OP-ED: Unmasking inequity: A closer look at the social impact sector’s willful ignorance about Palestine

Why does the social impact sector opt for the safety of silence?

Why It Matters

In this Op-Ed, Paula Sahyoun of The Palestine Impact Collective challenges charitable organizations to speak up about the genocide in Palestine without fear.

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
Photo of Paula Sahyoun of the Palestine Impact Collective
Paula Sahyoun of The Palestine Impact Collective. (Supplied photo.)

How would you describe our sector to someone outside our usual circles? We’d say picture a diverse tapestry of organizations united by a shared mission: tackling environmental and societal challenges head-on. We’re all about transforming the systems that shape our world, paving the way for an equitable, more progressive future. 

I’ve been working in the impact investing and social impact space since 2016, and this is what drew me to the sector in the first place. In this space, we’re constantly challenging the status quo, embracing bold innovations, changing systems, and placing radical transparency and empathy at the heart of everything we do.

When we talk about systems change, it’s about shaking up the conditions that keep problems locked in place, as beautifully put by Social Innovation Generation. But here’s the thing: despite our sector’s strong commitment to justice and equity, there’s a glaring gap. We’re not applying these principles evenly – most recently evident with the reaction (or lack thereof) to the genocide in Palestine. 

Essentially, the social impact sector can be summed up as PEP: Progressive Except for Palestine. Popularized by Mark Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick, this term highlights a troubling trend where many progressives apologize for or otherwise support – whether intentionally or not – Israel’s violent apartheid system despite championing causes like immigrant rights, LGBTQ+ equality, and racial justice. It appears to me that our sector follows this same trend. We need to confront this cognitive dissonance.

In the social impact sphere, we’re often called upon to delve deep into power dynamics and confront the inherent inequities, all while taking deliberate action to support marginalized communities best. In the context of Israel and Palestine, our training should allow us to identify the stark power imbalance: a heavily funded, militarized state exerting control over a stateless population, stripping them of their rights systematically. So why does the social impact sector opt for the safety of silence? By “washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral,” as said by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian philosopher better known as the author of the Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 

A common counterargument is that this is an international issue and not in the purview of the Canadian social impact sector. If our work itself strives to obliterate the systemic inequities inherent within our institutions stemming from Canada’s history of settler colonialism, then these same principles apply to Palestine. Israel is conducting a very similar project to Canada’s settler colonial past with Indigenous peoples: land theft, settlers, violence, cultural erasure and forced displacement. 

Additionally, the effects of the Palestinian occupation and Israel’s settler colonial project have long affected many different domains in Canada, ranging from Annamie Paul’s resignation as the Green Party leader to the recent dismissal of the AGO’s first-ever Indigenous curator, Wanda Nanibush, over her support for Palestine.

I ask the rhetorical question: why hasn’t the social impact sector spoken out? 

But I know the answer: they are afraid to disrupt the status quo, to lose funding or support. For example, we have seen organizations, including Indigenous ones, put out strong statements calling out the settler colonial violence and parallels to the historical and current violence being faced by Indigenous people on Turtle Island. Some of these organizations have faced repercussions and backlash for their vocal support.

While my workplace has been supportive of me as a Palestinian, few organizations have created spaces in which employees can safely even discuss Palestine internally and express their grief and opinions. The majority face internal communications and limitations that create very unsafe workplaces that do not center employee wellness and fail to recognize that many within their organizations are deeply affected by this genocide and the massive loss of life. 

In the wake of global protests against systemic racism and police brutality following tragic incidents like the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we’ve witnessed a surge of social impact institutions renewing their vows to anti-colonialism and anti-racist policies. 

But here’s the question: why are these commitments often made in hindsight rather than actively applied proactively? Why is our sector merely reacting to global trends instead of leading the charge for change? 

It’s time to speak out against oppression, cultural suppression, media bias, and false rhetoric wherever we encounter it. Solidarity statements and pledges to anti-racist practices mean little if they remain theoretical and are not backed by real-time action. Some great examples of action-oriented statements include Laidlaw Foundation, Inspirit Foundation and Evening and Weekend Consulting’s statements.

Myself and others have come together and built a collective of more than 70 professionals, stemming from a simple LinkedIn post drafted after the Sustainable Finance Forum in November 2023, born out of a state of dissonance and pain. 

