Canadian Philanthropy 2020 Part Two

June 29, 2020
Hilary Pearson

Back in January when COVID 19 was a faraway menace to us, I speculated in a blog post on three important challenges in 2020 for Canadian philanthropy. I suggested that foundations could make an important difference in the Canadian nonprofit landscape if they used their funds and influence to help provide a platform for unheard voices through public media, to build nonprofit sector leadership from the rising generation, and to develop capacities for policy analysis and advocacy among sector leadership organizations.

We know now what happened in the first part of this year like no other in our experience. All plans out the window, all funding intentions upended, all of us unnerved.

Foundations have responded rightly and urgently to the need: more funding, fewer funding restrictions, more support for community collective efforts to meet the crisis. The initial results of a survey of foundation responses from Philanthropic Foundations Canada bear this out. Many foundations have also agreed publicly to pledge to give 5% (or more) of their assets this year to meet the moment.

But should we be thinking now in the second half of 2020? As we move beyond relief to recovery, should we reconsider the three challenges that I identified in January? In my view, yes. They are even more important now. Here’s why. Funder action on these challenges responds to what the pandemic has so dramatically revealed to us: the need for resilience and the need for justice.

Dr Susan Phillips of Carleton University spoke thoughtfully in a recent webinar about the need to develop greater sector resilience as we move from relief to recovery and to rebuilding. It is true, as she soberly noted, that we are likely to see many more layoffs and many permanent closures in the nonprofit sector as the pandemic-induced recession wears on through the rest of 2020. The pandemic has shown a need to develop the future financial and human resilience of those sector organizations that do endure. She underlined the need for stronger local infrastructure, more nimble organizational leadership, reskilled employees, increased social research and development, and greater innovation capacity. She summarized succinctly the opportunities for the sector not only to rebuild but to transform itself and its place in Canada. She spoke about the possibilities of engaging in a new conversation with governments to focus on fixing our most serious problems. She talked about the opening to new voices, new perspectives and a more inclusive culture in the sector.

Funders and donors to the nonprofit sector should reflect on their role in promoting these factors of resilience. The challenges that I outlined in January are even more important to address: building non-profit leadership capacity, particularly leadership from the youngest generations, and investing in data systems, policy analysis and advocacy skills for provincial and national intermediary organizations such as Ontario Nonprofit Network and Imagine Canada (to name only two). Small investments in these elements bring big dividends. What if we had not had the dedicated, smart, nimble and imaginative leaders that we do have, to get many of Canada’s nonprofit organizations through this very tough time? And how do we ensure that the next wave of leaders has the necessary skills and mentorship to carry on? What if we had not had the determined and rapid advocacy from organizations such as ONN and Imagine Canada to secure a place for charities and nonprofits in the public emergency relief measures? And how do we make sure that we have that advocacy ready for us in the future? Investing in leadership development, training, mentoring, and better work conditions, and providing core stable funding for networks are the ways that funders can do it.

And what about justice? The dramatic events around the murder of George Floyd and others in the United States and the treatment of Black and Indigenous peoples in Canada puts the issue of systemic racism and injustice squarely in front of us. Combined with the injustice of the unequal, more severe, impact of the pandemic itself on the most vulnerable in our society, this makes justice the inescapable question for funders. I suggested in January that funders could do more to support public media platforms where the voices of the unrepresented or marginalized minorities could be heard. How much more important is this today.  At the same time, foundations should do better listening themselves to these previously unheard voices. Bring new people into your decision-making, ask for more feedback, go and sit at other tables. Ask, don’t tell.

If I could propose my challenges for Canadian foundations in 2020 over again, I would reiterate them all, and add a fourth: what can funders do to address, even more forcefully, as allies, the issue of systemic injustice and racism?  Particularly since 2015, many Canadian funders have taken seriously the importance of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. They are working sincerely to learn and to act in ways suggested by Indigenous peoples themselves. The pandemic has made this so much more urgent. It has also extended the view so much more clearly to people and communities of colour suffering from systemic injustice in Canada. We have had a limited conversation in philanthropy in Canada about inclusion. But we need to make it specifically and urgently about equity.

In January 2020, I suggested that even if you are primarily a place-based or local funder, consider your strategies through three lenses. Does our work also contribute in some way to more informed citizens, more capable young leaders, or a stronger non-profit sector in Canada overall? In July 2020, looking forward, we must add a critical fourth: does our work contribute to greater equity, to more inclusion, to justice for everyone?

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