Working internationally: what it means in practice

Parochialism, populism and protectionism have re-emerged as potent forces in the UK, US, Europe and elsewhere. Yet, in an increasingly complex world, with many problems and their solutions inherently global, what do we know about foundations’ ways of working internationally? Programme Officer Jess Loring of Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch) and Philanthropy Consultant Diana Leat report on the Foundation’s recent survey

Some foundations are very explicitly focused on local issues but most of the larger foundations profess interest in issues that transcend national boundaries. Our research found that there’s no blueprint to working internationally but there is increased awareness of the need – the focus on supporting climate action is an example – and different approaches can be instructive.

The research was conducted in 2019 by the  Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch) and the European Foundation Centre (EFC). It targeted foundations, predominantly operating in one or more European countries, to identify approaches to working cross-border. The findings of a survey were explored further in more discursive telephone interviews with nine foundations involved in international working. Twenty-one organisations responded to the survey. Respondents were strongly concentrated in Europe, reflecting the survey pool of organisations in the EFC network.

Four of the 21 respondents do not work internationally but one of those is planning to do so in future. Seven of the 17 respondents who describe themselves as working internationally have offices in more than one country, and eight have an office in only one country but make grants in other countries. A further two respondents do not fund in other countries but see themselves as working internationally in other ways (for example. international competitions, prizes, convening etc).

All but one organisation consider working internationally to be important. Indeed, for 11 of the 17 organisations that work internationally, it is part of their mandate. In contrast, two of the organisations that do not work internationally are prevented from doing so by their mandate. The second strongest motivation is impacting more beneficiaries, and the third is ‘to be close to the ground’. For some, international working is their core purpose; for others working internationally is a means of achieving their purpose.

Other reasons why cross-country working is considered important vary. For some it is part of their mission and is ‘baked in’ to the foundation. For others it is an active choice (stimulated by donor interests in some cases). Reasons for importance include:

  • The need to live together as neighbours in an increasingly globalised commercial world and to support co-operation between cultures.
  • The need to protect the decreasing space for civil society, to support civil society in promoting change and in holding increasingly powerful global corporations to account.
  • Protecting and promoting the benefits of the European Union.
  • To counter the tendency of government by national boundaries to miss opportunities for cross-country collaboration and learning.
  • The global nature of many issues.


It is clear from the survey that ‘international working’ has different meanings and motivations and is organised in very different ways. The telephone interviews reveal a range of difficulties in exploring international working by foundations, including definition. The term ‘international working’ covers a range of ways of working. It may mean:

  • Giving grants and overseeing programmes in one or more states other than that in which the foundation is registered, on the same continent or on different continents.
  • Networking with foundations and other organisations in countries other than that in which the foundation is registered.
  • Taking an active part in creating cross-country coalitions, networks, convening, study tours etc to create cross-border dialogue.
  • Supporting NGOs focused on influencing policy at an international level.

Probing deeper

The telephone interviews reveal a range of difficulties in exploring international working by foundations.

Use of the terms ‘offices’ and ‘branches’ is problematic. A foundation may have representatives in other countries for example through ‘delegations’, through a corporate presence (a bank perhaps), through family members and/or trustees, or through ‘partners’ or grantees. Whether these are ‘offices’ is questionable.

There is a general desire to keep staff numbers small. The cost of different structures is seen as a matter of balance, and some suggest that there is no ideal structure for working across countries – it depends on what you are doing and the wider environment.

Structure and power need to be distinguished; for example, while management of day-to-day operations may be devolved, strategy tends to be centrally decided by the home office (although in some cases representatives in other countries may make suggestions).


Countries in which a foundation works may be chosen for historical, donor, family or corporate reasons – or in some cases because that is where learning/sharing is considered potentially most useful. Some countries or continents may be specifically excluded (for instance on the grounds that they are already well covered by others). Respondents generally see no limit on issues for international working in theory, even if in practice the focus of the foundation’s cross-country work tends to be relatively narrow.


All respondents – including those with programmes in the UK – expect Brexit to have a little direct impact on their foundation’s work. The ‘Brexit effect’ is more widely viewed as indicative of the rise of populism (in Europe, the US and elsewhere), which in itself is a matter of considerable direct and indirect concern.

Those surveyed feel that this is a critical moment in the development of Europe and question whether foundations could do more to mitigate the effects of the trend in some countries toward a more inward-looking focus.

Obstacles and challenges

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the most commonly mentioned obstacle or challenge to working internationally is different regulatory regimes. Different languages and cultures were also cited as a challenge; employing local people who are culturally sensitive is felt to be valuable. History could also be an obstacle or challenge if that involves a relationship with colonial roots

Being confident about the quality of local knowledge is considered very important and usually depends on the creation and maintenance of local networks, which requires time and effort. Respondents agree that working across borders demands different skills to UK working – but no-one has yet developed special training programmes.

Other obstacles and challenges are the shrinking space for civil society in some countries, the economic and political climate of populism and austerity, and the growing difficulties in sending and receiving money (for the donor and the grantee) across borders.

Finally, for some the difficulty is to persuade the trustee board that working ‘out of country or region’ can still be of domestic benefit.

Sharing learning

EFC and other foundation networks are considered the most important avenues for sharing and learning. Interviewees are keen to share more but note the time required to assess and document and then to share material, as well as finding a balance between sharing and spending too much time in meetings or conferences. Some point out that sharing experience can be done by the grantee in addition to or rather than the foundation.

One person highlights the value of hosting an exchange between foundations across borders, as well as opportunities to develop global digital platforms for sharing knowledge within and across sectors. There is a plea for better aggregate data on foundations and international working.


Approaches to international working, what it means and how it is governed and managed is an under-researched issue. At the same time, it appears to be a subject of growing concern to many foundations as they observe wider global trends in increasingly inter-dependent and yet fractured societies.

To complement existing work, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch) is scoping new activity which has the potential for impact for those in greatest need within and beyond the UK. Calouste Gulbenkian himself spent his life collaborating across the world. He would have been bewildered by the current resurgent nationalism and concerned by the growing threat to the natural world he so loved. The UK Branch is prioritising support for climate action in its inquiry as to where it can act in its quest to fulfil the founder’s wishes to benefit ‘all humanity’. Further announcements will be made in due course.

*This article originally appeared in the December 2019 edition of Trust & Foundation News*

Updated on 04 january 2022

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