Real estate for the public good. A problematisation of the public value of real estate management by philanthropic organisations.


  • Francesco Campagnari Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales


Philanthropy, Real estate, Public good, Banking foundations, Pragmatism




This contribution focuses on philanthropic organisations and their management of real estate assets. While scholarship has often framed philanthropic organisations as actors using their resources for the «public good» (Anheier, 2001), others have instead adopted a more critical approach, highlighting the need to inquire the influence of philanthropic institutions on urban governance (Fuentenebro and Acuto, 2022).
The contribution aims to further understand philanthropic organisations by problematizing the public value of their actions. It means avoiding assuming a priori that their operations have a public utility and considering that these operations are seen as publicly relevant and legitimate by some involved actors. The contribution explores the social processes of evaluation, critique, and judgment about what makes the actions of philanthropic organisations publicly relevant, by which we mean, following Dewey (1927), actions that affect not only the involved actors but also a wider community. 
In particular, the contribution focuses on the management of real estate assets by philanthropic institutions – hitherto scarcely explored. These assets are interesting because some of these institutions, like the Italian Banking Foundations, can use them both to directly pursue social goals (e.g. offering low-cost spaces or restoring built heritage) and to generate revenue (e.g. generating revenue by renting these spaces) (Leardini, Rossi and Todesco, 2010). Exploring how they are managed and claimed to be publicly relevant can shed new light on how these organisations act and how their public relevance is built and sustained.
The contribution presents the case of the transformation of the former industrial complex of the Magazzini Generali in Verona, Italy, by the Cariverona Foundation. Initially planned in the ‘90s by the Municipality of Verona to become a cultural district, the area was then sold to Cariverona to implement this project. Over the last 20 years, though, Cariverona diverted the project on the basis of considerations of economic sustainability, creating a financial and commercial district, from which to acquire revenue.
Exploring the iterative phases of planning, implementation and public representation of this project in a public arena (Cefaï, 2016), the contribution shows that the courses of action of philanthropic organisations and their associated public utility are not autonomously defined, but they result from broader planning and public processes influenced by other actors. The contribution argues that the management of real estate by philanthropic actors can be influenced by their economic needs. It further claims that these reorientations can be legitimized through a recalibration of the arguments of the public benefits associated with the projects and through the publicisation and problematisation of the economic sustainability of these actors.


Anheier, H.K. (2001) ‘Foundations in Europe: A comparative perspective’, Foundations, (August), pp. 34–34.

Cefaï, D. (2016) ‘Publics, problèmes publics, arènes publiques…: Que nous apprend le pragmatisme ?’, Questions de communication, (30), pp. 25–64. Available at:

Dewey, J. (1927) The public and its problems. New York. Swallow Press.

Fuentenebro, P. and Acuto, M. (2022) ‘The gifted city: Setting a research agenda for philanthropy and urban governance’, Urban Studies, 59(9), pp. 1944–1955. Available at:

Leardini, C., Rossi, G. and Todesco, C. (2010) ‘Governance e accountability nelle Fondazioni Bancarie’, Economia Aziendale Online, 1(4). Available at: