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Peter Brey on diversity in foundation boards

In a context marked by the #metoo movement and the Swiss women strike, diversity in foundation boards is a topical issue. Peter Brey, Vice-President of SwissFoundations, was interviewed by Celine Yvon, Head of Programmes, Trafigura Foundation, who lead a workshop on this topic during the 18th Swiss Foundation Symposium on 21 May 2019 in Thun.
Céline Yvon: Today we conducted a workshop on promoting diversity in leadership positions of Swiss foundations. What were the reasons that brought you to attend this session?
Peter Brey: Promoting diversity is a topic that many people talk about, but I wanted to understand specifically how relevant Swiss foundations felt it was for them. The workshop was chock-a-block – not only packed with women but also with men attending, a very good sign of the subject’s relevance. I found the discussion fascinating in that it highlighted why and how diversity is indeed important. In order to understand society, one does need different backgrounds, viewpoints and experiences. Diversity is often reduced to the gender element but diversity of age, of professional, socio-economic and cultural background – all those dimensions matter. Personally, I find the question of including the younger generation, and how best to do so, particularly important. As one of the workshop’s participants said: young people who were born with the digital revolution think and relate to others differently than the older generation does. I also found it quite interesting that just taking on board one woman, one young person, or whoever to strengthen diversity – well, that’s not going to be enough. Experience shows that we need to have a sort of “critical mass” to influence the overall dynamics. And of course it’s the dynamic that counts.
Statistics tell us that in Swiss foundations, women represent about 30% of Board and of senior management – which by way of comparison, is slightly better than the for-profit sector (20%). Of course, the question is whether that’s enough; and from the outside, one may have the impression that many foundations are still dominated by retired civilized gentleman, reflecting the way society worked 20 years ago. This, of course, is inexact. However, as Foundation we must take care not to be out of sync with society, and not being aware of it because – how do we find that out? We don’t have profit and loss accounts that at the end of the year tell us neatly whether we have done things right or not. Our (triple?) bottom-line is more complicated than that. I think that promoting diversity in our governance structure (boards, committees, sounding boards etc.) is a relevant conversation to have, and I look forward to continuing it next year.

Céline Yvon: When it comes to Switzerland, what are the current challenges and opportunities that you see in moving ahead on this conversation about diversity?
Peter Brey: Today a panellist asked the plenary meeting, who among our Symposium’s participants thought that our current societal system worked and conversely, who thought it was dysfunctional and needed to be revamped. Among our audience of 500 people, only one person said our system was more or less effective. Given the audience in the room, I found this really amazing. It suggests that collectively we start to really let sink in that we are facing quite major challenges, potential crises, in societies that are getting more and more complex. It is therefore a requirement to have more diverse voices in our foundation structures to help us reflect and address these properly – and to stay relevant.  If we need to be in sync with society, diversity becomes a priority.
Céline Yvon: And as the umbrella organisation of foundations in our country, what can SwissFoundations do in this regard?
Peter Brey: SwissFoundations has no desire nor mandate to dictate anything to our members – but what we can do is stimulating a discussion. That’s exactly what we did today, and we can further such exchanges in the future, among members who are interested – so that information circulates and ultimately, inspires people.