Three Challenges for Canadian Foundations in 2020

January 7, 2020
Hilary Pearson

January is a useful month for setting challenges, both for people and for organizations. Your new challenge may be one; it may be several. It may be an extension of a previous strategy or it may be a new stretch. Regardless, the exercise of reflecting on a challenge for the year ahead is useful because it inevitably raises questions of what matters, and where to have impact.

I suggest that there are three challenges where Canadian foundations could have significant impact in 2020. A foundation can choose to be active in one or more. All three, in my opinion, raise issues that matter, and all are ripe for more foundation funding. All matter greatly to our future.

The first challenge is digital media and democracy. What role can philanthropy play in promoting a more informed citizenry or providing a platform for unheard voices through digital media? Back in 2013, US-based observers suggested that “if a requirement of democracy is that all citizens have an equal opportunity to make their voices heard, then we must find ways to help that happen. A longstanding argument on the role of civil society is that it should do two related but somewhat opposite things: 1) serve as a means for bringing forward new ideas that with the support of the majority are put forward into government, and 2) serve as a place to support the ideas and interests of multiple minorities. Philanthropic organizations thus serve as a pipeline into democratic engagement, and as an incubator and home for ideas and communities that are still emerging or may not have found awareness or favor with the voting majority.”

How can Canadian foundations engage in this challenge? Some already are, through support for so-called “philanthro-journalism” initiatives. The Atkinson Foundation has led the way, supporting beat reporters in traditional media and supporting the Public Policy Forum’s “Shattered Mirror” series on the long-term implications of shifts in digital technology, news and politics. The challenge for 2020 is how to confront the deluge of misinformation in the digital public square. Digital news platforms are upending media business models. How to regulate and manage these new digital media platforms in ways that support informed citizens and better policy? Some US foundations such as Knight are launching major granting programs to better understand technology, media and democracy. The McConnell and Rossy Foundations are supporting a digital democracy project at McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy. Might we see more of this being done in Canada in 2020?

The second challenge is building nonprofit leadership capacity, particularly leadership from the millennial generation. How can Canadian philanthropy support the development of leaders from this rising generation of people in their 30s today? The first millennials will be turning 40 in 2021. Are they ready to take on leadership positions in the Canadian nonprofit sector? This generation of leaders will be the one to confront head on the impact of huge and complex challenges such as climate change. And this generation is also more focused on equity, inclusion and different ways of working. What do they need to build their skills? In 2020, we will see many leaders of the Baby Boom generation retiring from nonprofit positions. Who will replace them?

Some corporate foundations in Canada are paying close attention to helping youth prepare for the workplace. RBC Future Launch and PwC Canada Young People Project are providing philanthropic support to mentoring, coaching, skills acquisition and work experience opportunities for young people. Among private foundations, the Counselling Foundation of Canada provides extensive support to youth planning their careers through its grants and through CERIC, its connected charity that advances career development and education. There are other examples of foundations focusing on youth and their skills development needs. But what about developing nonprofit leaders themselves in mid-career? Taking a sectoral approach, the Rozsa Foundation through its Arts Leadership Programs invests to strengthen business acumen and organizational resilience within arts organizations. The Foundation’s targeted assistance to leaders at all stages of their careers in arts organizations means that the Alberta arts sector has a deep pool of leaders to draw from. No reason why this approach could not be considered for other parts of the nonprofit sector. And a small philanthropic investment such as this has very long-lasting impact.

A third challenge is building nonprofit sector infrastructure. I would argue that this challenge is connected to the other two. This is about supporting the development of evidence for better public information and policy and supporting leadership for the sector as a whole.  Specifically, it means investing in data systems, policy analysis and leadership of nonprofit intermediary organizations. Elsewhere, I have argued for more foundation support for those organizations such as the regional nonprofit networks or Imagine Canada that provide collective action on rules and standards, gather intelligence, mobilize knowledge, and advocate with policy-makers. Relatively few private foundations in Canada have chosen to do this as a primary goal. The Muttart Foundation and the Lawson Foundation are both examples of philanthropy that recognizes the value of strengthening the philanthropic and charitable sectors. Other foundations work to support infrastructure within their areas of interest such as environment. But there is still a major gap. These organizations and platforms are fragile. Small investments bring big dividends, especially if the investment is made in capable leadership.

So these are three suggestions for challenging your philanthropy in 2020. Even if your strategies as a foundation are more issue or community specific, it may be valuable to view your strategies through these three lenses. Does your foundation’s work also contribute in some way to change for the better in informed citizens, capable young leaders, or a stronger nonprofit sector in Canada overall?

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