Crisis and Opportunity for Canadian Funders (part 1)

March 22, 2020
Hilary Pearson

Does the COVID 19 pandemic offer an opportunity for change in Canadian philanthropy? And if so, what and how? It’s much too soon to tell, probably. But it’s interesting to note the observations made in the last week by U.S foundations  that this is the time for radical response.  It’s not too soon to say that the shutdown of our society and economy by the pandemic will lead to major shifts in the non-profit sector, certainly in the short to medium term. There will be a need to rethink financing structures, work practices, collaborations etc. This forces a response not only for the next two months but probably for the next year and beyond.

Seizing the opportunity, the Ford Foundation and the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project of which Ford is a sponsor proposed a “pledge of action” for changed practices among foundations. This pledge commits foundations to 8 principles for funding and relationships with community partners and grantees:

  • Loosened or unrestricted funding to current partners
  • Unrestricted new grants made to new partners responding to the emergency
  • Lowered requirements on partners (reports, site visits etc)
  • Contributions to collective or pooled community response funds
  • Proactive communication to communities
  • Listening to community voices and needs
  • Support for advocacy to support nonprofits during and after the pandemic
  • Learn from these practices and adjust in more stable times

Remarkably, this pledge has now been signed by over 200 foundations (and counting). It’s a stunning example of collective response from the foundation sector. Funders can provide desperately needed funds…and do so much more!

(By the way I would add a 9th principle: Commit new funding to the umbrella and intermediary organizations that help to lift up the collective voices of the sector at national and regional and local levels.)

What is fascinating about this is to see the rapid mobilization of American funders around a set of practices that funder organizations such as Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, individual foundations such as Ford, observers such as Vu Le, centres such as the Centre for Effective Philanthropy and collective projects such as the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project have been advocating for a few years. This is the reply both to the growing critique of elitist foundation practices and to the increasing realization of the effectiveness of diversity, inclusion and participation practices. So this may be the spur to fundamental change in philanthropic practice across a wide group of American funders. This is certainly what Ford (which led the way with its BUILD program) and others are hoping now.  Note the 8th principle

“Learn from these emergency practices and share what they teach us about effective partnership and philanthropic support, so we may consider adjusting our practices more fundamentally in the future, in more stable times, based on all we learn.”

It takes a crisis to create a turning point. Is this a turning point for Canadian funders as well?

What stops us from creating (or adapting) and signing a similar pledge?  What stops us from considering how to act collectively not only to support short term emergency response to community need but also to re-evaluate practices for the long term? Philanthropic Foundations Canada is informing Canadian funders about COVID 19 responses through a new weekly digest. It could work with Community Foundations of Canada and other funder groups to move us towards a reconsideration of giving practices during and perhaps after the pandemic.

Meanwhile we are seeing some creative examples of collective response to the pandemic. The National Center for Family Philanthropy in the US is offering an interactive map and continually growing list of resources for funders re COVID 19. We can do this for Canada! Here are just a few funds and resources already available for Canadian funders:


National and Issue-Based

International (for Canadian funders)

Charity Village is putting together a list of umbrella and intermediary groups working on COVID 19 response for the charitable sector as a whole.

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