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Adam Saifer is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Social Impact at Queen’s University. His current research draws on theories of capitalism, nation, race, and gender to critically examine the possibilities, limits, and tensions of emerging market-based approaches to social change. His Ph.D. dissertation examined how the mainstreaming of business strategies, tools, and discourses in Canadian philanthropy has impacted the sector’s capacity to address racial inequality.
Read his full dissertation here
The Role of National Identity in Canadian Philanthropy
Over the past six years, much of my research and teaching has focused on the role played by national identity within the Canadian philanthropic sector. By “national identity,” I’m referring to the stories we tell about what Canada is and what it ought to be in order to construct a cohesive and collective sense of self—a sense of “Canadian-ness.” Although these national stories vary to some degree between regions, some of the most prominent are likely familiar to you:
Canada the tolerant.
Canada the diverse.
Canada the multicultural.
Canada the international peacekeeper.
While the truth of these stories is contested in certain spheres, their ubiquity within mainstream politics, media, and even corporate branding (think Tim Hortons!) is hard to ignore. This is because the power of national stories has little to do with whether they are true or not. Rather, their power lies in what they say and to what ends they are deployed. For example, the story of Canada the multicultural can push Canadians to both acknowledge and celebrate cultural difference. However, it can also be used to distract us from the ways in which political and economic inequalities are racialized in Canada. Whether Canada truly is “multicultural”—whatever that actually means—is beside the point.
It is in this way that national identity shapes and impacts many of the concrete processes and practices in the philanthropic sector, from the causes and issues prioritized by donors, to the work of grantees in their grounded practice, to public perception of the sector at large. This should come as no surprise as the philanthropic sector is, at its most ambitious, a setting for imagining, dreaming up, and working toward a better Canada.
With this in mind, I now turn to a few brief examples of the ways in which national identity shapes the sector. In doing so, I hope to provide a glimpse into how integrating questions related to nation-building and national identity can provide scholars, practitioners, and donors with a more nuanced, rich, and critical understanding of the unique processes, practices, and dynamics of the Canadian philanthropic sector.
National Identity and Competitive Funding
Over the past two decades, the Canadian philanthropic sector has been impacted by dramatic state-wide economic and political restructuring—most notably, in the form of the rollback of the welfare state. While concurrent changes to the Income Tax Act incentivized philanthropic giving through charitable tax credits, this was accompanied by significant individual and corporate tax cuts, and the rise of competitive contract-based funding in the sector. Much has been written about how these changes intensified the power of philanthropic donors over grantees, thereby diminishing the latter’s capacity to advocate for their clients and do politically radical work.
But what about philanthropic donors with explicit social justice mandates? Surely this would negate the “advocacy chill” and depoliticization that accompanied increased marketization.
From 2016-17, I sought to answer this question though a series of in-depth interviews with art for social change practitioners located throughout Canada. Each of the artist-activists/artist-community organizers had received funding from a prominent Canadian philanthropic organization with an explicit social justice mandate. However, during the interviews I observed an interesting phenomenon: while both donor and grantee were intent on addressing issues of social injustice in Canada like Islamophobia and the legacies of settler-colonialism, grantees formally framed their funded projects using dominant celebratory tropes of Canadian national identity. By reinforcing these uncritical understandings of Canada, they concealed—and consequently turned a blind eye to—the role of Canadian nation-building in producing the injustices that their work sought to address.
For example, one grantee working with newcomer youth formally touted Canada the international peacekeeper as it welcomed and integrated Syrian refugees. (However, in private they questioned Canada’s historic role in destabilizing the Middle East region.)
Another grantee working with Muslim youth around issues of gender and sexuality formally celebrated Canada the tolerant as a context uniquely suited for this progressive work. (However, in private they complained that, in order to secure funds, they needed to pitch the project as pertinent to national security, as it helped combat “violent extremism”.)
A third grantee formally described the ways in which Canada the multicultural was working to address the horrific legacy of the residential school system through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (However, in private they argued that the residential school system was not a “blip” in the Canadian story, but part of an ongoing settler-colonial project based on accumulating Indigenous land.
In each of these cases—as well as a range of others I heard—philanthropic grantees felt the need to reproduce dominant stories of the nation in order to receive and maintain funding within the sector. In this way, the seemingly harmless invocation of Canadian identity actually served the much more insidious function of shaping what could be said about social injustice (and potential solutions) within Canada.
National Identity and Donor Priorities
The more I observed the role of national identity in the Canadian philanthropic sector, the more I became interested in how national identity shapes the sector in other domestic contexts. In an effort to begin exploring this comparative angle around social justice philanthropy, I conducted some preliminary research in 2018 on an exciting philanthropic project based out of the United States: The Ford Foundation’s Art For Justice Fund.
