Be bold, be different - A leader’s parting thoughts
Luc Tayart de Borms helped transform the King Baudouin Foundation during 27 years as Chief Executive Officer. Stepping down on May 1, he spoke of changes, but also of what remains the same for an institution that embraces risk, innovation – and doing things differently…
Covid-19, floods, now war… Do philanthropic foundations have to be crisis managers these days?
We can’t let the newspapers set our agenda! Our role is to keep a certain distance and to look at things more structurally. I’ve seen many crises – that’s the old man talking! – and no matter how dramatic things seem, they drop out of the news. Yet when it's no longer in the media, it's still important. Take the Balkans as an example. People pay much less attention to that region than when we started in the 1990s, and yet nothing is resolved. That’s why we are still there.
So, taking the long view is a priority?
Foundations don’t have to win elections. We’re not on the stockmarket. So we can take along-term view. But the challenge is to be seen to be relevant in the short term as well as impactful over the longer term. For example, we have worked for 10 years on dementia, but we can’t simply focus only that and ignore the fact that Covid comes along. I think we have managed to have that balance between long-term programmes - on dementia, or on poverty in Belgium for example - while also playing our part when society faces crises. We’re not a humanitarian organisation but we can help, especially by helping philanthropists to donate to those who are.
You’ve made a priority of expanding international cooperation. Why?
Problems in Belgium are interlinked with developments abroad. We’ve seen that very clearly in recent years. I found it ridiculous that European NGOs, dealing with European issues, had to write to six or seven foundations just to get money. Now, with the Network of European Foundations, Transnational Giving Europe and since last year, globally, with Myriad, we have made these processes simpler. It wasn’t always easy. Not everyone agreed. But at a certain point I had to stop talking and started doing! I’m quite proud that we are able to work together.
Was it important to raise KBF’s international profile?
We punch above our weight. We were – and still are - a modest, smaller foundation, which has made us, I think, creative and innovative. But when I started taking a close interest in our international partners, I was going around not because I wanted to raise the profile but because I wanted to steal ideas - I believe very much in imitation more than in innovation! And that has had the good effect that it also put the Foundation on the map, in Europe and internationally.
KBF’s assets have also grown enormously. Has that changed the institution?
We went from 77 million euros to about a billion and a half. I guess if I were a business leader, I’d have had some nice bonuses! But of course, it's to the credit of the team. We did it by being different. Many institutions target very high net worth individuals, but we look to the middle class, targeting smaller legacies, but many more of them. It has made us financially very secure and has helped guarantee our independence. About half our funding used to come from the National Lottery, which is subject to political review every four years. Now, it’s about 9%. It was my ambition to distinguish the King Baudouin Foundation from the Belgian state and from the royal family, for KBF to be its own brand - and our opinion surveys show that has succeeded. At the same time, the Lottery is still very important because it's seed money and it makes us accountable to the public. This is a very good thing.
You’ve spoken of the importance of risk-taking. Is failure the key to success?
If philanthropy has any role, it has to be a little bit different from others, in the public sector or corporations. If we just copy others, in communication, in due diligence, in compliance, we lose our specificity. Always to do what the others don’t. Otherwise, I’m just doing what the others do and that’s not much fun! And I’m not afraid of failure. We have the enormous luxury to be able to try trial and error and to fail. That’s an enormous added value. Which other organisation can do that today without putting its own survival at stake? I never pushed anyone out of the Foundation because they made a mistake. In fact, we give an triennal award for “Best Failure”, something we can learn from. The first person I told he had failed was someone who thought he’d had no failures at all. Sorry, I told him, you didn’t do your job. You don’t have any failures because you didn’t take any risks. You learn from failures. You learn that we’re not in the world of Newton, where everything moves in a linear way. It’s more chaotic. We are in the hands of others. So, you have to be modest, but you have to be very ambitious.
A word of advice for your successor, Brieuc Van Damme?
The challenge is, with the growth in the Foundation, to keep its DNA. The more you grow, the harder it can be to convince everyone to take risks. But I trust my successor. I’d say, be different, stay independent, pluralistic, and entrepreneurial. But also, he has to be himself. He’s from this century, I’m from the last century. So he has to work in this century. He has to find his own way and make his own mistakes. You have to be a little bit naive to do the job. You can lose that over the years, so stay naive as long as you can!
Can you sum up how KBF works to change society?
We are small, we are working in niches. We are acupuncturists, trying to find leverage for change.