The Palestine Impact Collective seeks to center Palestinian, Indigenous and Jewish voices that are often left out of the narrative — the Collective spans ethnic and religious backgrounds, specialties, roles and organizations. Together, we aim to create safety within impact organizations such as philanthropic foundations and create dialogue about Palestine between various actors in the social finance space.

My passion for impact work originates from a deep-seated awareness of injustice inherited through generations, fueled by experiences of displacement and a legacy of resistance since our Nakba

I’ve dedicated years to economic reconciliation, applying anti-racist frameworks in social entrepreneurship and reshaping portfolios for inclusivity and justice, striving for an economy that serves all. This is what fueled the creation of the Collective. We call for the social impact sector to equitably apply the principles and frameworks we have built thus far and not contribute to upholding manufactured environments of fear, censorship, and silencing. 

Let’s elevate our sector’s response beyond mere calls for peace and understanding; while well-intentioned, for these calls to be effective, they must be bolstered by an anti-colonial power analysis. It’s time for intentional dialogue within our organizations, creating safe spaces for employees to discuss Palestine freely without fear of repercussion. 

The good news is that the social impact sector already has all the tools to enact change and show up as a better ally and supporter. We’ve long honed anti-racist frameworks, policies and design principles in every aspect of our work, be it workplace best practices, grantee support or divesting away from organizations involved in industries we do not want our capital to continue supporting: 

  • Reflect on and ask uncomfortable questions of yourself and your organization:
    • Do people feel safe to speak out within your organization about the toll that this genocide has taken on them? Particularly racialized staff and those coming from similar oppressive or colonial contexts.
    • Who are we partnering with, and how is our organizational model and mandate supportive of colonialism?
    • How do you think other employees witnessing your behaviour feel about your actions/inactions?
    • What do our commitments to reconciliation and decolonization require us to do outside of Turtle Island?
  • Organizations should and could be looking into their procurement policies and investment portfolios to divest away from public and private investments, supporting any marginalization and oppression. 
  • Let’s ensure Palestine and Anti-Palestinian Racism are integral parts of our discussions on anti-racism, equity, and justice. 
  • Organizations should actively reflect on creating spaces of safety for their employees and grantees. 
  • We must openly denounce any attempts to intimidate or defund individuals and organizations due to their support of marginalized groups, particularly when Indigenous, Black and Racialized people themselves lead those organizations. This is a more significant problem in which undue funder influence should not be condoned.
  • We need to centre BIPOC voices and leaders, including Palestinian, Indigenous, and Jewish voices calling for equity. We should push to have these topics discussed at sector conferences and inter-organization discussions.
  • Entrepreneurs and grantees belonging to equity-deserving groups face greater barriers to accessing social finance and mainstream capital, and intersecting equity-deserving identities create greater disparities and impact how groups experience systemic barriers. Consider how the prevalent Anti-Palestinian sentiment might affect certain individuals and organizations’ ability to access funding.

Instead of reactive and passive responses, let’s foster a culture of active engagement against injustice. It’s crucial to apply our power dynamic analysis and uplift voices from communities facing marginalization. 

The legitimacy of our sector depends on our response to the genocide in Gaza. Let us not be progressive except for Palestine. Let us simply be progressive.

If you have any questions or would like to connect, we invite you to contact us via the following email: palestineimpactcollective@proton.me.

Tell us this made you smarter | Contact us | Report error

  • Paula Sahyoun

    Paula Sahyoun has worked on some of Canada’s seminal social finance initiatives and is currently serving as the Manager of Systems Change and Social Finance at SVX, an impact investing firm. As a daughter of Palestine and Hong Kong, Paula has always been motivated by an inner sense of justice and is passionate about using art, economic and social finance tools to empower people within communities facing injustice. Paula has spent the last few years deeply engaged within Canada’s social innovation ecosystem. She has previously worked within the Government of Ontario’s Social Enterprise Unit as a Policy Advisor, and as a Social Innovation Fellow at the McConnell Family Foundation where she worked within their Re-Code (post-secondary social infrastructure), youth and climate, and public interest journalism teams. She also has extensive experience in international development and is recently back from Lebanon working on the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent's innovative finance strategy and sits on the Board of Plan International Canada. Paula is recognized as a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, Climate Reality Leader and United Nations SDSN Local Pathways Fellow.

    View all posts