Created with a $100 million donation by philanthropist, art collector, and president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, Agnes Gund, the five-year philanthropic initiative focuses on criminal justice reform through art and advocacy. The Fund operates primarily by providing grants to nonprofit organizations working on specific issues related to criminal justice reform in the United States including: bail reform, prosecutorial accountability, and art-based diversion programs for youth; reforming excessive prison sentences and incarceration laws; and increasing opportunities for formerly incarcerated people and their families. The Fund explicitly frames these issues in relation to anti-Black racism in the United States, emphasizing how race unjustly shapes everything from policing and bail policies, to length of prison stays.
The Art for Justice Fund—as well as other similar projects in the United States—reflects a different national history and national identity than the one we see in Canadian philanthropy. To be clear, I am not claiming that Canada does not have a serious history of anti-Black racism, or a racist criminal justice system. What is different, however, is how these racial injustices take shape in the national imagination in a given context, and how they map onto the anxieties of philanthropists and donors. In Canada, shameful histories of residential schools and settler-colonialism, and hopeful futures of multiculturalism and diversity, shape social justice philanthropy. In the US, the guilt of nation-building is attached to histories of trans-Atlantic slavery and Jim Crow laws, while the history of settler-colonialism is less prominent (though no less real).
In this way, it is not solely the “facts” of a country’s history, but rather the way in which it maps onto a collective national identity, that determines the priorities of powerful philanthropic donors.
National Identity and Organizational Branding
As the philanthropic sector increasingly models itself after the private sector, “branding” has come to play a vital role in the core activities of non-profits and charities—a fact embodied in the creation of formal job titles like “charity brand manager.” In fact, non-profit brands like Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity, and the World Wildlife Fund are some of the most widely recognized brands in the world. At the same time, corporate and individual philanthropists are actively participating in the cultivation of their own philanthropic brand to a variety of ends. One prominent example is cause-related marketing campaigns like the ubiquitous pink ribbon campaigns for breast cancer, and the (PRODUCT) Red campaign, which seeks to benefit the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis in Africa.
As part of my doctoral research, I examined the ways in which philanthropic organizations draw on national identity to cultivate their brand—employing the strategies of companies like Tim Hortons, Hudson’s Bay Company, and Molson Canadian. For example, in 2017, Roots Canada launched their Be Nice philanthropic campaign to raise money for WE Charity’s Indigenous Youth Empowerment Program, among other charitable causes. As part of the campaign, Roots held a nationwide search for Canada’s Nicest Person. The competition’s minute-long promotional video wove together the words of a succession of mostly young people into a soliloquy characterizing Canadians as, among other things, “super nice,” “polite,” and “always saying sorry.” Canadians’ inherent “niceness” is to be expected, the video implies, since “niceness” reflects many widely accepted facets of Canadian identity such as “practicing acceptance,” “listening to the other side,” “celebrating diversity,” “equality,” and “making the world a better place.”
This particular form of nation branding has clear benefits. It taps into a positive sense of national unity in a sector that can always use more donations and more volunteers. At the same time, this explicit focus on prominent stories of Canadian identity—specifically, highly racialized ones—risks obscuring the racialized and colonial forms of wealth accumulation that serve as the economic engine of much philanthropy in Canada. Resource extraction on Indigenous lands. Racialized global supply chains. Real estate projects that gentrify poor racialized communities. If actors in the philanthropic sector are truly committed to making Canada a more just, fair, and inclusive country, they must directly engage with these tensions—both past and present—as they uniquely present in the Canadian context.
A Future Agenda
My argument with this short piece is rather simple: by critically examining the role of national identity and national stories within the philanthropic sector, we can add a layer of contextual richness to our research and practice. Likewise, foregrounding national identity and stories can augment the extensive international comparative work that already exists in the field.
Moving forward, there are a few issues for practitioners that this analysis highlights:
- Advocacy chill and depoliticization are always present in the minds of community organizers and workers in the philanthropic sector. However, a national identity lens shows us it that these processes aren’t always obvious. What may seem a harmless appeal to national exceptionalism to secure a grant can fundamentally define how problems are understood and addressed. Funders with social justice mandates must be aware of this.
- Philanthropic donors—particularly those with social justice or social change mandates—must reflect on which issues they’ve chosen to address, which ones are ignored, and why this is the case. A national identity lens can provide a unique approach for exploring these questions.
- While we’re beginning to see more sustained critical examination of where philanthropic wealth comes from (e.g., Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth), we must acknowledge that these processes of accumulation are context-specific. In other words, the relationship between nation-building and philanthropic wealth in Canada is unique to Canada. Not only must we confront and expose these ongoing histories, we must highlight the many ways in which these histories are continually obscured.
Philanthropy geared toward social change and/or social justice in Canada is flourishing. Our job as researchers, practitioners, and policymakers is to make this emergent field as effective as possible at creating a more equitable, inclusive, and just Canada. Critically engaging with questions related to national identity, I argue, is one important step in achieving this goal.