Why This Foundation Is Investing in GMF’s “Sardinia Dialogues”

July 05, 2022
Rickey Bevington
Carlo Mannoni
12 min read
Founded in 2018 by a group of passionate American and European alumni of German Marshall Fund (GMF) leadership programs, the mission of GMF’s Business and Society Working Group is to convene business executives from the United States and Europe to discuss how the private sector can contribute to tackling societal and political challenges that the world faces.

To quote the Aspen Institute:

Capitalism is the most powerful man-made force on the planet. It has played a central role in improving the quality of life for billions of people by constantly evolving through a delicate balancing act with government and civil society. When this relationship is in balance, capitalism is able to meet the needs of diverse communities, provide purpose and dignity to peoples’ lives, and create a shared and durable prosperity for all.

Among the GMF working group’s earliest members is Carlo Mannoni (MMF ’06), who serves as general manager at Fondazione di Sardegna, one of the top ten foundations in Italy. With a €20-million yearly average of total grants/endowments, the foundation focuses its action on civil society and local development. Under Mannoni’s leadership, the Fondazione di Sardegna provides critical support to the working group’s activities.

In this interview, Mannoni shares his views on the roles of the private sector and philanthropy on tackling societal and global challenges, including climate change, strengthening democracy, economic inclusion, and poverty. He also introduces us to the Sardinia Dialogues, a forum for cross-sectoral exchange that took place in Sardinia, Italy, in May 2022.

Rickey Bevington: What examples are you seeing in Sardinia and Italy of the private sector moving from focusing on the bottom line to being a force for good? 

Carlo Mannoni: Sustainability is increasingly becoming a key mainstream ingredient in economy and society. It is no longer an ethical choice but a real economic competitive advantage for companies, influencing businesses' adaptability and growth. As is widely recognized these days, sustainable companies are more stable, remunerative, and less subject to economic shocks.

Today we are witnessing two main trends: on the one hand, the private sector has finally been adopting and enforcing sustainable practices with a growing number of companies integrating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards into their business strategy and operations. New generations of consumers and shareholders are looking for sustainability in the product production process and they want to see and hear what companies stand for or their sense of purpose. Along the same line, employees also need to understand and connect with their company’s purpose, as it influences their level of dedication, productivity, and creativity at work. 

In Italy, an increasing share of small to medium enterprises are implementing environmental and social best practices and today the country is ranked first in circular economy practices and in waste recycling in Europe. While there is definitely a bigger push in northern Italy with a growing number of companies making investments guided by ESG principles, we can also see in Sardinia numerous local players moving in this direction or national companies investing wisely for a greener Sardinia.  

Are you seeing the same trends in the public sector?

The public sector has been gradually recognizing the need to leverage the innovation, expertise, markets, and capital that the private sector can bring and thus the role that businesses can play in global politics at all levels. Strong collaboration with governments is much needed to put in place sound environmental, social, and governance policies. As Larry Fink, Blackrock’s chairman, states in its latest letter to CEOs, capitalism has the power to shape society and act as a powerful catalyst for change: the partnership between government and the private sector in the development of Covid-19 vaccines has been emblematic of what a strong collaboration between the private and public sectors can achieve. In a similar vein, I deeply believe that we also need such a collaboration to allow for an ecological transition and thus decarbonize the global economy.

Climate change and the environment get the most attention of the ESG conversation. How is Europe leading on innovative policies and practices?

This is even more true if we take into consideration the rapid evolution of the energy sector and the development of the so-called energy transition. In the last decades, the urgency of fighting climate change has led Europe to introduce stricter targets on the reduction of Co2 emissions—the increase of the renewables share in the energy mix and the subsequent reduction of fossil fuels consumption, as well as the increase of the efficiency in using energy. This has been possible because of both virtuous European policies and the private sector’s rapid development in innovative technologies. This public-private partnership has turned Europe in the last two decades into the most sustainable continent in terms of energy use and production.

However, a lot still needs to be done. Europe still relies heavily on gas and oil supplies from North Africa, the Caspian Region, and Russia. The recent developments in Ukraine flagged the urgency for a stronger boost in deploying energy transition and in investing more in renewables and energy efficiency. European policy and legislative frameworks should be redesigned in order to ease the deployment of low carbon technologies. To do so, Europe should also redesign the capital market to allow green investment to grow. At the same time, the Ukraine crisis is further proving how the public-private partnership is today an asset crucial to leveraging international politics and to fighting dictatorial regimes: besides the military support given to the Ukraine army, the European response to the Russian invasion has been fully developed around financial and economic sanctions supported and guided by the private sector.

