangerously weakening. The emphasis on the essential role of citizens in the resolution of problems transforms the State’s “take charge” approach. The latter become actors in the resolution of their own problems, and not simply recipients of assistance. In addition, citizens would respond directly to specific local needs, which would make responses to problems more responsive.
The second problem that seems essential is to consider the non-profit sector as a constituent of French society, that it is as important as agriculture, industry, crafts and that it should be recognized as such. There must be with a an ambitious vision of philanthropy the highest level of the State. First of all, by officially recognizing the entire sector to show its contribution to the overall scheme.
The measures taken by the State lack meaning: where do they come from? Why and in which framework do they fit? This is why it is essential to establish an ambitious philanthropic project for France. We need to think more globally in order to take coherent measures in continuity with a national project. For example, a change in taxation would no longer be done for budgetary reasons but for reasons of social impact. In order to move forward on this subject, a common platform of the actors of generosity has been created, bringing together all the coordinations of the sector.
Alain Boinet : What are the main characteristics of French philanthropy and what would allow it to catch up with the British and the Nordic countries in general ?
Francis Charhon : Philanthropy is a cultural issue. The Nordic countries and England are Protestant countries which, along with the notion of work, also have the notion of an important practice of solidarity which has existed for a long time. They have a very old culture of generosity. Even if this culture of generosity also existed in France, the French Revolution created a state that takes care of everything. So if we are behind, it is partly a question of historical trajectory.
Secondly, it is up to the sector itself to make its good practices known, to show its actions, its role in French society and all this in a transparent way. And to increase its visibility, it is necessary to leave the anecdotal to enter into the construction of a narrative, an imaginary, and change the culture. We must succeed in showing that each story is a piece of a puzzle. The board represents philanthropy and its societal action in the country, and each small piece represents an association that completes the puzzle. To complete this board, you must first draw it before adding the pieces. We know very well that if we make a puzzle, that there are 1000 pieces, but we don’t have the model, it is complicated. We have to create an imaginary world that interests individuals and journalists. Moreover, I think that this imagination must be collective. It must be part of a global project that is the role of civil societies in action. Once this big work is done, I don’t know if we will catch up but we will be in a progressive development momentum that should improve. On the other hand, let’s not neglect the fact that generosity is slowly but surely growing at 4% per year.
Alain Boinet : Today, an emergency humanitarian aid association that would like to create itself is practically unable to collect funds because the collection market is saturated. The 5 million tax households are already preempted by the big players in this sector, so today the humanitarian association that would like to create itself will not be able to develop with private funds…
Francis Charhon : Despite these difficulties, there are a few examples that prove the contrary. Solthis and Alima are two recent organizations that are doing very well. I think that foundations have a role to play in supporting small organizations because they can provide funding for projects that they find interesting. However, it is true that finding funding from individual donors has become very difficult and expensive.
It is important to know that there is a new generation of young entrepreneurs, 35 or 40 years old, who have made their fortune and who are very involved in philanthropy.
Philanthropy must modernize, appeal to all generations and adapt to young people who have different modes of commitment but who remain very committed. Today, it is the commitment by the click. It’s no longer a commitment following a mailing. Moreover, we have moved from stock philanthropy, i.e. large endowments with small distribution, to flow philanthropy, i.e. donors bringing in donations that need to be spent immediately. This is why organizations must become flexible and adapt to change if they do not want to lose their donor base.
Alain Boinet : Speaking of adaptation and modernization, will new technologies revolutionize philanthropy ?
Francis Charhon : They are already revolutionizing it! Starting with social networks that allow the creation of communities that are very interesting for philanthropy. We know that the recommendation of donations through proximity works well. By creating a community whose members know the person who is carrying a project, it will be easier for him or her to obtain their help. On the other hand, smartphone technology should make it possible to respond more fluidly to donor requests. There are also new ways to collect funds, such as games. During the Z Event 2021, streamers raised over 10 million euros for Action Against Hunger. Five years ago we didn’t even know that this could exist. So we have to be very careful about all these systems that could be created.
Alain Boinet : To conclude this interview, do you want to make a call or share a last message ?
Francis Charhon : For 30 years we have built the house of commitment and generosity, managed the security, built the foundations… but today the job is done. Now we need to move on to a higher phase, which is the recognition of the non-profit sector, and really commit to systems capable of working in partnership between the State, local authorities, associations and foundations in the field. We must ask ourselves this question: how can we put in place efficient systems so that everyone plays their part in mutual recognition? We are not executive agents of the State and the State must accept to lose some of its majesty, to recognize that it is the guarantor of the general interest, that others are its managers. The administration, which is very important, must accept to let go. For me this is very important.
That’s why high-level political discourse is essential. Politicians must become real partners. This is the battle of the associative movement, of the French Center for Foundations, of France Générosité and of Admical. At the same time, we must define a specific cope of the non-profit sector so that it is not eaten by the market. Once we have a clear system, then we can build bridges with the economic sector within clear rules.
So my message is this: the future of philanthropy will be what its actors make of it. If they are able to come together collectively, to build an imaginary world, to bring stories that enthuse politicians, the media and the population, they will be recognized as a sector in its own right, essential to French society. In this way, we will be able to advance the work of associations and foundations and give more meaning to our democracy.
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Honorary President of the French Center for Funds and Foundations
Trained as an anesthesiologist. After a career in the hospital sector, he became President of Médecin sans Frontières from 1980 to 1982, then Director from 1982 to 1991. He was Director General of the Fondation de France from 1992 to August 2016. In 2002, he created the French Center for Foundations, which he chaired until 2016. He was President and Director of the European Foundation Centre. Previously a member of the EESC and the CNVA. Currently member of the IDEAS label committee. Expert in philanthropy, he created FCH conseil and accompanies the leaders of associations and foundations in their strategic projects. For the past 40 years he has dedicated his activity to the development of philanthropy in France and continues his work through the blog “Chroniques philanthropiques”. He has published: Vive la philanthropie, L’engagement social pour les nuls.
- The website Chroniques Philanthropiques of Francis Charhon : Chroniques Philanthropiques – Francis Charhon (carenews.com)
1 Founded in 1780, the Société Philanthropique is an association recognized as being of public utility and working in social action. Today, it manages, mainly in the Ile-de-France region, about thirty establishments and services to support people in difficulty.
2 State Councillor and founding vice-president of the Fondation de France and the Fondation du Collège de France, he left to study community foundation models in the United States and produced this book « Les fondations en France et aux États-Unis » in 1967.
3 Voted August 1, 2003, la loi Aillagon regulates sponsorship for associations and foundations. It contains twenty-three articles and is part of a broad reform aiming to develop sponsorship more widely, harmonize the arrangements applicable to donations and reform the recognition of public utility.
6 The Transnational Giving Europe (TGE) allows donors, individuals and companies, taxed in one of the partner countries, to support charitable organizations in other member countries while benefiting from the tax advantages provided by the legislation of their country of residence. The TGE is operational in 19 countries.
7 The Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support (WINGS) is a network of more than 100 philanthropic associations and support organizations in 40 countries around the world, whose goal is to strengthen, promote and provide leadership on the development of philanthropy and social investment
8 The African Philanthropy Forum (APF) is a network of diverse partners working for inclusive and sustainable development in Africa.