Family foundations and strategic philanthropy: a possible pairing, and a growing trend. Today, we are discussing this with Peter Brey, director of Fondation Leenaards, a family foundation created in 1980, which has already supported projects for a total of 150 million euros in the fields of culture, elderly and society, science, with a special attention towards the social impact of its action.
We thank you for this interview, Mr. Brey. I would like to start from the history of the Foundation, in order to understand its evolution and how you selected the areas of intervention.
Our founder, Antoine Leenaards (1895-1995), came from a modest Belgian family. Starting from nothing, he became a prosperous industrial man. After the premature disappearance of his sole child, Joseph, he decided with his wife Rosa to create the Fondation A. R. et J Leenaards on the 26th of August 1980 in Lausanne. At the moment of the disappearance of Antoine Leenaards, the Foundation inherited the whole assets – around 300 millions of euros.
During his life, the founder always tried to transform his money in actions able to create a real social impact. His vision of things can be inserted in those themes that nowadays belong to “strategic philanthropy” and “impact investing”. Like all grant-making foundations our goal is to transform money into results with multiplying effects. We have abandoned the idea of sustaining a multitude of projects without a real coherence between one another.
In order to obtain a social impact, it is fundamental to choose a precise area of intervention. In our case, we identified three areas of interest: a cultural area, an area called “elderly and society” (problems linked to population ageing and life quality of elderly people), and one scientific area. If the fields of action have remained the same as in the origin of the Foundation, the priorities inside each area have changed, evolving along with the contest and social needs.
In order to be up to date with a constantly changing reality, we revise our strategic plan every five years. This strategy allows us to define what we can do and, most of all, what we can’t do. This is the most important aspect of a good strategy. A foundation like ours inevitably has limited resources in terms of time, money, people and skills for monitoring projects in their evolution. For this reason, we chose to address our actions in the territory surrounding the lake of Geneva (Geneva and Vaud Cantons), which is a particularly dynamic region. This geographic delimitation allows the maximization of the impact of our action.
How do you evaluate the social impact of your action?
In order to obtain tangible results, it is important to determine clearly our field of action, together with the goals to achieve. In our case, we have three precise areas of intervention, and it’s all about understanding in which context projects are situated: having a precise idea on the right direction to pursue for each of them is a key element.
With regards to indicators, not all types of actions are measurable, or at least not all in the same way. Therefore it is necessary to be able to distinguish if we are dealing with indicators that are useful or not to evaluate an action.
Considering all of the action fields, Foundation Leenaards supported more than 170 projects in 2016, out of around 600 received. Since Antoine Leenaards disappearance in 1995, more than 150 millions of euros were destined to selected projects. Which are the key criterias in choosing which projects to support?
Society evolves thanks to the actions of those who are creative, resourceful and competent. Fondation Leenaards has given itself the mission of financially sustaining these people in order to make them reveal their talent in full and put innovative projects into effect. We want to concentrate our actions where we can induce a creative dynamic.
A philanthropic foundation such as ours, with limited instruments, has to know how to choose. Choices should be based of quality and pertinence of projects, of course, but also on their capacity of inducing a multiplication effect. Along with this financial support, our foundation engages equally in transmitting the know-how, sharing experiences or connecting actors coming from different horizons, who would not necessarily have had the idea of working together.
Nowadays, we invest a lot of time in the starting phases of some strategic projects, organizing workshops to identify the goals of the projects directly with the grantees, the indicators to monitor and the process to follow. It is very important to speak a common language since the kick-off of the project. We support these kinds of projects for three-four years generally, so to be able to activate a real incentive.
The Foundation’s Board is sustained by a structure that is organized around a direction team composed by four expert commissions and four juries. In total, Fondation Leenaards can count on the support of about fifty experts with specific skills. How did you choose this governance system and the members of the different bodies?
I like to underline the fact that an efficient governance system is fundamental for the good functioning of a foundation. Alone it is not enough to guarantee a good result, but an inefficient governance system surely makes the realization of the mission practically impossible.
In our specific case, the Foundation’s governance has not stopped evolving since its origin. In 1996, after the disappearance of Antoine Leenaards, the Foundation Board created a structure that comprehends expert commissions for every field of action, including an independent financial commission. A member of the Foundation’s Board, in order to ensure a fluid information passage, and facilitate the decision-making process, chairs each of these. This governance system with around fifty experts is a relatively unique structure. Creating an expert network is always a difficult task. In our case, the good reputation of the Foundation and the quality of the supported projects has largely helped the start of the initiative. The members are happy to share their competences benefiting the society, and to have occasions to exchange with experts from other fields, all in a neutral context, with freedom and independence in reflection and action. This structure, which is based on interdisciplinary levels, is a source of reciprocal enrichment that we hope we can make available to the organizations that we support.