Understanding and Supporting Collaborative Philanthropy in Atlantic Canada

Atlantic Hub, Blog

Does collaborative philanthropy exist in Atlantic Canada? To answer that question we first conceptualize the term philanthropy, which Daly (2012) highlights has been considered an “essentially contested concept” since the late 20th century. Daly (2012) continues that philanthropy is often understood in terms of “giving” or “charity,” with questions of why we give and what we give broadening the discussion to include concepts such as “pro-social behavior” (Adloff, in Jung et al. 2016) or just being neighborly. In a rural Canadian context, philanthropy or “philanthropic behaviour” is embedded in the norms and conventions of many who help their neighbour or community as a part of everyday life (Lorinc, 2019). Understanding the nuances across various types and degrees of philanthropy is important to better contextualize applied research and collaboration within the sector. For example, Kris Archie of the Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada (https://www.the-circle.ca/resources.html) distinguishes settler philanthropy from Indigenous philanthropy (A Philanthropy 101 Session with Kris Archie, 2021). Some of the things which define settler philanthropy are perhaps the more conventional things that come to mind when thinking of philanthropy such as large funding organizations donating financial resources to charities. Some of the things that Archie pointed to in understanding Indigenous philanthropy include taking care of your neighbour and sharing within your community.  

Thinking within the Atlantic Canadian context, philanthropy remains a contested term that is applied differently across the sector in support of community and regional priorities. As a relatively under-researched area it is, however, filled with potential to address the question of how people work together in Atlantic Canada to solve social and environmental problems. We consider collaboration in philanthropy a key piece of the overall puzzle to navigate through these moving waters.  

Having had the opportunity to attend the Circle’s recent virtual Feast (https://www.the-circle.ca/circle-feast.html), we were inspired by the Circle’s vision of how collaboration is built on deep relationships- something the Atlantic hub strives to achieve over time. As conversations continue that allow us to better understand philanthropy and its connections to context, settler colonialism, and norms/conventions and values, the Atlantic Hub is aptly positioned to support the re-centering this region’s history and to continue to un-pack underlying assumptions on what philanthropy is and can be and how we can use philanthropy as a conceptual tool to investigate the building and supporting of resilient relationships and communities. Atlantic Canada is a diverse region with Indigenous and non-Indigenous jurisdictions, a relatively higher proportion of rural residents, and a notably stronger sense of belonging in relation to other Canadian jurisdictions. The Atlantic hub is seeking to 1. understand the context for philanthropy in the region, 2. build and maintain relationships, and 3. foster better understanding amongst everyone involved in the philanthropic landscape.  

Examples of collaboration between the PhiLab Atlantic Hub and the sector 

The PhiLab Atlantic Hub is housed at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University on the west coast of Newfoundland in Corner Brook. In 2019, Miranda Ivany, a Masters student of Dr. Vodden’s and funded through the McConnell Foundation and PhiLab, set out to learn how the charitable sector could support the work of environmental organizations in Atlantic Canada. To do this research, Ivany adopted a collaborative research model which strove to make the research process align with the questions relevant to environmental groups in NL. This led her to consider the question of the benefit for environmental organizations in applying for charitable status. Ivany continued to deepen a relationship with an environmental group in NL called the Indian Bay Ecosystem Corporation, with whom Dr. Vodden had been working with since the early 2000s when she conducted a case study about collaborative governance models across the country. This longstanding relationship with a specific community partner is an important characteristic of the Atlantic Hub’s model of collaborative philanthropy and research. Ivany worked with IBEC to develop a research program about philanthropy that was relevant to the needs of this specific organization. The output of the research was a better understanding of the philanthropic landscape which now continues to drive the research program of PhiLab and which also informs future decisions by IBEC in deciding to seek charitable status. Ivany summarizes the impact of her research to say, 

As a result of the common experience of small and rural non-profit organizations being underfunded, understaffed and stretched thin, research helped provide a clearer understanding of the factors that impact participation in the philanthropic landscape. An understanding that acted as a starting point to identify where the energy of organizations might be best placed for building stronger collaborative capacity. I would say that this is what happened in my experience with IBEC. I believe that this experience positioned them to feel more comfortable reaching out to form even more partnerships.  

The main points to consider from this first example of work of the Atlantic hub are:  

  1. The importance of building and maintaining relationships for meaningful collaboration;  
  2. The need to support an evolution in the understanding of what philanthropy is; and  
  3. The need to continue to ask questions and build bridges. 

The second example of collaborative philanthropic work by the Atlantic Hub is an ongoing relationship with the Rural Communities Foundation of Nova Scotia (RCFNS). Dr. Vodden reached out to Arthur Bull (past Chair of the Board of Directors) of RCFNS after having met him at a conference. Vodden was interested to learn more about the community foundation model as this was less pronounced in the province of NL. The plan, pre-pandemic, was to work with RCFNS to help this organization answer a question they had regarding understanding the impact of their investments. To do this we planned to bring together a group of researchers from across the region to learn a model of assessing impact which could be used to support the work of RCFNS. This work was stalled mainly due to the COVID pandemic. Since that time, we have worked to continue this relationship both through the participation of RCFNS in the Atlantic PhiLab conference and also on continued research initiatives. Starting this year (2022), the PhiLab hub is hosting an undergraduate student from Acadia University who will work with the RCFNS to assist them in their evolving questions as they look to increase their impact in rural communities in Nova Scotia. These efforts we hope will continue to build a foundation for future collaboration.  

A third example of supporting collaboration across the sector in Atlantic Canada came as a response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. The Government of Canada invested $31 million nationally through the Canada Healthy Communities Initiative that sought to improve public spaces to encourage folks to get outside (safely) during the pandemic. This fund was administered through the Community Foundations of Canada through a regional approach. In Atlantic Canada, a coalition of Community Foundations in several provinces came together to administer the funds locally, putting out a call-for-proposals from communities across the region. Led by the Community Foundation of Nova Scotia, the coalition reached out the PhiLab Atlantic Hub and requested various well-being indicator data from each of the Atlantic Canadian provinces to determine how best to administer the funds equitably. As a time-sensitive request, Brady Reid, the PhiLab Atlantic Hub Co-ordinator at the time, pulled statistic data into a report that outlined a potential strategy moving forward for the fund.  

The main finding of this report identified different needs and priorities in each province. We feel that future research should add qualitative inquiry to this statistical analysis as a key to understand the nuance of wellbeing in the region. This research was by no means comprehensive in capturing the “wellness” of different communities and regions in Atlantic Canada, and much more work must be done (and is in some parts underway) by various community-based organizations (see “Vital Signs” reports from each province for more information). Feedback from our partners indicated that the research conducted by Reid helped inform them in the work they needed to do to support the Canada Healthy Communities Initiative. In this case, the PhiLab Atlantic Hub was able to mobilize its internal resources to assist a partner in conducting their work and in building regional connections.  

We are currently focused on building bridges between actors in the Atlantic region and our regional conference was an excellent conversation starter. Part of the groundwork that needs to be undertaken is the recognition that there is a wide spectrum of philanthropic actions and resources in this region but that up to this point, these actions and resources may not have identified as fitting under the umbrella of philanthropy, and have perhaps not reflected on power imbalances as they connect to philanthropy. The Atlantic Hub has been working to develop an understanding of and to support collaborative philanthropy in Atlantic Canada. Future actions rest on understanding how multiple sectors including researchers, funding organizations, and community partners interact to improve the health of the planet, resilience in communities, and relationships between humans and the ecosystems we are a part of and depend upon.

This article is part of the special edition of February 2022: Philanthropy & Collaboration. You can find more information here