What is the role of philanthropic organizations in facilitating these kinds of changes both locally and globally?

Philanthropic organizations have become key players in solving global and local challenges related to social needs. In fact, I would consider them a driving force for lasting social change.

Foundations in particular are widely seen as mobilizers and enablers of social, cultural, and environmental change. Unlike other grant-giving actors, they are able to provide faster responses to urgent needs via a more flexible, nimble, and punctual use of funds, allowing grantees to promptly implement social projects. Let’s just think about the pandemic response. We have witnessed how these institutions, including several corporate foundations, excellently reacted in providing immediate responses to local and urgent needs. But this is not it: foundations are investing more in supporting social entrepreneurship projects, thus profoundly shaping the marketplace for social good. They not only bring new capital to the impact investment, but they have the potential, the capacity and—I would say—often the neutrality to engage new actors, including business leaders and governments, to dialogue and provide joint responses on the future of the social impact sector. Thus, as a connector between the private and public sectors, they blur the traditional lines between donors, institutions, corporations, and non-profit/non-governmental organizations by bringing in new diverse investors and owners to positively impact the traditional charity sector.

Hence, I am convinced that philanthropy is uniquely positioned to break the silo approach and serve as a catalyst for new and more diverse private-public joint responses to understand global and local needs and investment opportunities, and to promote social change in a more effective, participative, and innovative way.

How is your foundation doing its part?

Like other foundations, Fondazione di Sardegna has dedicated a considerable part of its budget to projects dedicated to social support and the basic needs of the weakest areas of Sardinian society. Over the past decade, Fondazione has adopted a more socially oriented investment policy, reserving a portion of its assets for "mission-related" investments, devoting significant resources to activities in line with its institutional objectives, and making significant commitments in various areas such as venture capital funds, the clean energy, green tech, and social housing sectors, and planning to invest further resources in instruments with high SRI and ESG profiles. In addition, it has launched a new internal project, the Zero Emissions Project, aimed at progressively reducing the environmental impact generated by the foundation’s activities to achieve net-zero carbon operations by 2030. Just a few months ago, we approved €67 million in grants for the 2022-2024 three-year program to be spent on projects related to art, health, local development, and volunteering areas, and we aim to enhance the integration of ESG criteria into our strategy and grant-making requirements. I consider this very crucial to influencing grantees’ operations, missions, and outcomes, and subsequently increasing the impact and efficiency of the social causes we fund.

Why is the German Marshall Fund uniquely positioned to become a leader in this space?

Considering the unprecedented, turbulent geopolitical situation we are facing today, fostering transatlantic dialogues, strengthening relations between Europe and the United States, and promoting values of democracy are more important than ever. I believe GMF, as a long-lasting institution working on issues critical to transatlantic interests in the 21st century, such as the future of democracy, security, and geopolitics, leadership, and innovation, can play a crucial role in fostering debate among business leaders, civil society organizations, and governments.

More broadly, the current situation has proved again just how real and how necessary the alliances built over the last decades are. Think of how NATO, the European Union, and all the historical treaties that in recent years were considered anachronistic and dormant, have gained enormous relevance today, in particular following Russia’s war in Ukraine. By the same token, GMF is uniquely positioned in bridging thinking and policymaking of both sides of the Atlantic, which history has proven to be extremely useful today. In this regard, 2022 is a special year for the German Marshall Fund. Not only does this year mark the 50th anniversary of GMF’s creation, but it is also the 75th anniversary of Secretary of State George Marshall’s historic Harvard University speech that outlined the policy contours of what became the Marshall Plan, whose historical significance and mission, “giving the people of Europe hope,” is even more notable nowadays. Emblematic of this, US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm referenced the plan at the International Energy Agency’s ministerial meeting in Paris, inviting the audience to reflect on what could be today’s version of the Marshall Plan for clean and secure energy in 2022 and beyond.

