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How philanthropy ‘helps brave people to solve problems’

Resource type: News

The Irish News Online | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

As a major international conference on philanthropy comes to Belfast this week, bringing with it speakers and delegates charged with distributing billions of pounds, Sam Goodwin talks to John R Healy, chairman of Philanthropy Ireland, about what difference giving has made to Northern Ireland WHEN a conference gets together to discuss the impact of philanthropy on peace-building and social justice, what better backdrop than Northern Ireland?

This week the European Foundation Centre will hold the conference concerning peace-building in Belfast.

The EFC arose 23 years ago when a small group of people wanted to strengthen European philanthropy.

To this day it brings together organisations that fund projects for the well-being of people in Europe and beyond.

From its seven founding members, the EFC boasts a membership of 231.

The EFC will hold their three-day conference in Belfast with more than 500 global delegates.

Due to attend are Jeff Raikes, chief executive of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and South African human rights activist Albie Sachs.

Also attending will be leading philanthropists from across Ireland including Avila Kilmurray, director of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, who was the first winner of the European Philanthropy award.

In charge of the event is Dubliner John R Healy, a former chief executive of Atlantic Philanthropies.

Mr Healy is chairman of Philanthropy Ireland and, with this on his CV, it was no coincidence he was chosen to be the Conference Host Committee Chair of the EFC in Belfast.

I talked with Mr Healy about the EFC conference and the role of philanthropy in Northern Ireland.

Q: Many European cities vied to hold this conference and this is the first time in 19 years an EFC conference is being held in the UK. Why was Belfast chosen?

A: “It was in London 19 years ago. “The pitch made to the EFC was that don’t always go to these glamorous cities like Paris and Rome where tourists converge. “Come to a city which has really had to grapple with tough issues, where philanthropy played an important role and learn about the work of philanthropy on the ground.

“So it’s going to be a different conference to what we’ve been having in recent years.

“We’re really going to try to connect the 500 or so delegates who are coming from around the world with Northern Ireland.

“The opportunity to hear the stories.

“Some leaders from both sides of the community in west Belfast are going to take them out into the communities on the first night of the conference and introduce them to a range of voluntary organisations.

“It will be a rich experience that will give them some ideas for work they might do in other parts of the world.”

Q: But there is still work to do in Belfast and Northern Ireland?

A: “Undoubtedly. The sectarian divisions still haven’t been solved. “There’s still mistrust across the divide.

“Most people are living in segregated communities and educated with their own and not the other side.

“There’s this background threat who feel the path has been wrong and have been prepared over the last couple of years to once again resort to violence.

“The problems aren’t solved but we do feel it’s worth celebrating the fact that there has been enormous progress.”

Q: Northern Ireland has received over £175 million in philanthropy donation grants – where has this money come from?

A: “Northern Ireland has benefited from a lot more than £175m from philanthropy grants.

“But that £175m figure is from grants specifically for peace-building and social justice.

“The money has come from a range of foundations, some of them local. “The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, for example.

“A number of foundations established in Great Britain have also been active in Northern Ireland for many years: Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the Barrow Cadbury Trust and the Nuffield foundation. And some international foundations are operating in Northern Ireland.

“The most notable would be the Atlantic Philanthropies which has staff in Northern Ireland.

“They would have been one of the major contributors to that £175m over the last 40 years.

Q: Where does the money go?

A: “A whole range of interventions like integrated education.

“The parents who wanted to start schools that educated children across sectarian boundaries wouldn’t have managed to get their efforts started back in the 1980s if it wasn’t for a group of British-based charitable trusts which supported them led by the Nuffield Foundation.

“There have been lots of investment in community development projects in the areas most affected by the Troubles and in helping Northern Ireland make the Good Friday Agreement actually work – for example, support for ex-prisoners and support to stop punishment beatings.

“That’s just a flavour of what the money has been spent on over the last few decades.”

Q: What do philanthropists do that aid agencies and governments can’t do?

A: “It’s always an interesting argument as to where does the responsibility of public agencies end and philanthropy begin.

“This is a line drawn in different places in different societies.

“The value of philanthropy is that trusts and foundations, because they are independent and have secure sources of income can experiment, can take risks and stick with things over a long period of time in a way which publicly funded programmes find it difficult to do so.

“One of the things we’re trying to do at this conference is draw attention to the potential of philanthropy to contribute to the elevation of division in society. “Northern Ireland is a terrific case study of a society grappling with difficult issues, not necessarily solving all those issues, but making considerable progress and being aided to do so by philanthropy.

“Those of us in the philanthropy world wouldn’t want to claim we solve the problem, we just support it at critical times – brave people on the ground solve the problems.

Q: Is the main source of money in philanthropy from wealthy people?

A: “Foundations are established in a variety of ways.

“Sometimes by wealthy people or families who have given over money and that is what happened at the Gates Foundation.

“They attracted Warren Buffet, the famous investor, to add his pile to the pot.

“In fact, together they give more money than many governments in the world give in their international aid programmes.

Q: When will the need for philanthropy end?

“It’s a wonderful thought to think that we would build a society so just, fair and equitable that we wouldn’t need philanthropy.

“All I can say is I don’t expect that to happen in my lifetime.

The EFC conference will run in Belfast from June 6 to June 8. For information visit 

MAKING A DIFFERENCE:: At the launch of the 23rd European Foundation Centre Annual Conference is John R Healy, chairman of Philanthropy Ireland, Avila Kilmurray, director of The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, and Jackie Redpath, CEO at the Greater Shankill Partnership