Italian Philanthropy Forum

Glocal philanthropy. Fondazione Cottino: from Moncalieri towards the ambition of systemic change.

From being a family foundation, almost exclusively focused on the local territory, to igniting what aims to become the national point of reference for transformative innovation and a social impact culture. In a blunt-talk interview, I discussed with Giuseppe Dell’Erba, General Director of Fondazione Giovanni e Annamaria Cottino, the logics and evolutions of an Italian philanthropic model that has been characterized over its eighteen years of activity by the “heart & method” duo. 

1.The Cottino Foundation: a commitment by Giovanni Cottino and his wife Annamaria Di Bari - coming of age this year. Which are in your perspective the main evolutions and peculiarities characterizing this beautiful example of Italian philanthropy? 

Like many philanthropic realities, the Foundation was born from a simple necessity: a need by the founders to give something back to the territory in order to support the most fragile and vulnerable people. This vision was initially translated into a basic structure, with a governance composed by the grandchildren of Mr. Cottino. Over the years, the desire to pursue a new type of philanthropy emerged, based on an "entrepreneurial attitude" and a hands-on approach: this is the reason we started a professionalization and managerialization path within the Foundation, with an evolutionary and incremental perspective, always taking care of preserving the "heart" at the core, as the original engine of everything. Philanthropy for us today is the search for a balance between heart and method, between competence and passion, between tradition and innovation.   

With a clear goal: "for the common good and a better future"! We want to go beyond rhetoric or statements of circumstance, going where "common good" is above all "relational good" ... Where "better future" means freedom, human rights and sustainable development at a social, environmental and economic level. 

Going further ... And together, for people and for our territory. 

We are backed up by our path, by the international experience of venture philanthropy, by the advice and vision of experts as our Board Member Angelo Miglietta, by a strategic and operative model that adopts the typical entrepreneurial long-term perspective and goes beyond the triad "investment-development-exit ".

The Foundation has valued this path and I believe it represents a unicum at the Italian level, characterized by the typical values of our local entrepreneurship that spring from Mr. Cottino himself and by the Vice President Cristina Di Bari.

2.Funders and charities. A dualism that should be characterized by complementarity, but still too often we see these two sides on different power plans. Identifying rational selection criteria within the large amount of project proposals; safeguarding accountability but creating a relationship of trust; avoiding reporting over-burden... These are some of the aspects we deem essential and that we try to pursue within our Foundation. What do you think about it and what is your approach?  

Funders and charities. A dualism that should be characterized by complementarity, but still too often we see these two sides on different power plans. Identifying rational selection criteria within the large amount of project proposals; safeguarding accountability but creating a relationship of trust; avoiding reporting over-burden... These are some of the aspects we deem essential and that we try to pursue within our Foundation. What do you think about it and what is your approach? 

The relational trait is fundamental and this is reflected in the choice of the tools we make available. A call for proposal, for example, is an excellent option for collecting ideas from the territory but has a big limitation, as it does not allow to go deeper, getting to know the proposers and grasping dynamics that documentation alone cannot provide. It is true that the adoption of standards enables to standardize the process and ensures a level playing field, but the ability to directly collect information is essential for us. Personally, a perfect design proposal is not enough: acknowledging the hand of the professional grant-writer is not a guarantee by itself of the presence in the proposing organization of that part of heart and passion that must exist in every initiative to reassure us about its continuity and feasibility.

This is why, beyond classic communication channels such as our website where you can submit proposals, we strongly believe in the value of networks: the privileged way to reach us is through associations such as EVPA and Assifero; through the network of partners we have worked with; and through the personal relationships we develop. In the future we will give more and more value to the relational aspect than to the mere methodological one.

We evaluate proposals in the most possible inclusive way and we hardly refuse an initiative a priori. We want to pursue a model that tries to "connect". We often receive splendid projects that are not in line with our objectives and in that case we try not to say a simple "no": rather we work to put the proposing charity in contact with other realities of our network that may be interested in supporting it. This is an example of that little extra step that funders can take to contribute to a more open and collaborative philanthropic ecosystem. 

3.Impact assessment is a fundamental theme in some situations and under certain conditions, but maybe it has now been reduced to omnipresent commodity in almost every form, placed on the shoulders of charities, and rhetorically abused until it lost all of its meaning ...?

I can give you a first answer in numerical terms: of all the courses that the Cottino Social Impact Campus has planned for 2020, about 1 out of 20 has some elements of impact assessment. Implicitly this tells you to what extent the concept of "impact" is much wider for us than just "evaluation". 

I also believe that, although there is great value in the issue of evaluation, we are witnessing today a sort of market bubble, a situation of terminological abuse where certain words are on the lips of everyone, whether they are true experts or phonies. 

