Episode 3: Inclusion in Philanthropy with Emilie Nicolas

Moving past token inclusion requires a deeper cultural shift

Why It Matters

Inclusion needs to be more than just a symbolic move in philanthropy, says anthropologist and columnist Emilie Nicolas. To truly have an inclusive sector, we need full representation of people and ideas at all levels of organizations.

For our third episode of Edge & Main, Future of Good’s podcast on the trends, tensions, and transformations of today that will define the world of tomorrow, we sat down with Emilie Nicolas, an anthropologist and columnist with Quebec’s Le Devoir.

Nicolas is the co-founder of Québec inclusif, which works to unite individuals against racism and social exclusion, and she frequently comments on human rights issues for media. Listen to our episode with Nicolas below.

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It really feels like the world of philanthropy is at the beginning of a new type of relationship with society, and there’s no going back. And in many ways, for you as an anthropologist, you have the privilege of reflecting and looking back at history and unpacking and helping us learn from where we come from. So let’s start with this: inclusion is a hot topic and philanthropy is in the hot seat right now. I’m really hoping that inclusion and philanthropy are on some sort of positive collision course in the near future. But from your vantage point, as an anthropologist looking back at our past approaches, outlooks, and worldviews, what lessons should we have learned but haven’t yet?

I think to answer the question about inclusion in philanthropy, you need to go back to what philanthropy actually is and where it comes from. Especially in this country and other countries that are similar to ours, in the last couple of centuries, there’s been a massive accumulation of wealth by private companies and that wealth has been amassed in the hands of a few people. There is also government, so there’s the public sector, but the public sector also has been influenced by those who have been building wealth in Canada and in the United States. And philanthropy is a way for people who’ve been able to accumulate private wealth to be able to influence the society around them, basically.

When we think about inclusion, then we’re looking at an institution that’s been built on the exclusion of some people from the ability to have wealth or to accumulate wealth. The people who have that wealth are trying to build foundations, trying to somehow mitigate some of the effects of the wealth inequalities that have been happening in society.

So we’re talking about the massive strokes that I’m painting, which might sound to some people like a caricature, but it’s very much the basics of what’s happening. So when you’re trying to have more inclusive philanthropy, you’re trying to do a little bit better with their right hand the things that have been a little bit taken away with the left hand, as a way to build a form of equilibrium in a way. But I do believe that, because we’re not about to abolish capitalism and all of that in a day, I do think that it’s better to do that than to do nothing at all.

And so in that sense, yes, there are ways in which people who have gained wealth can be listening more to the communities that don’t have as much and trying to make a difference there. There’s ways in which, as a person that has more wealth, you can do not as much damage as the next person. There’s ways in which you can actually do good, and that’s what we’re here for — but I think it was important to premise my answer with that, because when we talk about inclusion as a way to distribute wealth, I think we don’t always get why it can be so tense and why there can be so much frustration if we don’t also mention how some people have been excluded from wealth and that’s why, that’s why philanthropy is somewhat needed in the first place, right?

Where is inclusion and philanthropy headed when you sort of look ahead at the next decade or so? There’s so much change in society — what are the types of shifts that you think we can anticipate in the next 10 years?

I think in Canada, specifically, because there’s been this baby boom, there’s a lot of wealth that is in the hands of baby boomers right now, and some of them are about to retire and, slowly, there will be a huge generation shift in the wealth. A lot of millennials are about to inherit, and when you look at the numbers, you can see that trend. As a new generation comes to control some of the inherited wealth in this country, they’re going to shift their approach to how and where they want to donate to, how they want to do good, what impact they want to have in society.

This is very much going to be shaped by the values that this generation has. So I would think that a good part of the wealth shift or the shift in philanthropy are connected to each other, so that if millennials are in control, perhaps we’re going to see priorities change, perhaps we’re going to see organization of the workplace change. Perhaps we’re going to see how people naturally understand power inequalities and hierarchies, as well, in terms of decision-making, are going to shift as well. Once again, this is very broad, but these are some of the key things that we’ve been noticing in terms of what millennials do when they are in charge. A little bit more flexibility, a little bit more of that entrepreneurial, startup approach, rather than the big, bureaucratic thing that baby boomers used to love.

There’s a little bit of that at work already — it’s mostly just individual donors, people who have spare income and they’re trying to make a difference. If young people have different values, they’re going to give to different causes as well.

How confident are you that, as young people are inheriting this wealth, that they aren’t also inheriting the values of a previous generation?

Well, it depends on what topic. On some topics: yes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. But in terms of — I am most familiar with Quebec’s polling and generation analysis, but I can see that being the truth in the rest of the country as well — there’s definitely different attitudes toward diversity. There’s more of an integrated idea that this place is diverse, and when you don’t see it in a room, there’s something wrong. People notice it faster, just because of the world in which they were raised. There’s definitely more awareness around the environment, so the climate change crisis is definitely a priority that’s more in the minds of those who will still be alive when hell freezes over.

