Philanthropy leaders urge the sector to lean more into policy advocacy

While the fear of being too controversial may hold philanthropic organizations back from taking risks, experts say the real risk is for the communities who face inequities

Why It Matters

Philanthropy’s risk-averse tendencies have been a barrier to instigating systemic change — challenging power in philanthropic institutions is the first step in reimagining the sector for the future.

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When COVID-19 created urgency for crisis support in times of social and economic instability, there was a clear rise in philanthropic giving. Philanthropy Foundations Canada’s report on Canadian philanthropy’s response to the pandemic shows that in 2020, COVID response funding increased from $99 million in May to over $116 million in July. 

And yet, some philanthropic leaders say that the sector needs to play a larger role in not only funding social issues, but working to diminish those issues altogether. 

During the closing panel of PFC’s annual 2022 conference on October 4, 2022, sector leaders discussed exactly why and how philanthropy can evolve their organizational practices when addressing challenges like climate change, reconciliation, and racial inequities. 

An ongoing theme that came up throughout the panel was the need for philanthropy to support advocacy efforts such as climate action and anti-racism movements. “I think the most important thing is for philanthropy not to shy away from funding advocacy. If you want to have an impact, you need awareness raising, you need research, you need all the tools in your toolkit,” says Karel Mayrand, CEO of the Foundation of Greater Montreal. 


How philanthropy can facilitate social change through funding advocacy 

An example Mayrand says he often uses when talking about philanthropy and advocacy is the one of tobacco control in Canada. During the 1990s, when there was building awareness of tobacco’s negative impacts on people, advocates were calling for a ban on smoking in public and a ban on tobacco ads. And through government-led intervention and public policies, the percentage of Canadians who smoked was nearly cut in half over just a decade. 

In the 1970s, a number of health agencies joined forces to form The Canadian Council on Smoking and Health (CCSH), which was a key player in lobbying for tobacco control in the country, and was funded by the Cancer Society, the Heart Foundation, and the Canadian Lung Association. 

“Those things were done because there were associations funded by the philanthropic sector that lobbied to get these things done. So there is a history of success with philanthropy using awareness-raising, advocacy, research, all the tools that we have to actually solve an issue,” says Mayrand. 

The key takeaway for Mayrand is that success, in this example, translates to less people smoking, and less people dying of smoking-related cancer. “Success was not measured in terms of how much money is being spent,” he says. 

Sylvie Trottier, a board member at the Trottier Family Foundation agrees that supporting advocacy is a powerful tool that the philanthropic sector needs to use. 

“The public sphere and government [are] a natural lever for really big scale change and addressing things in a more systemic way. If we actually want to make a dent on any of those things, we need to target advocacy as an essential tool. It’s not to say it’s the only thing that works. But it needs to be part of the toolbox,” says Trottier. 

Trottier also adds that it’s not necessarily the role of philanthropic organizations to do the advocacy themselves, but they can support organizations that provide research and data to support advocacy, support organizations that are already doing this work. The Trottier Family Foundation, for instance, has supported many different advocacy efforts including environmental NGOs that lobby for policy interventions, as well as advocating for tax justice. 

In this way, philanthropy that pays attention to the root cause of an issue is more likely to have a long-lasting impact. 

For instance, Mayrand says that if a philanthropist was interested in cleaning plastic from the ocean, it would make sense for them to support a non-profit that did exactly this: collect plastic from oceans. On paper, this initiative is exciting and it’s doing good. However, Mayrand says, it’s not enough without also advocating to ban single-use plastics. 

“If you don’t start advocating to ban plastic, you’re going to be trying to siphon away plastic from the oceans forever,” says Mayrand. “If you want to have a lasting impact, you’re going to have to work on advocating.” 


Moving philanthropy away from being risk-averse 

The current system of solving issues in philanthropy, Mayrand says, is like pouring water out of a sinking ship rather than plugging the holes — the solutions are temporary and don’t get to the root of issues. 

At the same time, Mayrand explains, the philanthropic sector hesitates to and is unsure of how to approach changing the philanthropic system because, “it means that the system that allows you to earn a lot of money has to change; so you don’t go there because going it means that you put yourself into question and you question the system that allows you to succeed.”

However, the pressures of the pandemic, along with social movements like Black Lives Matter have forced philanthropy into a moment of reckoning to understand how to be a better agent of change to support urgent issues in meaningful ways, explains Trottier. 

“There’s never been as much money in philanthropy as there is now. And this country has never been as rich as it is now, in terms of GDP per capita,” says Mayrand. “And yet, there’s never been so many people going to food banks — something is wrong. We are creating wealth, we are giving back and yet people are not coming out of poverty the way they should.” 

The traditional posture of philanthropy, Mayrand says, looked at the continued existence of poverty and environmental harm as elements of society that may always exist. And so philanthropy’s role is to simply alleviate it the best it can. 

However, another outlook disagrees with the traditional framing.  

“Philanthropy can play a role not only in helping people but also changing the future … and over time we can build a better, more just society,” says Mayrand. 

But the fear of seeming too controversial is a big barrier for the philanthropic sector, says Trottier. 

“We see lots of foundations who don’t want to do [advocacy] because they’re worried that it’s too political,” says Trottier, who adds that there’s actually very minimal risk in terms of funding innovative projects or advocacy. 

Even if the foundation spends money on it and it doesn’t pan out as planned, it’s not an existential risk to the foundations — but it can be an existential threat to the communities who bear the consequences, says Trottier.