Dr. Megan Conway serves as an Executive in Residence at Capacity Canada and a Postdoctoral Fellow at Carleton University. She has worked for nearly twenty years in various leadership roles in the nonprofit sector and within post-secondary institutions. Dr. Conway has served on a number of boards, including the Sierra Club of Canada, Ottawa Riverkeeper and Social Venture Partners Waterloo Region.
Interview led by Clarine Mukendi
Clarine Mukendi (CM): When did you first become interested in doing research on community foundations?
Dr. Megan Conway (MC): That’s a good question. When I think back on some of the research that has been done, my Australian colleague, Alexandra Williamson, has done a lot of work around philanthropic research, while my research has been related to community economic development. She and I had several conversations around the notion of place and place-based change in our communities, and our countries of origin. We then started talking about some of the challenges that COVID-19 presented and wondered whether the role of community foundations, being very rooted in place, would be a good mode of analysis relative to thinking about change in places. We considered the role of community foundations in mitigating or mediating change and how it might be a good way of conducting comparative analysis between both of our countries.
The questions we started to look at emerged around last summer, when the first wave of COVID-19 was somewhat coming to an end. We were all much more hopeful about the fall, and all thought we were going to return to normal. Little did we know; the whole year would continue as it did. I believe it was around this time when the question started to percolate.
CM: Was there any particular reason why you chose to do work in this area (other than of course you would be filling a gap in the scholarly literature)?
MC: I would say on community foundations specifically because my colleague and I were interested in the dynamic nature of what was happening in communities and in specific places. We were both keen to think about those questions comparatively; when you think about comparative analysis, it’s hard sometimes to find a consistent unit of analysis. For us, community foundations were a standard unit of research that we could utilize to support a deeper exploration of questions of what was happening within communities relative to change at the community level, given the impacts of COVID-19 accelerating change around climate impacts and health impacts from climate change therefore, we wanted to think about what was consistent. I believe the notion that community foundations were trying to manage change in both countries was a point in common.
CM: What was it about Community Foundations that intrigued you the most?
MC: Community foundations play a specific role around community leadership and grantmaking, and they’re able to mobilize wealth and assets for the betterment of the community. I believe the notion of examining the functions of what community foundations intend to do amidst the backdrop of change is appealing because it presents an opportunity to examine and explore the idealized model of what a community foundation may be able to do, what its limits are and what reality looks like. I believe those questions were prominent for us in our thinking around the idealized model of community philanthropy and how might we think about that in different ways. Then, we wanted to unpack that a bit further by thinking about how change is being identified and perceived both at the local level within community foundations and nationally. Those were some of the interest points for us.
CM: Thinking back, what are some of most surprising or interesting things you have learned about community foundations through your involvement in the nonprofit sector and through your academic work?
MC: One of the things I would say about our research is that it’s in the beginning stages. We intend to do more focused-case studies in both Australia and Canada. We feel like we’re at the tip of the iceberg as we reflect on questions about the role of community foundations in mobilizing capitals and thinking through emerging questions of change and strategy to address what’s happening on the ground. One of the things that I’m interested in is our community foundations’ respond to change: «how do local community foundations respond to emergent change? Part of the challenge facing community foundation is how do they manage change while they also try to move the needle on critical issues they’re committed to such as impact investing, etc. I believe that’s a big tension that needs to be resolved.
For example, I notice some community foundations are saying that they want to focus on poverty reduction or youth issues. However, then the pandemic hit, and they face the challenge of how to continue to do that in crisis. This has been the scenario many have experienced over the last 18 months. The charitable sector is facing major challenges and many new emergent issues are percolating. For instance, the Black Lives Matters movement requires community philanthropy to respond in new ways. So too does responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action. And responding to the emerging climate crisis. I wonder about the capacity of community foundations to manage all of these challenges in their communities. It’s a major challenge they face. They want to focus on their core mandate or the issue they’re focused on, but they’ve got all these other front-burner issues.
The other piece that’s interesting with community foundations in their idealized form is that they are meant to bring diverse stakeholders to the table to do actual good for the community. This is something that can endure even in challenging times, like those we’ve seen bring stakeholders together with the public and private sector, work across demographics and mobilize various parts of the community to do work. I believe that’s relevant. The ones operating effectively or who have the capacity to have their ear to the ground on several different issues, understand those issues, and leverage data to learn more about them.
CM: What do you think are the most common misconceptions that the general public has about community foundations?
MC: I believe there are a few misconceptions about community foundations. One, the public believes that these entities are meant to be directly working on an issue versus doing grantmaking or investing in charities or organizations working on an issue. I don’t know if people, myself included, can grasp the complexities of managing some of the financial investments—some of the endowments for example. Or how community foundations are able to accumulate wealth over time. Even among those working in the sector, many don’t understand the complexities of donor-advised funds, for instance, how those vehicles may or may not support your organization’s needs. I believe that community foundations are knowledgeable leaders in the charitable sector. Another issue is the tension within the sector around unrestricted versus restricted funds, something that I think the public may not fully understand. Finally, public may not fully understand how the charitable sector manages to get by on limited, often very restricted funding. Not all community foundations have the ability to grant large amounts. Many community foundations are small and have limited staff or none and have limited resources.