So you can definitely see that those changes are there. There’s other ways in which — even though people might have different values when they’re young and are working, or starting to work in more established legacy organizations — they might just pick up the culture of the workplace and then reproduce it rather than change it. So it also depends on obviously people’s individual trajectory, but I can see that there’s room for change with the generation transfer of wealth.

How inclusive is inclusive enough?

I think that’s an interesting question, and the answer to that depends on what you mean or how you define inclusion. For me, the word “inclusion” always entails this idea that there is a group that’s kind of the core group, or the group that’s already there, that’s already established, that has the goodwill or the goodness of heart to then include others and be like, “You’re welcome.” But you don’t need a “you’re welcome,” when you’re actually also yourself a host, if it’s your house, right?

When you’re welcomed as a newcomer, that already entails that it’s not your house. So the question of “When is enough inclusion enough?” is, for me, when the whole notion of inclusion starts to evaporate: when you have shared enough power, when people feel included enough that the notion of those were there — doing the inclusion of the others — disappears because everybody’s on the same level ground. So if it’s not the core majority that is being inclusive of the margins, then you don’t have a core and you don’t have the margin anymore, right?

So that’s when you’re still talking about inclusion. When you have equality, or rather when you have equity, you’re not seeing any of those things anymore, because the diversity of people is at the top as well. So it’s not a matter of “I’m an outsider,” and “I’m including you.” That whole notion ceases to exist when we’re at that point.

For us to get from where we are to where we’d like to be, it really feels like there are some serious tensions that we will have to grapple with and navigate. What are some of those tensions, in your mind, that we will have to understand and grapple with in making that transition?

In my own experience doing a lot of facilitation of workshops — anti-oppression workshops, human rights workshops — at organizations, a lot of the tensions are about power at the end of the day. It’s about people trying to work at being good, inclusive people without working power dynamics. And then when you get at the power part of it, people don’t want to relinquish power, and that’s where the roadblock is. It can manifest in many ways in different organizations.

It’s about being used to being in charge of the agenda and being good at diversity being around as long as I’m still in charge of how that diversity is around, as long as I’m still the one getting the merit for the diversity being around, and as long as I am still the one organizing what the priorities are going to be for that diversity and how people are going to behave. As long as you’re trying to get to a point in organizations where you’re challenging that — for example, when the programming is not decided from a top-down point of view, when you’re trying to have inclusion of people on boards rather than as interns — then you get that resistance.

Or the other way around: when people are trying to not have diversity of faces but the diversity of ideas that come with the different life experiences that people bring, a lot of the time the reactions will be, “Well, this doesn’t fit in our work culture. You need to adapt.” So there’s often this idea that if an idea is different or a perspective is different, sometimes it’s welcome, but sometimes as well it’s just that the person just doesn’t understand yet. They need to be culturally integrated more into the workplace culture, and when that happens, then the person that doesn’t fit in the traditional demographic of those who have been hired then starts to feel like their input is not actually valued, then there is a pattern of demotivation and the person starts leaving.

Once again, I’m more familiar with the Quebec data, but I know there’s been extensive studies of women — women of colour specifically — going into the nonprofit sector and then leaving after this cycle that I’ve just described: people being included and then trying to bring new ideas, then those ideas are seen as not quite compatible with what the workplace is supposed to be, and then the person is actually starting to be labeled as not fitting in. That’s the cycle that we’re trying to break.

When trying to break that cycle — for you, personally — what’s the emotional and psychological toll it takes to educate others about what privilege means?

For me, it’s not too bad, in the sense that because I mostly work as a consultant. I come into organizations, I tell them perhaps you should be doing this and this and that, and then it’s not my issue. From what I’ve seen, it’s more of a problem for people who, from nine to five Monday to Friday, have to choose between their integrity and just keeping the peace.

For example, when there’s nonprofit organizations or foundations that work with marginalized communities — but don’t have a lot of people that are actually from those communities involved in the leadership of the organization — and then there’s one of two people who are usually younger, usually women, who come in who are actually from those communities, and the burden is on them to educate. It’s not just, you know, “We should do a better job,” it’s also that they’re thinking about the human beings that they love so much, and so people become very emotionally involved in trying to change a workplace.

It becomes more than a workplace. It’s about trying to stop sometimes even the harm that’s been happening to the community, especially when we’re talking about the Indigenous communities — there’s very much this relationship sometimes of just trying to stop the harm. And when people don’t listen, or when people question you, you then have to make really tough decisions that can impact your career because that’s where the power is, that’s where the power of making references are. So people make very excruciating decisions on a daily basis when they have to work within organizations that don’t necessarily have allies, that have the power on top, to be able to really have their voice heard in a way that’s not gonna be an uphill battle or they’re not going to put themselves at risk for speaking the truth.

I think that would be a good way to end this: when people do truth speaking, such as what I tried to do, and they just start by saying, “Philanthropy starts with inequality, accumulation of wealth in this capitalist, settler, colonial society.” These are very uncomfortable things to say, but these are really necessary things to say, and when you make people who have some power uncomfortable, you never know what the consequences will be. So truth seeking and truth speaking is something that people do at their own risk. But I just wish sometimes people could understand that if you are risking so much just to be speaking those truths, those truths might have some value.

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