From Charity To Change: A Reflection

Hilary Pearson

This is a more personal post than usual. It’s about Canadian foundation philanthropy, as may of my posts are. But it is also sharing some of my personal reflections as I look forward to the publication at the end of November of my book From Charity To Change:  Inside The World of Canadian Foundations.

Why did I write a book about Canadian foundations? It’s something that I have thought about for fifteen years, although the writing took only two. Over those fifteen years, I have seen a lot of change in the foundation world. Some of it was driven by outside events. Some of it built on the connections and inspirations provided by the growth of personal and digital networks. Some of it has come through internal change as foundations have learned from their own experiences. There has been enough change to make an interesting story that I thought worth telling.

This book is based on stories of individual foundations. But it is also a story about a story itself. One of the reasons I felt compelled to write was that I had been working on telling a good story about the role of foundations for many years. Of course, I should say immediately that generalized narratives about foundations founder quickly on the diversity of foundation behaviours and actions. It’s difficult and inaccurate to say that all foundations play a specific and similar role beyond that of provider of capital for social good.

But in the absence of details or data, stories are built around assumptions. Narratives are built around what can be seen, such as foundation grants. Or about what is not seen, such as how foundations make decisions or what their motives are. There is a public interest in what foundations do and why because there is a public investment in them, through tax subsidies offered to donors. But there is also a default to suspicion in the absence of information, or in the presence of wealth for public benefit without public input on its distribution. In the worst Interpretation, foundations are institutions used by wealthy people to impose their own priorities or to subvert public priorities around social change, while maintaining their own privilege.

I had a motive to develop a more positive story about the role of foundation philanthropy. As the leader of Philanthropic Foundations Canada, it was my job to craft it. I was also more than curious about the unique role that foundations could play in our society. Over the years, I worked on various stories about the roles of foundations, ranging from social investor to strategic risk-taker, to social R&D funder, to convenor and catalyst of change and to community partner. What I understood as I learned more about the realities of foundation philanthropy was that no one description was going to fit. Foundations themselves were changing their missions and roles.

This is what I wanted to capture in a book. I chose to write about foundations in Canada who are generally independent and run by autonomous boards, whether connected through family or not. In talking about foundation philanthropy, I did not focus on public foundations which fundraise for their institutions or communities, although many do extraordinary work. I also chose to write about foundations whose work has evolved over a period of 20 years or more, because this provides a track record of change. And I chose to write about foundations who already understand the importance of communicating what they do and how and why. So, my twenty-plus foundation stories are not representative of all foundations or even of a majority. But they are stories that I hope provide a richness of detail which will nuance the prevailing narrative on foundations. I hope to dispel the mystery, to show that foundations are run by serious people who have humility about their roles and curiosity about their communities, who are willing to change course and to learn from their actions, who are committed to working and sharing with others.

It could be said that I chose only the most positive stories. But I am not uncritical in the book. I am well aware that foundations in Canada are being reproached, as they are in the United States and elsewhere, for not moving quickly, for not responding to the needs of the present, in a world of rapid climate change and increasing inequality. Foundations, just like other organizations, must focus more on equity and inclusion. And they need to be more transparent. That means sharing data more proactively, not only because the regulators ask for it. To show themselves accountable, foundations need to explain what change, what social impact, they seek and how they are going about it. The foundation leaders who I interviewed know this. And many others who I haven’t included directly in the book but to whom I have spoken know it too. Younger generations of families on boards, new leaders of recently-created foundations and donors who have emerged in the last decade are responding to the world of 2022 with creative strategies for deploying capital for public good. A book written five years from now may well include them.

What I wanted to show in this book was that while foundations may vary in their missions and roles, there are common characteristics shared by those who have grown in their social impact over the years:

  • Leaders (whether board or staff) with a sustained focus and commitment to a disciplined approach
  • An openness to learning, from grantees, partners, peers and others
  • A commitment to accountability, whether through evaluations, story-telling, data sharing or diversified governance

These are what make the stories in this book relevant beyond Canada. Yes, this is an insider account about Canadian foundations. But it is informed by, and I believe, important to the work of foundations in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other parts of the world. Foundations in all these places are doing the work that I describe in Canada: strengthening communities, building fields, advancing public policy, confronting climate change. What I hope is that by giving some depth to the story of what these foundations do, I also have shown why foundations matter and why we should care. I am as curious and eager as ever to find out what happens next.

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