Jehad Aliweiwi has been working in the public benefits sector for nearly 25 years. Before joining the Laidlaw Foundation in January 2014, he was the Executive Director of Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office, Regional Director of Catholic Cross-Cultural Services, Metro Region, and Executive Director of the Canadian Arab Federation. In all of these roles, he has been an advocate for inclusion, diversity and equity. He is passionate about building bridges between Canada’s oldest residents and its newest citizens. He strongly believes that the well-being of Canada rests with Indigenous Peoples and immigrants and refugees. In his work at Laidlaw, he is constantly inspired by young people’s ability to provide solutions to some of society’s seemingly intractable problems.
Jordy Pimm (JP): Can you tell me a bit about the Laidlaw Foundation and the work that you do?
Jehad Aliweiwi (JA): We are a 72-year-old private Family Foundation based in Toronto. However, we have a very clear public interest mandate, which means the board of the foundation is made up of the community. There are Laidlaw family members on the board, but they take up a maximum of 4 out of 12 seats. The foundation currently focuses on young people, as it has for a long time. We are primarily concerned with the well-being of young people in three specific areas: the youth justice system, the child welfare system and the education system with a particular focus on high school attainment. We are a traditional grantmaking organization, so we make resources available for organizations who are dealing with these issues. Essentially, we grant, we convene, and we research. These three things provide focus and support to the issue areas that have been identified. In addition, we have a portfolio, like any other foundation, with an endowment that is invested in the market. Increasingly, we’re trying to align our investment strategies and decisions with our mission and purpose. I think every other foundation is struggling with trying to figure out the best way to align their investment strategies and purpose. We continuously ask, “How do we make sure that our assets continue to serve our purpose in a more coordinated and ongoing way?” So, that’s in a nutshell, the foundation.
The Laidlaw Foundation’s mission statement outlines that the “[foundation] supports young people impacted by the justice, education, and child-welfare systems to become healthy and engaged by investing in innovative ideas, convening interested parties, advocating for systems change, and sharing learning across the sector.” The organization’s values include; engagement and empowerment, responsiveness, equity, reconciliation, and accountability.
JP: The theme for this month’s newsletter is ‘Philanthropy in crisis”, clearly COVID has an immense impact on not only the demand for philanthropy but also the supply of philanthropic funds. One of Laidlaw’s values is to be “responsive”; can you give an example of how the foundation has practiced this value in responding to the pandemic?
JA: Many foundations have really reflected on this question. What else can we do in the most extraordinary of circumstances facing our communities? The broad measures that we introduced immediately for our existing cohorts of grantees were to allow them to focus on the work they do and not worry about grantmaking organizations like us. For us, this looked like an immediate relaxing if you will, or pausing of any reporting requirements and encouraging organizations to use funds as they see fit. We also directed them to put funds towards what they felt was urgent. In addition, we made additional resources available. One of the things that our board asked was, “other than relaxing the reporting requirements,” because that’s not costing us anything, “what else can we do?” As a result, the board authorized additional spending on top of what is typically budgeted in a granting year. We nearly doubled our granting dollars. Further, the board asked us to identify a series of organizations that are at the forefront of COVID and focus on the communities we work with. The foundation’s strategic plan is underpinned by the experiences of two communities that are disproportionately impacted by the justice, child welfare, and education systems. These two communities are Indigenous and black youth. Evidence has shown that COVID has had a disproportionate impact on these two communities, as they are the most vulnerable and the least resourced. We identified about 10 or 12 organizations that are deeply rooted in the communities and provided them with additional resources. With these resources, we required very little reporting and skipped the onerous application process.
JP: Recently, there have been many calls made to philanthropy to address the social and racial inequities that have been exacerbated during this period. How has Laidlaw approached these issues in the past and in what ways did you pivot or readjust?
JA: I think one of the things that the foundation prides itself on is that we’ve identified the impact and the conversions of racism and several other social issues on the lives of black and Indigenous communities. In doing so, we’ve identified racism and systemic discrimination as a serious issue that needs to be tackled. That’s one of the priorities of our Youth Action Fund grant. So, we didn’t require a lot of pivoting to address this, as it is one of our mandated goals. We say that meaningfully. Philanthropy cannot respond to crises like COVID without addressing systemic issues, including discrimination and blatant racism. Obviously, the summer of last year and the resurgence of the “Black Lives Matter” movement kind of validated many of our assumptions and motions we began many years ago. In that sense, we’re delighted to see a wider recognition and near consensus on the issues facing blacks and Indigenous. There are systemic practices and policy-making frameworks that need to be addressed in order to do this.
JP: Seeing that you are already a leader in supporting these communities, did you experience any calls for collaboration or have organizations reaching out seeking guidance on how to approach the circumstances?
JA: Absolutely. We’ve made ourselves available for conversation with our fellow foundations or colleagues who know or realize that this is a big issue yet haven’t really worked in the area in the past. We provided counsel to some of our colleagues who want to do this. But we’re also part of an ecosystem. Laidlaw is not the only organization that is very concerned or has identified these issues. Organizations like Inspirit Foundation have been our comrade in arms, if you will, when it comes to philanthropy for racial justice and inequality. There are two examples where both Inspirit and Laidlaw have demonstrated their value but also demonstrated to others, ways of collaborating to address these issues. The first is the investment in the Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund. The second is the foundation for Black Communities. Both initiatives are a direct call to action as a result of the conversions on racism and COVID-19 and highlight collaboration among various foundations in a way that represents the best of philanthropy.
