What is the place of corporate foundations in international humanitarian action?

We meet Thierry Vandevelde / François Debiesse / Patrice Paoli
Published in the dossier of November 2017

Corporate foundations have become key players in international aid. Over and above the recurrent and growing need for funding, skills sharing is the solution to new expectations on the part of stakeholders and regions.

In a world that has become complex, how is humanitarian action organized and what part are you playing in it?


“Our two missions are protecting French citizens abroad and humanitarian aid.”

Patrice Paoli : As a crisis and support center, we are the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ ER department. Our two missions are protecting French citizens abroad and humanitarian aid. The urgency of the situation may vary. Our actions may also prioritize stabilization. This booming concept is halfway between a humanitarian response and a restoration of normality. Take our recent intervention in Mosul, Iraq, which has been freed from the control of Daech, by way of example. In this instance, we helped bring about a return to normal: resettling displaced populations in their village of origin, helping clear mines, restoring essential public services, and so on.

Thierry Vandevelde : To date, few foundations have taken the step of operational engagement. In France and abroad, the Veolia foundation supports non-profit actions in the public interest: fighting exclusion and protecting the environment, as well as providing emergency aid during natural disasters. What makes us different is that twenty years ago we were a pioneer in getting employees involved by introducing skills sharing. Not to mention mobilizing volunteer staff as part of Veoliaforce. Nowadays the foundation is continuing to develop major partnerships on the ground, in Haiti for example, with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ crisis and support center, major NGOs such as the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders, and United Nations agencies such as UNICEF.

François Debiesse : Our mission consists in giving companies the desire and the means to fulfill and give concrete shape to their social role through all kinds of patronage. They thus create links that our society sorely needs. Our role is to represent them before the public authorities and international bodies.

What is the place of corporate foundations nowadays?


“In France and abroad, the Veolia foundation supports non-profit actions in the public interest: fighting exclusion and protecting the environment, as well as providing emergency aid during natural disasters.”

“We are capable of delivering an emergency water service to the most destitute with exceptional efficiency.”

Th. V. : The Veolia foundation is a fabulous tool for building bridges between business and the humanitarian sector. In many countries, it is seen as a major partner to the local authorities in managing large-scale emergency or development projects. In addition, through the involvement of the Group’s staff from the very outset twenty years ago, the Foundation has generated a real sense of pride in belonging internally, both for those working on the ground and for all employees. This reflects a search for meaning in their job. The Foundation also facilitates dialogue, supports social and civic-minded innovations, finances feasibility studies, etc. It goes without saying that it is a player in Veolia’s CSR policy and its performance boosts the Group’s extra-financial rating. By sending members of staff on missions in complex contexts (following natural disasters, for example), it provides the company with talent able to handle extreme situations: a real asset, as these situations are multiplying under the effects of climate change!

P. P. : Companies are a real partner for us. In 2014, we signed an agreement with six French foundations including the Veolia foundation – which we would like to renew – and we are planning a new wave of partnerships with three to five other groups for 2018. We work closely together and we even travelled with a delegation of twenty-six players to the Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development Conference in March 2016, where we presented French expertise and innovations in this field. We also provide support for companies in crisis areas. For example, we can guide them when they are responding to a United Nations call for tenders to set up infrastructure as part of a peacekeeping mission. In this case, we can help them understand the procedures and provide our on-the-ground knowledge. This is a key issue at stake for them, because if their product is chosen by the UN for its humanitarian interventions, they can become quality standard makers. We also assist many innovative small- and medium-sized companies in the humanitarian field. We work with the private sector on a daily basis in many different ways and this interaction increases our effectiveness and coherence.

F. D. : The foundation embodies corporate social responsibility and corresponds to a search for meaning in their professional lives on the part of Generation Y and Millennial members of staff. They expect their employer to give them a job but also an opportunity to engage. Companies have become aware of this and are implementing measures to win the loyalty of their best staff. This patronage – made possible through foundations – is an extraordinary bonding tool. The company can get its staff on board with its actions. This new link between the company and its staff and between the company and its ecosystem – the charitable sector, public authorities, other companies, etc. – creates strong roots in society. Don’t forget that the foundation’s philosophical dimension is a key concept. A corporate foundation is a symbol, a standard-bearer. It gives concrete form to the actions that a group wants to develop.

What are foundations’ main levers of action?


“Our role is to represent [companies] before the public authorities and international bodies.”

“The public and private sectors must work hand in hand.”

F. D. : The major lever remains financial, but human resources are becoming fundamental. Nowadays, skills sharing (during working hours) and skillsbased volunteering (in their free time) are popular among employees of all ages. The foundation may involve the company’s members of staff in order to better assist the associations that it supports. For the charitable sector needs skills and sees real added value in all that companies can provide it. In my view, another important lever is the desire to have an impact and be effective. In the initial years of corporate patronage in the early eighties, companies did not measure the impact of their actions very much. The evaluation approach came from investors, for whom donations have to have a purpose. Today, donors (whether individuals or companies) want to know what their impact is. Last but not least, the final lever is a collective approach, which differs from individual patronage. For a long time, companies carried out their patronage actions alone. The breadth and complexity of needs have brought all of the components of their ecosystem around the table: individuals, institutions such as Admical or the Fondation de France, companies, the public authorities (government, local authorities, etc.), associations. In short, looking out for the general interest is now a shared endeavor.

