PhiLab Interviews Benoit Fontaine, director of the KBF Foundation Canada

Par David Grant-Poitras , Masters Student
10 January 2019

KBF Canada, contributing to a borderless philanthropy


A lawyer by trade and passionate about the philanthropic sector, Benoît Fontaine joined, in 1999,  the King Baudouin Foundation, the largest Belgian foundation and a major international foundation. As Head of Venture Philanthropy, he launched the Venture Philanthropy Fund, a fund that actively helps charities develop and restructure themselves by coaching them regarding good governance, long term strategies, business models and impact evaluation. He has also managed a program aimed at helping 300 youths stemming from underprivileged backgrounds to help them succeed in school and find a job. He was also in charge of the Observatoire des associations, a program that collects data and produces a report on the evolution of the sector. Since the end of the year 2016, Benoît Fontaine is the General Director of the KBF CANADA Foundation. His motivation: generate a maximum of social impact.


David Grant-Poitras: To begin, can you tell us about the origins of the King Baudouin Foundation and briefly present its mission and structure?

Benoit Fontaine : The King Baudouin Foundation was founded in 1976 in Brussels, an initiative of the king of Belgium, this being King Baudouin at the time. For the 25th anniversary of his arrival on the throne, instead of celebrating and receiving gifts, he wished for the creation of a foundation that would carry his name. The money does not come from the royal family, but from Belgians and companies who contributed to it. The capital of the Foundation grew with time. In addition, at the end of the 1980s, they became recipients of the National Belgian Lottery, which represents an additional ten million euros annually.

At the start of the 1990s, we removed the word “Belgian” from the Foundation’s mission. Beforehand, the mission was to improve the living conditions of the Belgian population. However, at the turn of the 1990s, a strong will for the Foundation to focus on international issues was expressed, while remaining as active in Belgium obviously.

The King Baudouin Foundation supports around 60 million dollars worth of projects. The Foundation also generates many publications each year and operates many projects that are their own. Their total annual budget is in the order of 100 million dollars. The staff is comprised of about 90 people and can count on the contribution of 2600 experts for the participation in both selection and work committees. The Foundation receives and processes around 6000 support requests per year. They stem from nonprofits, universities or individuals who are requesting funds for a project. These 6000 applications are processed by 2600 experts who are all committed volunteers. For example, if the Foundation wants to support a project on diabetic retinopathy, well, not being a doctor, the Foundation mobilizes three or four researchers who can advise on the research needs regarding the disease.  It is much easier to trust experts in this regard. This way of functioning works well, not only for the expertise it brings to the projects, but also to ensure a greater impartiality of decisions. These experts also represent a very large network for the Foundation.

The King Baudouin Foundation (KBF) or Fondation Roi Baudouin (FRB) in French, is based in Brussels (KBFB) and is an independent philanthropic structure under Belgian law. This Foundation launched the initiative to create two other foundations with which they share their know-how and their large international network:

  • the King Baudouin Foundation United States(BRFUS) located in New York and which has existed for over 20 years (501 C3 of American law);
  • the KBF CanadaFoundation which was formed slightly over two years ago but has been active for slightly over a year. The KBF Canada is registered as a charitable organization by the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA).


David Grant-Poitras: What is the nature of the relations between these three structures? Is each structure independent and, if yes, are there many exchanges between them?

 Benoit Fontaine: The three structures are totally independent and this is very important. It is crucial that each structure be independent and have their own board of directors, with strategic orientations that are respectively defined for Brussels, New York and Montreal in conformity with the laws of each country. Furthermore, there is an exchange within our network of foundations of the expertise present within each of these structures. For example, we can ask another structure if it is possible to work with a specific partner in Kenya if they have already been in contact with them. There is thus a lot of communication between the three structures, it’s nonstop. When we work abroad, the strength of the network represents an added value. It is crucial when you want to inform yourself about the trustworthiness of such and such a partner or agent in order to work transparently and with maximum efficiency and impact.


David Grant-Poitras: Concretely, can you explain how you go about implementing your philanthropic projects abroad?

