An American centre of applied research in philanthropy, the Dorothy Centre for Philanthropy, located at Grand Valley State University, has recently published the newest edition of their annual report on the trends shaping our sector.
Despite the Centre’s excellent reputation, the analysis they present can hardly be generalized for the entire continent. Their point of view cannot surpass the boundaries of their cultural context and socioeconomic framework. The American context represents the backdrop for the analysis presented by the research team.
We must be on our guard when considering the trends identified in this report, as the American philanthropic context, while similar to the Canadian institutional context on certain fronts, remains very different. From their history, their demography, their role and function towards the State and civil society, there are many aspects where distinctions can be made. Finally, the partisan political activities of several plutocratic philanthropists are rarely found in Canada.
Nevertheless, as in many domains, the questions, debates and practices of American philanthropy profoundly influence the reflections and conversations around Canadian, European and Australian philanthropy – for better or for worse.
We propose a revision of the eleven trends identified by the Dorothy Johnson Center’s research team in order to see how they apply, or don’t, to the reality of private, public, community, corporate or parallel Canadian foundations.
Increasing critiques of (Big) Philanthropy: There is only one foundation in Canada that can compare in size to the enormous foundations found in the United States: the MasterCard Foundation. Despite our profound differences, our southern neighbours’ critiques of mega-philanthropy are often repeated in Canada, almost automatically, as is the case with Anand Giridharadas in Toronto (Winners take all). Several American philanthropic practices are absent on Canadian soil: some are even forbidden by the regulatory framework. However, the questions brought up by the Dorothy Center remain relevant. Questioning privilege, bias and work methods are reflexes that should become part of any philanthropic practice that intends on contributing to the common good. Yet, before we incorporate the critiques of American mega-philanthropy in Canada, it is vital to present an analysis of reality and its observable practices in this country. We can take note of the work done by the Collectif des fondations contre les inégalités, especially concerning questions relating to taxation.
Equity Mapping Tools: The United States has yet to resolve the great societal questions of social inequalities and injustices, nor the systemic racism to which countless Afro-American citizens are confronted to. In Canada, it is mainly the Indigenous nations who are marginalized, despite the political commitments made following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. On the subject of these societal issues, we must mention the positive impact of the Vital Signs initiative, led by Community Foundations of Canada. This innovation in Canadian practices attracted the attention of numerous non-community foundations in order to better understand the extent of the challenges to be faced, the goal being to propose answers that would mobilize a diversity of actors.
Collaboration & Consolidation in Philanthropy’s Infrastructure: Structuring philanthropic organizations, such as Philanthropic Foundations Canada, are few in number and are small in size in Canada. The characteristics of the American philanthropic ecosystem make it so the sheer number of entities allows for the existence of various support organizations for philanthropy, depending on their size, the programs put forth or the ideological divisions present within the sector. It becomes quite easy to get lost within its complexity. On this point, the consolidation of their ecosystem would be of great use. In Canada, there is no choice but to collaborate to better serve our members and develop a form of philanthropy that is more engaged and anchored in the field.
Data Sciences for Science Impact: This dimension represents a significant issue for philanthropy and Canadian civil society. In Canada, we are but in the early stages of the development of a strategy and infrastructure regarding the management of Big Data. In comparison to our southern neighbours, we are definitely behind. We must develop stronger relations with artificial intelligence research centers, with university researchers specialized in the field, with the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, as well as the Digital Research Infrastructure recently created by the Canadian government.
Millennials in the Nonprofit Workforce: The challenges of diversity, inclusion and equity are very real in Canada, especially concerning the upper positions in philanthropic organizations. Nevertheless, the sector’s dynamics and the laws that regulate us are, once again, very different from those in the United States. The Ontario Not-For-Profit Network (ONN) accomplished great things in terms of the consultations, situation analysis and development of advocacy to make the members of the sector more aware of the challenges on this front.
Increased Attention to Sustainable Development Goals: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer targets and a universal language that can bring about an improved collaboration and could facilitate the evaluation of the collective impact of foundations and of the philanthropic sector. However, as in the United States, it is rare to find Canadian foundations who have adopted the SDGs as a frame of reference for their operations. We must build interest among the leaders and staff of these organizations in terms of SDGs and develop collaborative platforms with other organizations of civil society as well as with the three levels of government. There is still much to do, and we only have one decade to do so.
Tainted Money and tainted donors: Canada has yet to witness many scandals within the philanthropic community, as is the case in the United States. Be that as it may, there is a growing skepticism and questioning regarding certain donee practices. The work being done by the Canada Revenue Agency in making sure the regulatory framework is being respected by donors and charities is essential in maintaining public trust in a private and pluralist philanthropy regime that is very much supported by taxation.
Inclusive growth: The rapid rise in inequalities is an unescapable challenge in Canada, as it breaks down the quality of our social fabric. Still, the social security net remains much stronger and universal in Canada than in the United States. In the latter, the State’s central role is frowned upon by a significant portion of public opinion. This isn’t the case in Canada.
Alternatives to strategic philanthropy: Participatory philanthropy is based on relationships of trust, which find fertile ground in Canada: at least from a conceptual perspective. The practice of this more open and support-oriented philanthropy is a field that must still be developed. Canadian foundations can learn from some foundations in the United States (and vice versa). We also have several emergent practices in Canada that deserve to be shared on a wider scale.
Corporate Social Responsibility: As in the United States, several Canadian companies support the socially responsible practices of their employees and partners, benefiting the communities in which they are implanted. The president of Maple Leaf Foods, Michael McCain, is one of the champions of this approach. The number of Canadian companies with foundations and empowerment programs for their employees is growing. However, this hasn’t stopped a form of skepticism from developing within a portion of the population who questions the lack of coherence between companies’ alignments of their discourse and actions.
Philanthropy on the front lines of Climate Change: A growing number of foundations view climate change as a manifestation of a profound crisis, which in turn will negatively affect the programs they support. They are thus searching for tools to strengthen their partners and reinforce “climate resilience”. Several foundations are also reflecting on how to use their assets to best support the transition towards a more green, carbon-neutral economy. The approaches vary enormously: some foundations are ready to support social movements while others prefer working with expert organizations in promoting new public policies by pushing for the dissemination of new green technologies. Perspectives on climate change represent a great divide among Canadians. These divisions are present in the Canadian philanthropic sector, but the majority of foundations accept that the transition represents an inescapable issue. The leader of a large American private foundation, who was recently visiting Montreal, was shocked by this observation. He noted that the American philanthropic world had some catching up to do in this regard. In the meantime, the worldwide climate crisis continues to grow and there is an emerging consensus around the sense of urgency.
The Dorothy Johnson Centre for Philanthropy report is a useful document in feeding our reflections on the practices of and establishing priorities for American philanthropy. Several of the identified trends are relevant to the Canadian philanthropic sector. However, one must not forget to adapt them to our own context – and especially, it is vital to better understand and better share our own practices. This is crucial in responding to the challenges we will face and the opportunities that will arise.
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