The 2018 founding of the business and society working group supported GMF’s mission: in particular, the group was created specifically to convene business executives from the United States and Europe to discuss how the private sector can tackle the world’s societal and political challenges. Business is the key source of job creation, economic development, and high-quality innovation, providing every society with engines of efficiency, wealth creation, and the ability to meet consumer demands ranging from the very basic to the most complex. In today’s hyper-globalized and technologically connected world, business leaders must act beyond the traditional and strongly collaborate with the public sector to respond with tailor-made policies that meet the current geopolitical and economic situation. Through the business and society working group, I and other GMF fellows aim to provide strategic and practical answers to assist GMF in advancing identified solutions in their communities. Our intention is to produce a road map for a 4,000-strong alumni community to forge a new role for business in society and to identify the strategies and leadership qualities required to thrive in this new era of increased engagement.

Why has the Fondazione di Sardegna decided to invest in this work through GMF?

The idea of organizing the Sardinia Dialogues (May 20–22, 2022, in Cagliari, Sardinia) emerged in 2019 through discussions within GMF’s Business and Society Working Group. During these exchanges, it became clear that there was a desire to foster debate on the roles that private sector, business, and technology play in our globally interconnected world, and on its potential to advocate for better governance, strengthen democratic systems, and make our economy more sustainable. Considering the increased and accelerating focus on ESG in both the public and private sectors, we agreed to focus on the following topics at the event in Sardinia: how companies integrate ESG standards into their operations and investment processes; how they can join forces with NGOs, SMEs, and more nimble business to improve their role in society as a catalyst for sustainable change; how business leaders can become more accountable to ESG standards; and how business and finance can be major drivers of an ecological transition.

In addition, these topics are very dear to me. Through my current role as director general of Fondazione di Sardegna and an Investors Committee member for several VC funds (United Venture, Vertis Venture e Italia Venture), the ESG space has always been anchored to my career path.

There are two reasons why I proposed that the Dialogues take place in Sardinia: one, as I am grateful for the wonderful opportunity I was given as a 2006 Marshall Memorial Fellow, hosting the event is a way for me to give back. Two, at Fondazione, we deem it very crucial to build and nurture relationships with national and international partners, and bringing in the GMF leaders community represents a great opportunity to bridge our local economy to the international landscape. In addition, we, as Fondazione di Sardegna and as a community in a broader sense want to turn Sardinia into a hub for best practices and for experimenting with and deploying sustainable solutions both in economic and social terms.

My wish is to turn this gathering into a periodic summit aimed at conveying a diverse group of committed, motivated international leaders to dialogue on the roles that business and the private sector play in the geopolitical landscape, in today’s changing world. A different way of interpreting the inner meaning of the word island: not as a synonym of isolation, but as a stepping stone toward a new and more sustainable society.

About the authors:

Carlo Mannoni 

Carlo Mannoni (EMMF 2006) is the general manager at Fondazione di Sardegna, one of the top ten foundations in Italy. With a €20 million yearly average of total grants/endowments, the foundation focuses its action on civil society and local development. Before joining Fondazione, from 2001 to 2015, Mannoni worked at Tiscali, first as business development manager, then head of the wholesale department, and finally as Public & International Affairs Director, member of Organismo di Vigilanza L. 231, and head of Internal Audits. Prior to this, he worked as a manager on the staff of the Minister of Foreign Trade (1997–2000) in the framework of promotion and financial support for Italian SMEs entering global markets, and at Banca Nazionale del Lavoro in the corporate finance department (1993–1997). Apart from being an EMMF, Mannoni is also a member of the Council for Italy-United States Relations Young Leaders Program (since 1999) and until 2011 was a member of the Steering Committee of the Italian Association of Internet Providers.

Rickey Bevington

Rickey Bevington is president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta and Executive in Residence at Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business. Prior to joining the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, Bevington spent two decades as an award-winning television and radio producer, reporter and anchor at Georgia Public Broadcasting, PBS Newshour, National Public Radio, Marketplace, Connecticut Public Radio, WFSB TV-3, Sundance Channel and Showtime Network.

In 2020, she was named a Young Leader of the French-American Foundation that champions the two nations’ centuries-old alliance. The year prior, she traveled through Ukraine observing propaganda and voter engagement during the election of President Volodymyr Zelensky. In 2018, Bevington examined media freedoms in Hungary and in Serbia. Bevington is a recipient of the Marshall Memorial Fellowship of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. In 2013, Bevington traveled through the US Department of State to Sri Lanka and India to study Tamil politics.

Bevington serves on the board of the Atlanta Press Club and is a trustee of the Georgia Council for International Visitors. She graduated magna cum laude from Barnard College of Columbia University with a degree in comparative.