Benoit Fontaine : If I use the KBFUS as an example, to support projects in Europe or Africa, we work with American fiscal residents. This could mean individuals, companies or even foundations sometimes. There are, for example, Americans of Egyptian origin (and thus issued from the Egyptian diaspora), who live in New York and who came to see us at KBFUS. They had succeeded well in the United States, had been there for 30 to 40 years, worked in the medical sector and wanted to support a project within a hospital in Caire. They could have developed their own philanthropic tools, but they are all people who have jobs, keeping them very busy. They could very well create their own foundation, but it would be expensive and would require a lot of effort: you have to receive the money from a large number of donors, deal with fiscal formalities, and, after that, the largest job is to maintain control on the use of the funds in order to ensure that the project is accomplished and that the desired impact is reached, by sending the money little by little depending on the project’s advancements. You won’t send all of the money at once as a security measure. You will make sure that they are accomplishing their work correctly, then you will send another portion and you must even go visit in person. In this case, we work with a local organization in Egypt, but in other cases, we implement the project ourselves without the intervention of another organization.

It is thus at this level that we intervene. We facilitate the philanthropic ambitions of donors, implement and play the role of safety net to give a guarantee on the proper use of the funds. Beyond receiving money, our work consists in verifying that the project is indeed viable and, afterwards, helping it ‘mature’ so that the money is used wisely by determining how to have the biggest impact possible. Basically, we advise donors while keeping enough control of the money sent. Our work is really to listen, to tell ourselves that it isn’t only philanthropy professionals who have a say on what is needed to create social impact. Your average person – meaning ordinary American or Canadian citizens who have gone through difficult times in their lives, who have gone through things and sometimes had to leave their country – have the credibility to give internationally and to be pushing for a charitable project. In this way, we are at their disposal to listen and to put in place instruments that will be efficient in matters of international philanthropy, and this, with very low administrative fees taken from the donations: 95% of funds given for a specific project goes directly to the cause.


David Grant-Poitras: Your philanthropic model reminds me of community foundations where the funds managed by the foundation are formed at the initiative of donors involved in a variety of social causes.

Benoit Fontaine : In fact, this is a perfect analogy! We accomplish what community foundations would do locally, but abroad. There aren’t many other philanthropic models of the same form, and that is sort of the point: we are not in a domain where we want to be in competition. This why we thought there was a space for us here in Canada since it is a country where there is a strong immigration presence, and where there are individuals who emigrated 30, even 40 years ago. I think that these people want to give locally in Canada, but that they will never forget their roots, and these two forms of giving are not mutually exclusive. From experience, I think people act “locally and internationally” instead of “one or the other”. We intervene in order to offer an environment that guarantees that the money will be well spent. It is certain that you have to be more controlling when sending money abroad, as we are sending money to countries where it is sometimes necessary to exert caution.


David Grant-Poitras: More specifically, how do you understand your philanthropic role in the context of the social entities that are diasporas?

Benoit Fontaine : It is obvious that the Jewish philanthropy of diaspora is very well known. They are very organized, but there exist other diasporas that perhaps have fewer traditions and that don’t necessarily have their own foundations and their own know-how to facilitate philanthropy. This is when we intervene.

Regarding developing nations, in particular, there is a whole approach to the development of the country behind our philanthropic involvement. I think that the immigration that we find in Canada is in many cases one of highly educated people. It is people who, not always, but often, have left their country of origin for reasons such as armed conflict or religion, etc. Their migration is, in a way, a “brain drain”, meaning the weakening of the intellectual capital of the country of origin… And I think that this more educated portion of the diaspora, who has also sometimes furthered their education here in Canada or in other developed nations, can bring a very significant contribution for their countries of origin. This is notably due to their intellectual and financial capital but also their cultural capital. And that is interesting because others also have financial capital. However, having intellectual, financial and cultural capital, is a combination that is very interesting and avoids making certain mistakes.

I’ll give you an example. There is a developing country where NGOs implemented wells to favour access to water and remove the need for certain villages to walk for an hour and a half to get water. NGOs made water available, all that was left to do was to open the faucet or turn on the pump. However, the project leaders realized that something wasn’t working within the project. The money had been invested, but the women were not interested in using the wells. They wanted to walk for an hour and a half. From our “Western” perspective, we can’t understand. What is hidden behind this situation, is that the path to get water was the time for women to be free, where they found themselves only among other women, and not confined to their house, sometimes under the control of men. And so, they needed this freedom, and so they needed to go get water. It wasn’t only the fact of “getting water”. It was a space for speech, a space for exchanges amongst women, which is important. So there you go: if you work with people of the diaspora who finance this project, in part or in whole, they will tell you, they know and it makes a huge difference. That is not to say we avoid everything, but I find it very important to involve diasporas in the projects to avoid certain mistakes. It also tends to be more efficient as well. It isn’t simply a source of money – because let’s be honest, in a whole bunch of those countries, financial resources to support humanitarian projects are extremely scarce -, but it is also a source of reflection and of improvement of the project’s impact.


