Interview with Valerie Lemieux – Executive Director of the Catherine Donnelly Foundation

Par Brady Reid , Coordonnateur du Hub Atlantique
Par Katherine Macdonald , Co-Coordonatrice du PhiLab
30 octobre 2019

Philanthropy, democracy, and listening to voices that have been silenced

October 25th, 2019, 10:30 am – 12 Montcrest Blvd., Toronto, ON

Interview conducted by Brady Reid

Interview edited by Katherine Macdonald




BR = Brady Reid (Interviewer)

VL = Valerie Lemieux (Interviewee)

BR: Can you describe the Catherine Donnelly Foundation, your role within it, and its history?

VL: My name is Valerie Lemieux, and I’m the Executive Director here at the Catherine Donnelly Foundation. I have the honour of also being a founding staff member of the foundation. We were incorporated in 2002-2003, and began our grantmaking activities in the Spring of 2005. We are a national foundation, and the stewards of the financial legacy of a Catholic religious community, the Sisters of Service. As our founders, they were the ones who established our funding priorities: adult education, housing and the environment.

BR: Can you talk about how your foundation has evolved its grantmaking process over the years?

VL: We have been working in the Canadian grantmaking space since 2005. When we first began, we had a fairly traditional approach to grantmaking, as it was fairly new to us. We had to test the waters to figure out what was going on in the various spaces that touched on our priorities. We would do a call for proposals, receive them, and decide who would receive the grants. Very quickly, we evaluated the impact we were having. While we had some great grants and projects across the country under our three priorities, we felt that the impact was not the one we wanted to see. Part of the challenge for us was to re-imagine how we granted.

We chose to host a strategic planning session about three years in. I remember the board chair saying: “We’re already having a strategic planning session? We’re just getting started!” However, I felt it was important for us to reflect on our goals. We’ve been fortunate in the board members we’ve had all along, but at that time, we happened to have someone serving on our environment committee who had come across an article by Mark Sarner. The article questioned the philanthropic approach to funding in the environmental sector. He mentioned how the issues were so broad and critical that small, year-long grants did not help in the end because they did not build capacity, nor give organizations the possibility to dig deep and launch into strategic thinking about environmental issues.

This article served as a catalyst of sorts for the board to think about the good work we were doing, and why we were not seeing the impact we wanted. We were looking at larger systems change because we were very rooted in social justice. If we were going to stand by our roots, we had to move away from responsive, one-year forms of grantmaking that didn’t allow for organizations to dig deep and be reflective.

We then decided to allocate half of our resources to longer-term, systems change initiatives, and keep the other half for responsive initiatives. This way, if something came up and we wanted to have a grant-round, we still could. We approached this new way of working in our Environment stream by hosting a call out and consultation around what the big critical issues were. Of course, as funders, we are not on the ground. We aren’t catching the pulse of what is really critical. We went through a consultation process and asked the partners we were funding: “What would you do if you had a five-year commitment or $1.25 million at your disposal?”

After this consultation process, we ended up with two projects. One was having ‘The right to a healthy environment’ enshrined in the Charter. The other was to look at the effect of toxins in our everyday products, which brought us to work with  Environmental Defence and EcoJustice for five years. We actually still work with EcoJustice, who are building up legal precedence. As we all know, governments come and go and policies change, but if it’s enshrined in the law, it can form the basis needed to face some of these larger systems changes. That was the beginning of the shift in our thinking.

In our Housing stream, thinking along the lines of big systems change, we realized that while homelessness is a large issue in Canada, there was no national housing strategy at the time, and hadn’t been one since the ’90s. The federal government had handed over the responsibilities to the provinces who then handed it down to municipalities. We wanted to figure out a way to navigate that. We had been funding many amazing projects, but at the end of the day, the same project would come back the following year with the same requests because we weren’t changing any of the indicators or root causes.

