Trust Us, It Matters9. December 2015.
Ernest Hemingway once said that “the best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” With citizens’ confidence in politicians and the powers that be to represent their interests and allay their fears at an arguably all-time low, the issue of trust has never been more pressing. With this in mind, the EFC and our partners at Bozar, EVPA, DAFNE and NEF recently convened our annual autumn meeting – EuroPhilantopics – to discuss what foundations and institutions alike can and are doing to (re)build trust.
At first glance it might seem odd or off-topic to be concerned with the concept of trust when there are clearly more pressing, distressing and tangible global issues on the table. But as Europe lurches from one crisis to the next, the importance of mistrust between states, between states and citizens and between communities becomes starkly apparent. Indeed, trust could be the missing link in any attempt to solve some of our biggest challenges, from rising inequality to radicalisation. And as policymakers, foundations and NGOs shared the stage, and their experiences, with artists and actors, certain characteristics of trustworthiness became apparent – none more so than that it is both hard earned and quickly lost.
For keynote speaker Baroness Onora O’Neill, who opened the one-day event held on 10 November in Brussels, there is a triumvirate of qualities required to gain trust – competency, honesty and reliability. But she issued numerous caveats about putting all of your eggs in the transparency basket, which despite being a powerful means of remedying secrecy (by putting information in the public domain) does little to communicate this information effectively to a wider audience. As the opening plenary gave way to smaller discussions, two distinct areas came to light.
The first was the importance of the local and community level for affecting real change. From the success story of Syrian communities pulling together to go on with life despite the war around them, to a Croatian who set up a cooperative bank owned by the community, to the European Commission embracing a bottom-up approach with community-led local development initiatives, to Muslim communities in France outpacing the government when it comes to prevention of youth radicalisation – delegates heard again and again about the potential and power of “leveraging the local”.
The other prominent theme popping up throughout the day was how there seems to be a serious shift happening in how people and institutions are looking at capital markets. Delegates discussed new and powerful examples of foundations aligning their endowment investments with their philanthropic missions. They heard about how shareholders in major companies are leveraging trust to inspire these companies to change their business practices for positive social change. There is genuine momentum building for new financial instruments that marry financial and social return.
Rebuilding citizens’ trust in political structures is key to Europe being able to handle challenges of every size and shape from inter-continental crises to minor bumps in the road as and when they come along. As we recognise that crises are sadly not condemned to the past, only a reanimated sense of trust can give us hope for a more equitable future. And only then will we be confident enough to follow Hemingway’s advice.