Associations and foundations: governments’ blind spots

Following the last presidential election, I entitled an article on my blog “New government, hope for a new philanthropic policy”. Since then, we can say that hopes have been dashed, with measures that have not gone in the direction of strengthening associative life or foundations, such as the Republican contract.

Associations and foundations: governments’ blind spots. Photo credit: iStock

The new government is a great disappointment for all those involved in philanthropy, associations, foundations, volunteers and donors.
After the July riots in many neighborhoods, many people seemed to have rediscovered that populations were being neglected in neighborhoods in a spiral of despair. On the one hand, those who choose violence to express themselves
on the other, residents powerless to live peacefully, often at the center of local situations marked by the predominance of drug trafficking, the only source of income for many from an early age.

A feature of these riots was the attacks on public buildings and community facilities serving the population. Was it a way of showing the State the failure of the various suburban plans of the past decades? These extremely worrying events have fallen on deaf ears, as the problems persist and will recur if nothing is done to restore hope to people who no longer have any.
Dealing with these issues shows that governments’ ambivalent approach to civil society players is not working. One day, they are hailed as indispensable; the next, they experience cuts in subsidies and changes in public policy priorities.

Philanthropic players essential to social cohesion

Yet many associations, foundations and volunteers are already involved in a wide variety of programs in all fields: cultural, environmental, social and so on. They are not there to replace public policies, but to act in the interstices, complementing or interacting with them. They can’t do everything, but they can do a lot.

As I write these words, I have the impression, along with others, that I’m repeating myself endlessly, yet our message doesn’t make an impression.

So I repeat all the arguments:

The fragmentation of society is such that the answers to be found are local, often small-scale, far from grand plans, with visions far removed from the field. It doesn’t sound great, but it’s useful. To tackle these problems, our country has no shortage of arms or willpower: associations, foundations, nearly 20 million volunteers, donors by the millions who support them. Their action, based on listening to specific needs and providing tailor-made solutions, has proven its effectiveness. They have the capacity for innovation and the flexibility to adapt to rapidly changing situations. The results are visible in areas where dialogue between residents has re-emerged, social ties have been rebuilt and democratic life has been revived. All these actions are presented by the organizations on their websites, but their fragmentation does not give an impression of spectacular results to convince. And yet, without them, what would the state of the country be!

The diagnosis of the state of the country is well known, and has been analysed many times by studies and reports. We are on a powder keg that can give rise to violent events, as we have just seen, or lead elective choices to extremes with caricatured solutions that cannot produce good results either.

In the latest ministerial reshuffle, the disappearance of the not-for-profit sector in the SSE into a ministry for SMEs shows a lack of understanding of what associations and foundations do. This is not a good message. Their social impact is not short-term, but long-term, with an essential component: taking the time to listen, understand and act with appropriate solutions.

Paving the way for the future

Not everything can be read in economic terms:

  • Would it be possible for this new government to acknowledge, with modesty, that it can’t do everything, and accept that the not-for-profit sector (associations, foundations) is necessary to resolving a number of problems facing the country?
  • Would it be possible to reflect on the way in which it fits into the march of society alongside companies, the State and local authorities, contributing its skills, its capacity for innovation and the dynamism of millions of people?
  • Would it be possible to take stock of the immense human and financial cost of all these failures, and weigh them up against the funding provided by the not-for-profit sector?
  • Would it be possible, as a corollary, not to consider tax deductions in this sector not as a burden, but as an investment in the future?
  • Would it be possible to take the risk of trusting operators who have demonstrated their capabilities by reducing ambiguity?
  • Would it be possible to write a new page in social relations for the benefit of all?

It’s not a question of begging for a few subsidies or additional benefits, but of establishing a more global vision of the role of this sector. Those who define public policy need to change their way of looking at things, and provide the impetus needed to invent an ambitious philanthropic policy defined in conjunction with the non-profit sector, with clear, long-term relationships and the acceptance of constructive partnerships.

Impotence, immobility and the construction of new plans are not options. We need to react in order to face up to all the societal and environmental challenges that beset us, building on what has proved its worth. There is an absolute urgency to respond realistically and pragmatically to our country’s fears, anger and suffering.

Let’s not wait for the next social explosion, or the advent of regimes that promise better days. Let’s start a social conference on the subject.


Republishing of an article published on Chroniques philanthropiques, by Francis Charhon.


Honorary Chairman, Centre Français des Fonds et Fondations

Trained as an anaesthetist. After a career in the hospital sector, he became President of Médecin sans Frontières from 1980 to 1982, then its Director from 1982 to 1991. Managing Director of the Fondation de France from 1992 to August 2016. In 2002, he created the Centre Français des Fondations, which he chaired until 2016. He was Chairman and Director of the European Foundation Centre. Previously member of the CESE and CNVA. Currently member of the IDEAS label committee. An expert in philanthropy, he set up FCH conseil to support association and foundation managers in their strategic projects. For the past 40 years, he has dedicated his activity to the development of philanthropy in France, and continues to do so through the “Chroniques philanthropiques” blog. He has published: Vive la philanthropie, L’engagement social pour les nuls.



Read Francis Charhon’s articles on Défis Humanitaires :

War and philantropy

An interview on philanthropy with Francis Charhon