‘Giving to help others in France and overseas is good for you’

The Fondation de France works with donors and volunteers to make the world a better place

The Fondation de France is France’s largest independent, grant-making organisation and monitors 50,000 projects per year
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After autumn floods devastated parts of Pas-de-Calais, the Fondation de France jumped into action.

A message on its website explained how it had joined forces with local associations to provide immediate and long-term assistance to the most vulnerable, and how it would also be helping local associations that had been affected by the bad weather. Emergency aid, it added, has already been released.

Time and again, the Fondation de France has intervened like this to rebuild lives.

It was there in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in the French West Indies in 2017, in Syria and Lebanon in 2020, and in Ukraine from 2022 onwards.

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‘We help donors make the best use of their giving’

As a leader in philanthropy for 55 years, it aims to unite donors and volunteers to improve the welfare of individuals or societies, or to support global crises in France and internationally.

The largest independent, grant-making organisation in France, it currently manages 12,000 projects and monitors a further 50,000 per year.

Frédéric Théret, director of marketing and development, said: “We were created to enhance and develop philanthropy and individual and corporate giving in France.

“We have in-house programmes, but most of the time we produce philanthropic programmes to help realise the wishes of our donors.

“We provide a lot of advice to donors on how to handle their philanthropy and make the best use of their giving.

“So, if you want to create a philanthropic project or if you are in research or helping young people in education, or heritage, if you live in a little village in France and you want to leave something for the heritage of the architectural environment, for example, we can help you realise that.”

Anyone can donate, from young entrepreneurs to mature couples looking to leave a meaningful legacy, and the gift can be handled publicly or anonymously.

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Charles de Gaulle was impressed by philanthropy in America

The Fondation de France was established in 1969, and there is a reason why the concept is relatively new.

Post-Revolution, Mr Théret explained, such things did not exist “because foundations are generally created by individuals who decide how to do charity for everyone else”.

He said: “So France decided to have a very strong state instead, and it has been well protected by it. But over 200 years later, we realised that people in France are made to wait a lot – for the state to decide and intervene, to provide support for underprivileged people.

“For all our problems, we are always relying on the government.”

Charles de Gaulle recognised that after World War Two the country was facing a wide range of economic struggles.

Impressed by successful philanthropic work in America, which at the time had 15,000 foundations compared to France’s 250, he and the then-culture minister André Malraux decided to create a mechanism whereby individuals could contribute to charitable activities.

Fondation de France receives no public subsidies

On January 9, 1969, the Fondation de France was born, with a strong focus on the elderly, disabled children, health, and medical and scientific research.

“It was the first organisation in France able to give grants. It just didn’t exist before,” said Mr Théret.

“We had some non-profits and people could give a little to those, but grant-making did not exist.

“Soon after, we got a tax deduction, first for Fondation de France and then for all the non-profits too.”

Fondation de France was set up as a private non-profit because one of the lessons of the US was that if it is driven by the government, people will assume the taxpayer funds it.

“The French government didn’t give as much as €1 when it established, only its name,” said Mr Théret.

It receives no public subsidies, depending only on the generosity of donors to develop a “philanthropic ecosystem” in France.

‘With philanthropy, you’re dealing with the world’s problems’

Over the decades, it has worked to protect the marine environment; to ensure more comfortable and secure accommodation for the elderly; and to advance research into autism, to name just a few projects.

Philanthropic programmes can range from a €2million donation to revive a French town by developing local infrastructure and creating residential initiatives, to a landowner donating unused land for a public footpath.

Recently, the Fondation was behind Solidarité Ukraine, providing financial aid to those affected by the conflict, and Solidarité Maroc, which raised more than €9million to help in the aftermath of this year’s earthquake.

“When you deal with philanthropy, you’re dealing with all the problems of the world – with environmental challenges, with poverty, with illness, with disabilities, with all the worst things that can happen to you,” said Mr Théret.

“But you’re working with people, building solutions. Even if they’re only little solutions, even if you’re only helping one child or one woman in difficulty, you’re building solutions.

“We cannot change the world, but we can take small steps. And if everyone is taking a small step, for me, that’s very positive.”

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‘Volunteers in the field are amazing’

He explained that philanthropy like this is a win-win for donors, volunteers and beneficiaries.

“Donors are happy because it’s an active role, it’s full of optimism.

“If you give, it’s because you believe your gift is worth something and will help, whatever the amount.

“And the volunteers, the people in the field, are amazing. What I love is being a little part in implementing a great solution for people.”

The Fondation opened an office in New York 25 years ago and one in Hong Kong last year. It also works with McGill University in Montreal to develop links between France and Canada.

In the UK, meanwhile, it has good relations with Oxford University, developing cross-border exchange grants for students.

‘Paying it forward is good for you’

During the Covid pandemic, it teamed up with AP-HP and the Institut Pasteur to form Tous unis contre le virus, which raised more than €40million. The project has a special place in Mr Théret’s heart.

“We managed to develop 800 programmes and an initiative in two-and-a-half months, which was incredible,” he said.

“What I like about this story is that it was a collective effort.

“I have very beautiful examples of individual philanthropy, but in this case everyone was trying to help. That was very heartwarming.

“It was a stressful period but it also made people realise they needed each other to get through it. And we did get through it. We didn’t save the world but we did help a lot of people.”

Mr Théret is an advocate of ‘paying it forward’, and after 10 years in his role he has learned that even small contributions can make a big difference to people’s lives.

“When you start to adopt this positive attitude, it really helps. Do something and it’s worth it. Even if it’s a small thing, it’s positive.

“Follow your heart and give to whatever organisation you want to.

“You don’t necessarily have to choose Fondation de France. But do something. It’s good for you. It’s good for others. It’s good for human beings and solidarity. And it helps incredible volunteers. It’s really worth it.”

See fondationdefrance.org for more information. The website is also available in English.

Anyone can donate to a project or create their own. British citizens living in the UK can donate via the Charities Aid Foundation, while US citizens can do so via Friends of Fondation de France.

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