Second Plenary

Cities and Foundations: 'How can foundations plug gaps in government efforts to build sustainable cities?’


  • Clotilde Perez-Bode DEDECKER President and CEO, Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo
  • James ROONEY Senior Fellow, The Boston Foundation
  • Robert ROSEN  Director, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation


  • Nancy YANG Founder, Asian Charity Services

This plenary session started with a call to arms by Ms Nancy Yang to leverage the great wealth generated by cities in Asia to address the social challenges they faced. The panellists discussed the point that foundations must address the root causes of large systematic problems in cities. Ms Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker stressed that to accomplish such a change, foundations could not act alone, but must learn how to collaborate effectively.

To form successful partnerships, foundations must recognise their own abilities and those of others to identify opportunities for skills and resources that complemented each other. The panellists stressed the importance when working with multiple partners of aligning on a common strategic vision around which different groups could be rallied. For example, Mr Robert Rosen pointed out that to work effectively in cities, partners must not view their roles as simply filling in gaps left by businesses and governments, but provide leadership and bring all the stakeholders together toward a common goal. 

The panellists acknowledged that while many benefits came from collaboration, it was not easy to do this well. Relationship-building was essential to creating trust and understanding between stakeholders whose agendas were not always perfectly aligned. Foundations looking to do this must be willing to be patient, as this could often be a time-consuming, long-term process that carried real financial costs. For example, Mr Rosen stressed that even when the current government administration did not share your views, making collaboration difficult, it was important to continue to build relationships, as many of the most effective intervention programmes had unexpectedly come from governments that you would not expect to support those issues.

The panellists then spoke about the unique position of foundations to contribute to building cities and the opportunities that came with that. Ms Dedecker noted that philanthropists tended to be more independently minded than governments or businesses as they were not answerable to electorates or shareholders. Mr James Rooney pointed out that this independence allowed them to explore more radical ideas and take risks where others could not. Pioneering work by foundations in Hong Kong could influence a ripple effect not just across the city, but in other emerging philanthropy regions, too, for example China.

In this role of risk-taking, by adopting radical definitions of success, foundations must ensure that they based their decisions around data and strong research.

As foundations looked to the future, there was a wealth of opportunities for them to drive impact through collaboration with other stakeholders. Partnerships with businesses were important because they could often attract the attention of governments, as corporates tended to be better at approaching and influencing governments.  The panellists were also optimistic about the potential of impact investing as a means to scaling-up foundations’ access to capital, but stressed that impact investing was only one of many tools to be leveraged. While calling out these examples, they concluded that there was no single best way for foundations to collaborate. Those organisations that could experiment with a mix of approaches to collaboration tended to achieve the best results.

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