Th. V. : The financial lever, of course, because it is vital that the Foundation has a substantial budget. All the same, we operate with a set amount of resources, which forces us to prioritize our interventions. We have thus moved from undifferentiated philanthropy – which supports a large volume of projects – to looking to make an impact. Today, we are aiming for effectiveness and to this end we have identified avenues allowing us to increase our added value. Starting with innovation and expertise on key subjects that reflect Veolia’s core business lines, such as water, rehabilitating extremely degraded areas, bioplastics, employment/integration of the most deprived members of society, etc. Skills are not enough to see these tasks through successfully. We have to fund feasibility studies or pilot operations. For large projects, we have to apply for subsidies from the European Union or the French Development Agency. These are all levers that allow us to cultivate a solid network of partners – UNICEF, WHO, MSF, University of Berkeley, CNRS, etc. – and so be more ambitious in our responses. Another lever is skills sharing, embodied in particular by Veoliaforce, which groups together experts who may be specialized workers or engineers.

P. P. : The world is changing and the vision of combining efforts is on the right track. In fact, while we are seen as a huge European contributor to humanitarian action through ECHO, to which we are the second largest contributor, we are small fry on the international stage. This is why we have formed agile and innovative partnerships. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, our very configuration is a representation of the world with which we work. The team members come from many different backgrounds (medical, private, NGOs, etc.) and form a convergence of complementary resources. However, we remain pragmatic: when we don’t have an area of expertise, we admit that others have it. Our role as a “networker” therefore consists in bringing together best practices: in crisis management, we create ties between the different players involved in humanitarian aid — the military, development agencies, the police, NGOs, companies. We are an inventive and creative toolbox made up of several elements and we know how to combine resources. Some are activated at our initiative but do not depend on us, while others depend primarily on our action… We never work alone!

In this respect, what common base can the humanitarian world rest on?


In France, the term “foundation” covers different legal entities of various kinds. At the beginning of the eighties, the government began to take an interest in foundations and offered different approaches: the officially recognized non-profit foundation, declared by ministerial decree on the advice of the Council of State; the corporate foundation, created and managed by the company itself; the umbrella foundation (such as the Fondation de France) that offers service provisions – logistics support, donation management, etc. – to sheltered foundations; not forgetting university, partnership-based (university/company), scientific cooperation, etc. foundations.
Over the years, the legal framework has become more sophisticated, leading to the creation in 2008 of the endowment fund, a less cumbersome and more reactive entity in terms of its structure and funding, dedicated to collecting and allocating private funds.

P. P. : We are working in variable configurations in which the players have diversified… While NGOs remain our primary partners, corporate foundations and private groups represent a second circle. Together, we find ourselves on a humanitarian coordination committee that we are steering, where a great deal of space is given to dialogue and thinking about the meaning of our actions and the resources attributed to them. In fact, we are preparing the “New humanitarian strategy” for France, which we will be revealing at an international conference during the first half of 2018. In brief, this strategy falls in line with the “Grand Bargain,” a sort of code of conduct launched by the UN intended to combat the funding gap for humanitarian aid worldwide. Three aspects are of particular interest to us: strengthening the links between emergency action and long-term action; developing localization, i.e. relying more on local NGOs or partners – which means giving them more resources; and implementing accountability, or how to check that our action is exemplary, particularly by simplifying reporting and the restrictive procedures that our partners must undergo.

Th. V. : The Foundation is not alone on this base that is being built. As a stakeholder in these major partnerships, it is becoming more effective in its response to emergencies and on the ground. What I call a “hybrid partnership” combines civil society and the private sector in an ideal model for humanitarian action and development aid. All around the world, there are highly competent local entities. This configuration provides a partial answer to the major problems of an urbanizing planet. By way of example, the Veolia foundation excels in urban utilities, while an NGO will be effective in crisis management and rural areas. Together, we are able to provide more ambitious collective solutions from a technical perspective. So, with the Red Cross or Oxfam, we are capable of delivering an emergency water service to the most destitute with exceptional efficiency.

F. D. : The public and private sectors must work hand in hand. Patronage clubs have been created in small companies and large groups alike. These forums for dialogue and encounter are now giving rise to joint actions. Such as the Alliance pour l’éducation organization, which works to prevent children dropping out of school. It was created by all of the corporate foundations who considered this theme, after an incubation phase by Admical. From now on, this collective spirit must take on an international dimension. In fact, patronage has long remained purely French, whereas the Anglo- Saxons have got ahead of the game. The United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Belgium are doing great things in this area. Our openness to other countries complements our collective approach!

Can and should you evaluate the usefulness of a corporate foundation? And if yes, how?

Th. V. : We not only can but we should! This is what we are doing for our iconic and multi-year programs. Especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we are cofunding our Cholera program with AFD, in a scientific partnership with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. The same applies in Cameroon, with the water access program. The Foundation itself is inspected each year by external auditors and routinely undergoes surveys conducted by extra-financial rating agencies. Not forgetting that every five years, the Foundation’s board of directors and its three boards of founders, employees and qualified figures external to the Veolia group decide on the foundation’s longevity and the resources at its disposal.

F. D. : Evaluation is a key question and the divisions responsible for it within companies must be able to consider what a foundation’s purpose is. It is a demanding exercise as evaluation methodologies are becoming increasingly complex under the Anglo- Saxon influence. Besides, there is no one form of evaluation. If we take the example of dropping out of school, detailed figures are published and the effectiveness of the scheme can be checked. In other areas, obtaining figures is sometimes more difficult. It all lies in signing a contract of trust with the beneficiary on the qualitative objectives.

P. P. : Evaluation already exists, of course. But through the “Grand Bargain” and its accountability dimension, which we will be signing in 2018, we are going to make these rules an integral part of the French government’s action. With the twofold aim of guaranteeing and simplifying.