Canadian Philanthropy in North America

Hilary Pearson

A talk given to a panel discussion on the future of North American philanthropy hosted by Alliance Magazine on July 14, 2021. Here is a summary and recording of the panel discussion

We Canadians live in a small country that sits next to a very large, influential and noisy one. Inevitably our trajectory has been influenced by what goes on to the south of us. 

This is true when it comes to the history of organized philanthropy, especially in English-speaking Canada. Cross-border personal and business connections shaped the creation of private charitable trusts in Canada at much the same time as they were created in the States. One of our early 20th century Prime Ministers, Mackenzie King, worked at the Rockefeller Foundation for some years. And the Winnipeg Foundation, our first community foundation, was created in 1921 on the model of the Cleveland Foundation created in 1914. So, we have been practicing philanthropy, using the same basic models, for over a century. But being a smaller country with a population stretched pretty thin over huge territory it has taken us longer to knit ourselves together. While the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy, now Imagine Canada, was created in the mid-1980s, other philanthropic networks focused on grantmaking foundations in Canada are not even 30 years old.

This might suggest that Canadian philanthropy compares with the United States in age but not maturity. I disagree. We have caught up quickly in terms of our thinking and practice as a field. And where I believe we excel in comparison to the United States is in our relative success at collaboration, a particular advantage when it comes to tackling the complex wicked problems that require collective action, such as dealing with climate change. 

In general, Canadians are centrists and pragmatists. Without the extremes of ideological and values polarization that we see in the United States, foundations across the country can work together without having to declare a side. Yes, we are more willing than Americans perhaps to cede the lead to government, even allowing for some regional difference on this from West to East. This is in part due to the activism of the public sector. From the 1960s on we have had a progressive tilt to our federal politics which has brought us to a place where public education, public health and social security supports give the majority of our population a safety net that simply isn’t there in the United States.

And yet…. in the last 25 years, we have seen the constraints on government, which are both fiscal and human. We don’t expect government today to be the source of social innovation. And in the last 20 years I have seen a leap forward in Canadian philanthropy itself around collaborative initiatives - to generate ideas, to experiment and pilot test, and finally to begin to advocate for policy changes that we see as important to our future.

On the issues of 2021 and beyond – inequality, systemic racism, climate emergency – I think that Canadian philanthropy has much to offer inside and outside our borders. We live in a country which has a lot of expertise in extracting and burning carbon. And we have an enormous environmental space at risk, in land, water and air. Together, Canadian philanthropists are working on making space for policy development, generating ideas around carbon pricing, developing marine and forest conservation and driving collaboration in our urban centres to get to net zero. We live in a pluralist society of immigrants. Most of our large urban centres have welcomed and integrated large numbers of immigrants and refugees from East and South Asia, from the Middle East and from Africa over the last 25 years. This means that philanthropy has plenty of opportunity to work collaboratively and at scale on social inclusion. As settlers, we share the land with the many Indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants. This means an opportunity for philanthropy to step up collectively to the work of relationship building and reconciliation. 

Are we doing it as well as we could? No. Canadian philanthropy has weaknesses – our pragmatism can lead to too much caution, our modesty can become lack of aspiration. Organized philanthropy itself is not diverse and that means that there are important voices and perspectives aren’t included. Many foundations in Canada can be justifiably critiqued for opaqueness and elitism. And we can be too polite. This shows up in our relative reluctance historically to step up in public to advocate and organize for social change. 

Yet events of the last year, and the consequences of the pandemic, are changing this, I think, in Canada as in the US. I have seen more foundations come together to speak publicly on the inequalities revealed so clearly by the pandemic. It showed us the gaps in health and childcare coverage, in support for racialized and vulnerable populations, in mental health services.

These gaps are now pushing funders to become bolder in making collective statements on the need and urgency for policy change. And in making collective commitments to change the work of philanthropy itself. Many Canadian foundations signed a pledge during the pandemic to free their grants from restrictions, to grant for longer periods and to make themselves more transparent and accessible. Funders are trying to listen better and to figure out how they can be better partners with community leaders. I am optimistic that we will pursue this path.  As a small but connected country I think we can and will share more widely some of what really works in Canadian philanthropy for ourselves and beyond our borders.  

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