Personally, I believe in a few simple key rules, such as additionality, intentionality and effective positioning of the assessment within the planning phase of an intervention. These are healthy and broad principles of a process that must be customized for each individual project: I do not believe in a single measurement standard, in the "one size fits all" model. Above all, I believe that evaluation should never be the end goal of a philanthropic action, but a means to making it more effective, informed, shared.

4.Creating networks with other entities, such as foundations and businesses, by negotiating partnerships around common goals. Easy - and beautiful - to say, but how true is it in practice? How do you move as a Foundation? 

I believe that the fairy tale that there is no competition in the philanthropic world is, in fact, a fairy tale. Philanthropy and the third sector should not be seen as the "world of the good" vs the "world of the bad" represented by everyone else. There is competition as in all sectors, but I like to think that it is possible to find the right balance between the competitive and collaborative spirits.

The "co" (co-design, co-design, etc.) is often used opportunistically and out of turn: you hide behind this prefix to take advantage of the value that only one partner brings, praising and appropriating the work of others. It is different to work together in a positive way: co-designing is vital for us as long as this concept leverages on positive basis, with partners bringing different and complementary assets to achieving common objectives. The question we always keep at the centre is "what is your added value in the partnership?" …and we are not satisfied with just visibility or brands.

The Cottino Social Impact Campus: the example of how a family foundation can generate a truly innovative project aimed at systemic change. Can you tell us about this initiative and, more generally, about how the Foundation place itself vis-à-vis the concept of "innovation"?

The idea was born in 2017, in a moment of reconsideration of elements such as values, motivations, objectives of the Foundation: different souls and approaches were at stake, as well as the need to deeply understand the vision to be pursued. This element of introspection went well with a local need analysis: by combining these two components we realized that our society lacked a cultural capacity to read the new economic, political and civil patterns of today's world to respond to tomorrow’s challenges.

Thanks to partners such as Opera Torinese del Murialdo and SocialFare, we got to a concept of campus that combines physical infrastructure and enabling thinking; local geographic location within the Polytechnic of Turin - with a training open to all students and transformative organizations - and international positioning; a "Gift" to the town combined with the desire of establishing and supervising a long-term model and vision. 

We want to create something that can become a reference point in Italy, promoting research, training and social impact so that these components can communicate with each other, generating progress and innovation. Organizations and people interested in building a different, fairer, sustainable and inclusive future need an offer of transformative knowledge and culture. Cultural change passes through the exposure and learning of new theoretical and practical contents, successes and failures, at a national and international level. Academics, practitioners, researchers, policymakers and entrepreneurs converge on the Campus to share thought, know-how and experiments useful for building the culture of social impact.

It was not at all simple: it took us about 2 and a half years to go from idea to launch and we allocated €6 million for this project - but true innovation requires time and effort. Thanks to our capital endowment, we are able to make, invest, test without collecting external funds. The possibility of making mistakes, of failing, is a risk inherent in the concept of innovation. One example is the "grant of honor", a formula that we experimented with in our Applico Award: it entailed that the winning projects, if successful, would morally commit to return the cash prize received with the aim of recycling and allocating it on other similar philanthropic initiatives. This is an example of a simple innovation, potentially disruptive, based on the relational aspect that did not become successful, perhaps because it was poorly understood and / or poorly communicated - or simply because it was unsuitable for the current context. Innovating means risking, trying, evaluating results, and learning to go on.

Our philanthropic sector needs this type of innovation, this cultural and managerial leap. Italian foundations must equip themselves with the right managerial approaches, accepting the need for new skills in giving - which does not mean simply writing a check - and in working in a new way for the common good. The Cottino Social Impact Campus is a first step to contributing to this evolution. 

For more info

Giuseppe Dell’Erba

Giuseppe is the General Manager of Fondazione Cottino and Board Member of the Cottino Social Impact Campus. He joined the Foundation in 2016 with the main task of defining positioning, approach and operating model for the development and impact of the Foundation. With the mission of fostering a passion for entrepreneurship and creating an impact culture, Fondazione Cottino today focuses its philanthropic activities in the field of education through the Cottino Social Impact Campus; in the innovation field, by promoting entrepreneurial spirit and venture especially in the biomedical sector; finally, in the traditional charity sector, acting directly or alongside organizations and actors in the area. Giuseppe comes from the Zurich Financial Services insurance group, where he worked for five years as Life Chief Operating Officer of Italian and international units. Previously, Giuseppe worked at Marsh Italy as Deputy CEO and before that at Seat Pagine Gialle in Corporate Development. Giuseppe completed an MBA at SDA Bocconi and he is an Economics graduate at the University of Turin.

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