What you missed: Seven actionable tips for funders from Philanthropic Foundations Canada’s annual conference

This year’s event focused on “philanthropy and the common good: renewing our practices, strengthening our impact”

Why It Matters

Canadian philanthropy is under scrutiny post-pandemic. Calls to raise the disbursement quota, change philanthropic practices in order to shift power dynamics, and more promise to change the landscape of the sector in the coming years.

This story is in partnership with Philanthropic Foundations Canada. 

Canadian philanthropy is in a state of flux. 

Calls for the sector’s transformation are coming from all angles, including from within. Advocates for change want funders to share more power with donees, move resources to communities faster and at higher volumes, and push for massive regulatory change that could upend the very philosophy underpinning philanthropy.

How does a funder navigate the shifts that are happening around them? By convening and collaborating, in the case of this year’s Philanthropic Foundations Canada conference — titled Philanthropy and the common good: Renewing our practices, strengthening our impact.

Here are seven actionable takeaways from the conference’s dozens of speakers.


Examine your own definition of giving — and what’s underneath it

In the conference’s opening session, The Honourable Murray Sinclair or Mizanay Gheezhik, former Canadian Senator and chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, urged Canadian philanthropy to consider the many variations of Indigenous philosophies around giving, one being that giving should be part of ceremony. It should include speaking from the heart, connecting authentically, and building friendship — the root of reconciliation, Sinclair said.

In Sinclair’s culture — he is Anishinaabe and a member of the Peguis First Nation — gifting is “not just to appease some part of my soul, my guilt. The gifting is part of that philosophy of reconciliation…I want to be your friend. I want you to be my friend. And this is a symbol of our friendship.” 

Don’t be on the wrong side of history, when it comes to responding to massive shifts in society 

Jennifer Holk, strategy manager at the Monitor Institute, said there’s a “bifurcation between a group of folks who want to see change happen…as quickly as possible. And then, there’s another group who — perhaps I’ll describe it as a fear of the unknown. The whole world is changing around them, and how are [they] going to keep up?” 

Holk was describing resistance to what she and her team projected as seven massive societal shifts taking place over the next decade: widening economic equality, extreme political polarization, shifting demographics, a new momentum around racial justice, ubiquitous technology and access to information, a state of climate and social emergency, and a social compact (or contract) that’s in flux. 

Consider the unintended consequences of your philanthropic work

In other words, what’s your inequality footprint? 

That’s the question le Collectif des fondations québécoises contre les inégalités (the Collective of Quebec Foundations Against Inequality) asked the conference’s participants. For context, they said, just as every person and organization has a climate footprint, they also have an inequality footprint: the social and economic inequality their actions inadvertently create or perpetuate. 

In philanthropy, those practices could be ways a foundation’s endowment is invested (many are invested in fossil fuels, for example), the way they give out grants (if it’s not based on trust and openness toward grantees), and if their grants themselves aren’t funnelled into communities most impacted by social and economic inequality. 

Use an equity benchmark to shape where your resources flow 

One way to address the Collective’s last point — where grant money is directed — is to use an equity benchmark, said the Foundation for Black Communities working group member Liban Abokor in another session. 

Abokor urged participants to consider an equity benchmark: shifting where a foundation’s grant dollars go to better reflect not just the makeup of the Canadian population (though this would be a start, he said, and not something much of philanthropy does), but the disproportionate needs in historically and presently oppressed communities.

According to research Abokor’s organization conducted, in 2017 and 2018, which undertook qualitative interviews with ten philanthropic leaders and a review of the funding portfolios of 40 Canadian foundations, Black-led, focused, and serving (B3) organizations received just 0.3 percent (about $250K) of private and non-community public  foundations’ philanthropic dollars examined. If these foundations were to give 3.5 percent of their funding — in line with the percentage of Canadians who are Black — B3s would have received over $32 million. And that doesn’t even account for the disproportionate marginalization and oppression, and therefore need for programs and services, that Black Canadians continue to face. 

Push back against colonial structures like the qualified donee process 

Of course, foundations are somewhat limited by the Canada Revenue Agency’s (CRA’s) rules about who they can give money to and how. 

But they are only somewhat limited, said the speakers in another session, in terms of how foundations can work within the CRA’s rules to directly fund non-qualified donees — organizations without charitable status and who therefore can’t receive grants. Speakers stressed that there is, in fact, a way to directly fund non-qualified donees, just not through grants. Instead, foundations can set up service or agency agreements, where the organization carries out their work as a program of the foundation itself. 

Not only is this possible, it’s a crucial way to make sure organizations led by and closest to communities get funded, since grassroots groups tend not to have charitable status. “The charitable status process is a colonial practice and it marginalizes a particular population in Canada, especially Black and Indigenous people who want to do great community work,” said Tamer Ibrahim, youth collective impact manager at Laidlaw Foundation. 

Climate philanthropy should be intentional, but also embedded into everything you do 

One session at the conference celebrated the launch of the Canadian Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change — a commitment to “recognize the growing climate emergency, and the serious risk it presents to the pursuit of our philanthropic aims.” 

The session’s moderator, the executive director of Environment Funders Canada, Devika Shah said that funders should make an intentional commitment to funding climate solutions, but that doesn’t mean exclusively ecological work — especially given that racialized and Indigenous groups are both the most impacted by and most likely to be on the frontlines of the climate emergency. “If you are acting on inequity, it is good for climate. If you are acting on biodiversity and nature-based solutions, it is good for climate. If you’re acting on Indigenous rights, it’s good for climate…and vice versa,” she said.

Support the wellbeing of your fundee organizations — and don’t put your own on the backburner either 

Wellness was another topic of discussion, hosted by two representatives of a global initiative called the Wellbeing Project. The organization surveyed more than 300 changemakers around the world (both funders and fundees) and found that social purpose work takes a toll: 55 percent of respondents said they experience burnout or symptoms of depression. On the flip side, when changemakers work with the Wellbeing Project to implement personal wellness practices, they report feeling more creative, more innovative, and more open to collaboration. 

“Wellbeing [isn’t] a luxury or a nice to have,” said Dana Preston, the organization’s development and partnerships lead. “Wellbeing is an essential. And it’s necessary to opening up the creativity, sustainability, and innovation that’s so necessary to meet the social and environmental challenges of our time.” 

Read this story in french here.