Philanthropy Truths and Dares

Hilary Pearson

I have been listening to some interesting conversations recently in Canada, Europe, and the United States about what philanthropy has learned over the past two years. As we near the end of 2021, people are asking whether the changes that we see in the practices of at least some in the foundation world will be permanent. At various virtual philanthropy gatherings on both sides of the Atlantic, I am hearing similar themes and questions. How can we be more urgent? How can we be more flexible? How can we be more trusting? How can we be more creative in our philanthropy? Can we be more courageous, more inclusive, more humble? Can we be all those things at one and the same time?

What I am not hearing is a questioning of the fundamental value of philanthropic foundation work. Not surprising, you might say, since these are gatherings of philanthropists. They believe, as do I, in the original and important contribution that thoughtful and courageous foundations can make to our communities. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t acknowledge the need to change. Judging from these conversations, they are willing to re-examine themselves and their assumptions and behaviours.

As I listen to the presentations, it strikes me that foundations might need to play that old game Truth Or Dare. In their case, it might be renamed Truth And Dare.  Can we answer truthfully the hard questions that we are being asked? And do we dare to take the actions necessary to make our answers truthful?  Here are some questions that come to mind if foundations were to play this game for real.

Taking the Pledge: Is our foundation willing to sign one of the pledges that are increasingly being offered to the foundation community? Last year it was the Give5 pledge… 5% or more of endowment per year. This year it is the Canadian Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change.  In 2015, it was the Philanthropic Community’s Declaration of Action on reconciliation.  And the dare? Are we willing to be held accountable for our pledge? How much will we reveal and what measures can we use to prove that we are living up to our pledge?

Transferring Capital: Is our foundation willing to consider making a transfer of capital to help build sustainable sources of funding over time for community partners? This past year for example a small number of foundations transferred capital to start building funds such as the Foundation for Black Communities and the Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund. And the dare? Are we willing to examine new ways of using our capital, whether through making loans of our own, setting aggressive impact investing goals or even spending down our capital by transferring it directly to others?

Trusting our Partners: Is our foundation willing to let go of our control by changing practices that force our grantees and partners to conform to our own expectations about outcomes, or what constitutes a “good” grant (as suggested in the 2021 book Letting Go)? Are we willing to collaborate more and cede our views to the collective? And the dare? Are we willing to invite partners and collaborators to sit down with us and even make decisions for us that we are willing to accept in a spirit of joint accountability to each other?

Advocating for Mission: Are we willing to raise our own voices as funders in the debates about the issues that are so important to Canada right now? For example, the right to affordable housing, the design of affordable and available child care, the redesign of our cities to meet climate goals? We are seeing some examples of foundations taking a stand such as Maytree on housing, the Early Child Development Funders Working Group on child care, and Metcalf and Ivey on climate. And the dare? It’s not a high bar. Are we willing to sign an opinion piece, write a blog, explain our position in a detailed annual report, support a publication? Can we go further and act to give democratic dialogue a better chance by convening, supporting digital access, and including the marginalized voices not heard before in these debates?

If foundations are going to be both truthful and daring, they are going to be uncomfortable at times. Each truthful answer and each daring action may bring unease. Changing practice, sharing decisions with others, setting harder goals, taking a public stance, revealing more about ourselves, these are all potentially risky. Foundation boards are not often willing to take a dare. Many if not most foundation boards and donors do what they do to feel satisfaction and pleasure, not to feel anxiety or even fear. But the conversations* that I am listening to suggest that this is not a time to avoid risk or to be conservative. Post-pandemic but amid other global crises and pressures, this is a time, as Delphine Moralis of the European Foundation Centre said recently, to “reset systems, renew practices and reform philanthropy”, with courage and a sense of humility. Truth and dare, indeed.

*The conversations:

The Future of Philanthropy in Europe from Alliance Magazine (excellent summary available)

The Center for Effective Philanthropy webinar How a Time of Crisis Has Shifted Philanthropy (recording coming soon)

Philanthropic Foundations Canada 2021 conference Philanthropy and the Common Good

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