This led us towards more convening processes (if you can see the pattern here). Our goal was to foster dialogue between experts and broad sectoral representation such as practitioners, scholars, government actors, other non-governmental organizations. Basically, as many stakeholders as we can get into the conversation that can help inform our work. This is what led us, for example, to an upstream approach to the homelessness issue: working with youth. However, it wasn’t enough to just work with the youth, we had to find the root causes of youth homelessness. This is how the A Way Home program was born, which is now an international model for response to youth homelessness. The key difference is the prevention aspect.

BR: What criteria are used to assess grant applications?

VL: Regarding our online application process, it speaks more to our remaining responsive grantmaking. While we still do grant callouts, we have been focusing on our more strategic grantmaking and going deeper. However, even though this is a more responsive format, the objective is still to build a relationship. One of the challenges with callouts is that the need is so great, and foundations can’t possibly respond to every request. After reflecting on this, I realized that, as funders, perhaps we shouldn’t be approaching the issue from a model of scarcity. Wouldn’t it be better to approach the issue from a model of abundance? I personally feel that as funders, we should choose to work with people because we have what they need, and they have what we need to reach our objectives.

This particular reflection of mine came up at our first steering committee with Indigenous leaders, who had invited us to participate. When the question of how granting decisions were made was brought up, one of the challenges we noted was that while there are many Indigenous advisory groups that work with foundations, they don’t often make the funding decisions themselves. These are then left to the funder. The Indigenous advisory group may suggest who is a good fit, but they don’t make the final decision. In our model, we decided that, if we wanted to actually engage in reconciliation, we had to relinquish our power and trust that the Indigenous advisory group would make the right decision. We have to work with their decision.

BR: This is very inspiring. The Catherine Donnelly Foundation is one of the most grounded examples of a foundation working with Indigenous communities that I have seen. So often organizations engage with reconciliation in token ways with “checkbox” approaches.

VL: Thank you for your kind remarks, but we became a signatory on the Philanthropic Declaration of Action after the TRC released its recommendations. And I must say that we saw it as “Of course we should sign on!” It seemed like a good fit, given our background in social justice. It began as a gesture of solidarity, and part of that reflection was that while from the very beginning, we had always funded Indigenous projects, the difference was that they were Indigenous focused, or through other organizations working with Indigenous peoples. Very rarely did we fund Indigenous-led and owned initiatives that directly impacted Indigenous partners.

So this shift for us began as we started to do some analysis of the work we did. We realized that overall, as a foundation, 22% of our grantmaking was to Indigenous-focused projects, and if we looked at the environment, it was about 37% of our grantmaking. Clearly, we had been working in the space, but we hadn’t been as intentional. We seem to be at a point where people are much more engaged and interested in actually responding to these recommendations. For us, our work with Righting Relations was a chance to rethink how engaged in the space we wanted to be and to test some of our assumptions.

BR: I wonder if this aspect of philanthropy fits into the notion of democracy. There is sometimes rhetoric in Canada that the democratic process disenfranchises certain voices, with people feeling that theirs are not heard. Through the foundation’s work, building these relationships with people who may not have been heard, do you think that philanthropy can facilitate a process of truly listening to these communities in a way that the democratic process may not succeed in doing?

If I think back to how the Catherine Donnelly Foundation was formed, the Sisters of Service did not work in conventional ways. They were there to provide support. People usually know what’s wrong, they just don’t know how to fix it. Once those who sought out help were in a capacity to deal with the issue themselves, the Sisters would leave, not seeing themselves as the ones who should solve the problem. They knew that the answers lay within the community and that they just needed to be strengthened and supported. With this approach as the bedrock of our own model, we view ourselves as in service to those we are supporting.

If we look at our Adult Education stream, for example, it is really about bringing in those most marginalized, making sure their voices are heard. This is not only for Indigenous people, but also for those out in the country, or for those who are not yet Canadian citizens, who might think they don’t have a voice.

  • How do you engage them in the dialogue?
  • How do we get those who are disenchanted with our democratic process to be engaged, when they feel like their issues are not being heard?

Our work has been about creating the space and the opportunity to reflect and be strengthened by each other.

BR: Thank you, Valerie, for this eye-opening overview of the Catherine Donnelly Foundation’s history, as well as your insight on the connections between philanthropy and democracy.

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