CM: What are the biggest similarities and differences between community foundations in Canada compared to other countries you might be aware of?
MC: Our research is mostly looking at commonalities and differences in the national peak bodies in community philanthropy, and community foundations of Canada and Australia. There were 200 contacts; one of the things we realize is that there hasn’t been much comparative research. We know there’s been more research and focus on the United States and its community foundation movement. I believe there’s an opportunity to think more broadly around comparative issues and examine what’s happening with the community foundation movement internationally.
We’ve seen an acceleration and growth of the community foundation movement internationally, but I don’t believe we understand what that looks like, in more detail in another country context. There’s increasing research on the topic, but not a ton of it quite yet. It’s an opportunity for future research regarding some of the emergent learnings between community foundation peak bodies between Canada and Australia. Some of our research identified how the Canadian and Australian national bodies for community philanthropy understood change. For instance, Australia Community Philanthropy placed a greater emphasis on climate emergency questions whereas Community Foundations of Canada focused more on the pandemic. If you think about mobilizing global change, you want to measure how to do these bodies work together to make an impact on issues internationally. How do you line up some of those strategies or some of those actions? This is a question also emerging from our research.
CM: Reflecting back on the past 15 months, how important do you think community foundations have been in supporting their local communities navigate through the difficulties of the pandemic?
MC: One of the critical shifts in the last 15 months is that the Community Foundations of Canada was asked, along with other national partners, to flow support funds through to local communities to address emergency needs in the charitable sector across Canada. The influx of emergency support funds was a critical opportunity to leverage or direct funds into various communities across Canada for pandemic response actions and emergency needs. I believe this was a significant opportunity that the Community Foundations of Canada had relative to their mandate and mission. They also employed a similar strategy with a Gender Equity Fund gender and more recently with infrastructure funds. The ability to become a national partner in distributing government funding is a great opportunity. There are risks associated with this strategy—it depends on politics and who is in power in government. That remains a question mark.
That definitely enhances their ability to support the locals. I also believe their ability to convene and keep sharing and learning, and knowledge and collaboration is another crucial function that Community Foundations of Canada does to support local community foundations. The challenge for a national organization like Community Foundations of Canada is to reflect on the needs of its members while also having a strategic vision that will carry it forward. The ability to identify common issues across community foundations remains a challenge and an opportunity; if you’re a small community foundation in Cornwall, Deep River, as compared to Toronto, or Winnipeg, the problems might look slightly different. You must find the core common issues and themes that resonate across various organizations within your membership, and you must find the connecting point.
CM: Can you tell us about the study you are working on about place based philanthropy and the role of community foundations?
MC: The study we’re wrapping up that we’ve done right now between Canadian and Australian community foundations is looking at a handful of case studies in both countries—some of the understanding and the learning at a community level around what’s happening within philanthropy. We are also looking at what’s happening within the charitable and nonprofit sectors and how are they organizing themselves. What are the types of interrelationships between philanthropy and the sector itself, within communities where they have experienced major change or where they have been able to mobilize around a specific issue to support addressing or responding to issues within the community?
The next step is to hone those specific case studies and look at them comparatively. We’re not quite at the stage of selecting the criteria for the case studies, we’re at the conceptual stage and doing further data analysis from this first piece of research; that is the intent right now. The other thing I wonder about is what the launching pad is for this next piece of research. Why are some places able to manage local issues, while others are not? If you think about some of the problems communities have faced, there are questions of capacity within the local community contexts that matter. I believe we don’t understand enough about what makes some communities better or able to solve problems or how local philanthropy responds to community issues in specific contexts versus others.
What my questions boil down to is what’s the secret? What are the ingredients in communities that we see? Is it trust? Is it collaboration? Is it various forms of capital that we don’t consider, it’s not just money that makes problems go away? Another emerging area of research is around how to measure capital. Communities and the question of what the role of community foundations around money that matters. It’s also how they can mobilize other forms of capital.
CM: The impacts of COVID-19 have been extraordinarily uneven and have highlighted systemic inequalities across communities, disproportionately impacting those who are already experiencing vulnerability. In your opinion, what are some of the challenges that community foundations have faced during the pandemic?
While this is in my area of expertise, I do believe that community foundations need to identify and invest in new mechanisms to listen to diverse community members. The challenge is to shift the traditional definition of philanthropy and to include diverse perspectives—not just homogeneous, often white perspectives. The challenge for community foundations is to think through the pluralism diversity and intersectionality that exists within communities.
Many community foundations are reflecting on how they operate and how to recenter power and how to unpack some of the bias that might exist in the community foundations. I think the pandemic generates a series of questions for community foundations: it’s not a traditional business as usual model or mindset.
Many community foundations are engaging in more trust-based philanthropy. Many are critically examining and assessing the types of power imbalances that sometimes have been perpetuated by community foundations themselves. They are engaging more directly in equity work and listening to diverse perspectives to guide their approach. They have a big challenge ahead of them on that front. With their convening capacity, they can also be reflective also, not just in their words, but their interactions as well, who their staff and board members are. I think a big mission and mandate that community foundations have ahead of them is to have a mandate that truly resonates with the community.
CM: Thank you Dr. Megan Conway for taking the time to share your research work on Community Foundations.