David Grant-Poitras: Could you describe examples of projects led by the KBF Canada Foundation?

Benoit Fontaine : I can mention a project we have with Montreal and Ottawa’s Burundian community that aims to support microcredit in a refugee camp in Kigali. It consists of Burundians who must leave Burundi and who find themselves in a refugee camp in Rwanda, on the other side. In Canada, there is a significant community of Burundians and they sought us out and asked: “ would you be interested in financing microcredit projects to help people, mainly women, who are in refugee camps so that they can build their own small businesses to better cope with their situation?” A fund was thus created and we worked with a local partner called Maison Shalom that we already knew about, as we had already worked with them with the Belgian structure.

We also accomplish projects for European countries. I’ll give you another example. We created a fund in honour of a Belgian woman called Madeleine Crab who died in the 1950s. At her death, her son, a young teenager, suddenly found himself to be an impoverished orphan. However, the boy – his real name being Mr. Le Flem – had potential and who, through determination and courage, was able to begin his university studies. Several years later, Mr. Le Flem had the opportunity to come here, to the city of Quebec to take up a job as a professor at the Université Laval. He is still in Quebec, he is elderly, he has done well in his life and he wants to honour his mother’s memory by founding an endowment fund in her name: the Madeleine Crab Fund. The objective of the fund is to offer bursaries to underprivileged youth who live in Belgium to allow them to, as he did, attend university. His own story has profoundly impacted this philanthropic project[1]. The whole challenge is finding these youths. We thus formed a jury of six people in Belgium. They will be in charge of recommending the applications of youth depending on several criteria such as the need, poverty situation, potential, community involvement, and school results. Each year, they will chose who will benefit from a bursary. Supporting them represents giving them money, yes, but also providing them with mentorship. If for example, one of the youth wants to be a lawyer, we will try to get them an internship in a legal firm. We try to generate value-added around the donation of money. This story illustrates what we do very well.


David Grant-Poitras: Regarding fundraising, do all donors come to you, or is there mobilization being done among the communities?

Benoit Fontaine : In the beginning, there could be a small concentration of people from the community who come to see us, but after, we have to organize events, we have to go meet other people. If we know, for example, that someone from the community has a business that has succeeded well, we can attempt to mobilize them. There is a whole effort of “going towards”. There are cases such as that of Mr. Le Flem, mentioned earlier, where there is only one donor. However, there are other cases where we develop a partnership with several people from the community and where we have to mobilize a larger portion. It really depends on the model: it could be 100 contributions of 100 dollars or one contribution of 500 000 dollars. It can happen that one donor is able to give 7 or 8 times the value of what the whole community was able to put together, but it’s not a problem, we put everything together.


David Grant-Poitras: In conclusion, how do you anticipate the work to come for the KBF Canada Foundation in the upcoming years? What are the main challenges to overcome?

Benoit Fontaine : First off, there is a challenge regarding communications, meaning to make it known that it is possible to do philanthropic projects abroad and that by working internationally we don’t necessarily lose significant administrative fees. Making very efficient projects available abroad is the first challenge. Of course, the fact that we work as a network helps us enormously.

While we execute certain projects ourselves, others require partners. As a second challenge, I would add identifying if we execute a project directly or with local agents. If there are local agents, we need to succeed in developing good relations with them for each of our projects where it is necessary. In these cases – and more particularly when working in developing countries with smaller structures -, a proper analysis of the real capacity of the organization to lead the project must be done. In fact, we find good partners, but we must always double-check the information. I don’t necessarily want to trust just what people tell me. We must verify via other sources and this is very important. If we decide to implement a project with a partner, what is important is that the partner has a strong leadership capacity;  meaning that we have a good contact person, who is transparent, who will answer when we call for example. Basically, we need to work with partners who are reactive. The reactivity of people in the field, as well as their transparency, are both qualities that we are really looking for in a partner. Finding them is a significant challenge, especially in certain developing countries where you have to be careful. You should never rush into things, but it should not represent an impediment to philanthropy, it would be a shame.

Translation by Katherine Mac Donald

Notes de bas de page

[1]For a more detailed description of this philanthropic story: