Q&A: Amidst growing ‘woke’ backlash, new Indigenous philanthropic firm aims to offer 'calm waters'

A new firm launched by two of Canada’s leaders in Indigenous philanthropy, will matchmake donors and Indigenous groups, help decolonize granting processes and offer grant impact evaluation.

Why It Matters

In the United States and increasingly in Canada, some diversity, equity and inclusion professionals are witnessing a so-called “woke backlash.” Will this stall efforts to increase philanthropic funding to Indigenous communities?

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Wanda Brascoupe and Nicole McDonald are co-founders of a new firm, Indigenous Philanthropy Advisors, supporting donors to develop better relationships with Indigenous communities. (Wanda Brascoupe/Nicole McDonald/Supplied)

This independent journalism is supported by Makeway and Waterloo Region Community Foundation. Read our editorial ethics and standards here.

Progressive leaders aren’t having an easy time of it. 

In Canada, anti-trans activists have seen a growing rise in hate directed toward their communities. More than a dozen states have adopted legislation south of the border to prevent investment in environmental, social and governance (ESG) financial products.

After a wave of progress following the racial justice uprisings in the summer of 2020, some diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) professionals also say they face increased resistance

Into this fray, two of Canada’s most experienced Indigenous philanthropic advisors are launching a new firm to help Canada’s settler donor community build stronger relationships with Indigenous people. 

On the cusp of the launch, co-founders Wanda Brascoupe, former co-lead of the Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund, and Nicole McDonald, outgoing director of national programming with the MakeWay Foundation, spoke about the state of philanthropic reconciliation. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: The philanthropic community’s “Declaration of Action” on reconciliation came out about a decade ago. Since then, have Canada’s settler foundations really made progress on increasing support for Indigenous people? 

Wanda: I’ve been involved in supporting the flow of philanthropic resources to Indigenous communities for more than a decade, first as the executive director of the Circle on Philanthropy in 2013. Since then, there’s been an increase in support for Indigenous communities — it’s not seismic — but there is a shift. 

It’s tough to know exactly how big the shift is because we lack the data. However, it is clear there’s a group of foundations that have been making some big investments and they’re setting the pace for the rest of the sector. 

I’ve also seen, however, some stagnation. 

Polling has shown the average Canadian feels they have a role to play in reconciliation, but many people are stuck. They’re terrified to make a mistake. 

Nicole: Things have definitely progressed since the Circle was created. There are new Indigenous-led initiatives that are doing things differently, like the Right Relations Collaborative. There are also a number of foundations that have been leading the way, like the Lawson Foundation, the Inspirit Foundation, the Laidlaw Foundation, and the McConnell Foundation. 

The challenge is that it tends to be the same group of funders willing to take risks and put themselves out there. But there are changes happening. 

The next generation of board members don’t want to have transactional relationships where they’re just writing cheques and getting donation receipts. You also have younger board members, like the Trottiers, who are saying, “Tax the wealthy.” These younger board members really want to see an impact on the ground. 

Q: In some corners of the country, DEI work faces backlash. Has this hit Canada’s philanthropic sector around reconciliation work? 

Wanda: I’m not sure we’re seeing a backlash against reconciliation. Maybe there’s a bit of a backslide — where some Canadians may be feeling apathetic or drained by the prospect of doing more of this work — but I don’t think any of the brilliance or innovation that we’ve seen in Indigenous philanthropy is going away. 

I have this saying with my kids: Growth happens at the edge of understanding. But the trouble is, the edge of understanding is exhausting! We know that. 

In doing this work to help settler foundations develop better relationships with Indigenous communities, we hope to create calm waters. 

We want to meet people where they’re at, talk about their mission and vision and — aligned with the Haudenosaunee Great Law — begin with love. 

Q: A number of new Indigenous-led foundations have been launched in recent years. There’s the Annauma Community Foundation in the north, Kw’umut Lelum Foundation in the West, and the Indigenous People’s Resilience Fund, a national fund you were both involved with. 

There’s hope here, but perhaps there are also risks. As famed Black author Audre Lorde said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” What do you make of that quote in this context? 

Nicole: This is always the tension. When I was at the McConnell Foundation as the director of reconciliation initiatives, former foundation CEO Stephen Huddart raised the possibility of a capital transfer — the foundation giving some of its endowment to Indigenous groups to set up their own foundations.  

McConnell has since done this, but at the time, while I was hopeful, I also expressed some caution. I said that it couldn’t just be brown faces around the table using the same structures because that doesn’t actually change anything. 

With that said, there are also big opportunities when Indigenous communities create their own foundations. 

Philanthropic capital is more flexible than government grants; and when Indigenous communities are in charge, they can just do the work rather than needing to educate and teach others about why supporting Indigenous people is important. 

Wanda: The exciting thing about these new foundations is they give Indigenous people the chance to apply their own ways of knowing and being on top of philanthropic structures. It also gives them the opportunity to take risks. 

When the federal government created the Indian Act, they effectively placed Indigenous people in the ‘third sector’ — the charitable sector. But despite being put there, the average Indigenous person has no idea institutional philanthropy exists. 

A well-meaning foundation might put out a grant application thinking, “If we build it, they will come.” But many Indigenous communities won’t come, because they don’t know these granting programs exist. 

Without groups helping to make these connections, it’s a missed opportunity for everyone. 

Q: Much of the best-publicized philanthropic reconciliation work has come from just a handful of foundations. Perhaps one reason more foundations haven’t advanced this work is that they feel it’s outside their mandate — that they focus narrowly on healthcare, youth or education. 

What do you make of this? Is it the responsibility of every foundation to support Indigenous people? If so, why? 

Nicole: I believe so. When each foundation thinks about its own money story — the story about how the foundation generated excess wealth — its typical resources were generated off of Indigenous lands and Black bodies. 

Foundations should also be thinking about where they work — and about the relationships they could be building with local Indigenous communities. 

Wanda: The answer is a simple yes. Everyone should be supporting Indigenous communities because of where the wealth was created. 

I don’t think there’s a what, why or how around it. I think it’s pretty straightforward. 

Q: The Circle on Philanthropy and the Right Relations Collaborative supports donors with reconciliation and building links with Indigenous communities. Why is another initiative needed? 

Nicole: Our work will focus on one-on-one tailored support for donors looking to build healthy pathways with Indigenous communities. 

We don’t want to become a second Circle or Right Relations Collaborative. We plan to help direct donors and foundations to these initiatives to help amplify everybody’s good work. 

But we see a need in the sector. 

We want to help donors design strategies and plans for giving to Indigenous communities, facilitate conversations between board members on this issue, and conduct audits to help foundations identify ways to decolonize their granting processes. 

Wanda: Last year, when I did speaking engagements, I ran an anonymous survey of participants. Seventy per cent of the people I polled identified as a beginner in reconciliation. 

The will for reconciliation is there. Our work is to help navigate the how, what, and why.

  • Gabe Oatley

    Gabe Oatley is Future of Good’s editorial fellow on transforming funding models. He’s a graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Masters of Journalism and his work has been published by the CBC, the National Observer, and The Nation. You can reach Gabe at gabe@futureofgood.co.