Crisis and Opportunity for Canadian Funders (part 2)

March 29, 2020
Hilary Pearson

The COVID-19 emergency has faced private funders with an enormous opportunity for change. A week ago,  I wrote about how groups of private funders are coming together to create and commit to pledges for a more responsive relationship with their grantees and communities. Four funder associations in Canada have now come up with a strong collective pledge of action that sets out five guiding principles for foundation strategies during and after the emergency period.   

Canadian foundations are being urged to act quickly, flexibly and generously to meet the needs of their grantees and the community at large. This is consistent with the voices across the community sector that are appealing for a commitment from their funders to continue their grants, to lift any conditions on them and to put faith in their grantees to use the funds as necessary. Funders are also being asked to increase their overall funding and to direct it to the emergency as it grows.

The demand for funds will certainly exceed what any one funder can supply, even if foundations take more from their endowments as they are being urged to do. How do you know where to target your limited funds most effectively? It seems obvious but the best thing to do is to ask them. The always thoughtful Phil Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy in a series of three recent blogs has suggested that funders must reach out across their entire population of grantees, to quickly identify those in the most precarious positions — and then target their near-term resources to those organizations accordingly. CEP suggests a quick survey of grantees to ask them: how have your operations been disrupted? What do you need most from us?  What are you in danger of having to stop or abandon as the crisis continues? A proactive reach out to grantees (unless you have hundreds of them) should be a relatively simple thing to do.

But there is more to think about than maintaining support and communication with grantees, although that comes first. As I read through the commentaries that are coming fast now from observers of philanthropy, I notice how the crisis is sharpening the prevailing debate about the role of private philanthropy in society. Should foundations dedicate all their resources to address social injustice, to advocate for the least advantaged, to change underlying and systemic conditions? Or are they unable to do so because they are part of the very power structure that creates injustice? Does their commitment to the perpetual endowment model prevent them from acting effectively, with enough of their resources, on the here and now?  Some even within the foundation community are critical of the response to the crisis so far, suggesting that it reveals, as it does in so many ways, the inability of foundations to react effectively.

I don’t believe this is true. We have not yet seen what Canadian foundations can and will do. It is encouraging that the fourth and fifth principles of the joint funder association statement address head on the question of social justice. The statement suggests taking action for equity now in the emergency and in the long term.

In the now: “Support and amplify community-based organizations so that their needs are heard and met. This is particularly true for equity-seeking groups.”

In the longer-term: “Invest time and energy to notice, make visible and share with others new ways and norms of approaching our work that result in deep change and can be scaled up toward equity and justice in the months and years to come.”

Actions are the ways in which we make credible our words. So what to do?

  • Reach out to all your grantees.
  • Think about how to commit more funds (yes beyond 3.5% of endowment).
  • Target those additional funds to a) local groups working to support the enormous needs in the emergency; b) intermediary groups such as Imagine Canada seeking to improve conditions for the sector as a whole; and c) national and global efforts to find a vaccine, support global organizations such as WHO and global public health campaigns.
  • Communicate. Make a public statement if you can. Sign a collective pledge.
  • Take notes. Get ready for your post-crisis strategic planning session. What are you learning and what are you going to change in future?
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