JP: What changes have you observed in the way philanthropic funders are navigating grantmaking now in comparison to before the pandemic? Are there any best practices the field can apply to other crises we are and will be facing?
JA: To be honest with you, philanthropy is a flexible resource with very little accountability. My colleagues in the sector don’t like me saying this; however, the nature of philanthropy allows it to be more agile, more responsive, and more deployable at a moment’s notice. Which goes to say that the realities of COVID have made it possible for organizations, even the government, to rethink longstanding practices, adopt new tools, and deploy policies and resources immediately without much deliberation. That’s not to say that it’s a thoughtless process, but there was a moment where organizations realized that they need to do more and do it quickly. We have demonstrated that we can do that. There is a lot more urgency that continues as a result of the pandemic. But challenges facing our community and the environment did not begin at the onset of the pandemic. These issues are predated, yet the pandemic has taught us that we are capable of pivoting and throwing the rule books out of the window in order to create new ones that are much more responsive, adaptive, and relevant no matter the issue or crisis. Whether it’s a crisis like the pandemic, racism, or an environmental crisis like climate change, these issues impact every part of society and every demographic. It doesn’t matter what the foundation’s issue area is, these issues will impact your area. If you’re an arts funder, or if you’re a youth funder, or if you’re a labor funder, it doesn’t matter what faction you work with, it is all impacted equally by these macro issues.
JP: During the past 18 months there has been a lot of talk regarding what can philanthropy do in a crisis, but also many people questioning if philanthropy itself is in a crisis. If philanthropy is indeed in crisis, what is one action you believe foundations should take in order to ‘save’ it?
JA: I think philanthropy must be at the forefront of actively encouraging two things. First, making more resources available, but secondly leveraging these resources for change-making. We are part of an investment community that is very influential. There is debate about whether we should be spending 4.5% or 3.5% of our endowments. I think the debate should be about the rest of the 95 % or the 96.5% of our assets that remain intact. There is a way that philanthropy can be at the forefront of enabling social change, by creating initiatives, funding social movements, funding direct calls to action for those who are at the forefront of climate change or justice reform. For the most part, the pandemic has demonstrated that philanthropy can be relevant and can be an important social and economic agent of change. Especially when it works hand in hand with the government. I do not want to present philanthropy as an alternative to government. The government remains to be the custodian of the public good. There’s no replacement or alternative to government, but philanthropy can work hand in hand with the government. That said, philanthropy needs to be more daring, bolder, and more generous. I think the debate about whether it’s 3.5% or 5% is quite embarrassing, to be honest with you. I think we should provide whatever the community needs. During the pandemic, we’ve demonstrated that we can provide those resources. Every other foundation I know has increased its funding and doubled its granting to do this. Philanthropy’s strength is its flexibility and ability to deploy resources quickly. Let’s build on that asset and use it for the service of the public good.
JP: You mentioned that philanthropy can be an economic agent for change. Most outside of the sphere of philanthropy don’t necessarily understand the behind-the-scenes aspects of the field. Specifically, regarding endowments, investments, and so forth. Many of the investments that fuel the field are seated in exploitive sectors that can be linked to causing or maintaining the injustices foundations, like Laidlaw, seek to end. What do you think it will take to encourage large philanthropic players to take the steps to divest from these industries and invest in more ethical and sustainable funding strategies?
JA: What a great question. I think this is really at the heart of what keeps many decent leaders in the philanthropic community up at night. How do we make sure that our investment strategies, our endowment is doing no harm? We don’t know that in certain terms. We have a socially responsible investment strategy. But it is a carve-out of our larger portfolio. Increasingly we’re introducing elements of ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) to ensure that we are invested in companies that further our mission and purpose, not the issues that we’re concerned with. It’s straightforward yet continues to be the challenge. As an organization, we have directed our investment advisor not to invest in certain asset classes. The problem is that you don’t know which company owns what companies. We have limitations on weaponry, alcohol and tobacco products, and child labor. These are issues that we feel very strongly about. Occasionally, we go through an exercise to ensure that our holdings continue to support that. However, we are not 100% certain that our investments that are outsourced to an investment firm are not doing harm in the community. For instance, the company might own a mine in South America. Or our holding might be connected to oil drilling on Indigenous territory that is being contested. We are invested, like all other foundations in Canada, in the five banks. These banks tend to be the big financers of a lot of these types of industries. It’s an ongoing process that is one of the field’s biggest challenges moving forward. But I can assure you, many foundations are not only thinking about this, but they’re also doing something about it. The first phase is screening to ensure that some of the assets we hold meet the minimum for environmental, social, and governance standards. We’re not 100% there yet. This is an ongoing conversation. The good news is that collectively the philanthropic sector has some large assets that can make a difference if they start working together. For grantmaking organizations, investing within our identified communities is a straightforward exercise. I think the bigger question, the more impactful conversation, is around the second part of our mandate as a foundation; to ensure our investment decisions are just as much a service of good as our grants are. If one doesn’t balance the other, we have a problem. We’re not there yet but we’re on our way. We feel somewhat assured that our investment managers keep those principles in mind but there’s a long way to go. I think the opportunity is for foundations with billions of dollars in assets to exercise their leverage and use their influence to encourage the creation of new investment vehicles that meet the criteria of socially responsible investment. In addition to the expectation of revenues, we want to make sure that our investments have social outcomes across all our asset classes. Hopefully, we’re on a journey that will lead us there, but we’re not there yet.
This interview occurred virtually on October 10th, 2021.