Typically, Canadian foundations remain very reticent to draw attention to themselves, unlike our more visible American neighbours. This is partly a matter of size. It’s the rare Canadian foundation that grants more than $1 million a year to charities. These grants are spread across many recipients, most of them not engaged in public issues or controversies but occupied in delivering services to Canadian communities. This is generosity in action and there is much to be said for it. But there is also an argument to be made that even smaller foundations have a rare and unique capability to confront and change the conditions that create social isolation, exclusion and inequality. Such isolation and exclusion are drivers of what we see today, yes even in Canada, in populist politics, ‘fake’ news and social media’s angry rhetoric.
It follows that foundations should be more willing to take on publicly the challenges of doing what is necessary to confront inequality and exclusion, even if this involves controversy or public attention. They should do this not just as a moral obligation, but because only they can.
These are questions that will be on the table later this month at the Philanthropic Foundations Canada conference in Toronto. Several plenary conversations will address big challenges. How will Canadian organized philanthropy confront populism, build civic engagement, open itself to other voices not heard, accept more calculated risks and take on more public accountability? Not the usual conversations but becoming more urgent.
We are not alone in considering these conversations. Our colleagues in Australia had their own conference recently with similar themes. They tackled the questions of how to work toward a just society and how to think about philanthropy’s role in democracy.
We must do the same in Canada. Political discourse in many parts of the country is divisive and full of worries. Civic engagement and community are threatened by the isolationist effects of poverty, inequality, racial exclusion and even the media. We seem to be in uncertain and fearful times. But there are innovative and positive solutions to many of these threats. Funders of civil society organizations can risk more to work with them to support experiments, pilots, new ways to figure out and test approaches and to reinforce inclusion and engagement.
Larry Kramer, President of the Hewlett Foundation in California, was a keynote speaker in Australia, and a contributor to a recent online series on Civil Society for the 21st Century. In his comments, Kramer provided a useful nuance on the question of how funders should think about risk, arguing that ‘we need to find the big problems that philanthropy can uniquely work on. These are invariably complicated, with embedded systems of conflicting interests. The only way to make progress on problems like that is to become part of an ecosystem and work patiently within it….We should pick problems that seem worth working on and ask ‘Can we make headway on this?’ If the answer is ‘yes’ then we should pursue it as best we can. The notion that you ‘should’ do something riskier just because it’s risky – I don’t get that.’ But Kramer points out also that funders are uniquely able to take on the risk, ‘not just that something may not work but the reputational risk of tackling controversial matters….what’s the point of being unaccountable if you never use it?’ By unaccountable he means not that funders should not be accountable to their partners and to the public but that they are not directly accountable to voters or to markets who so often constrain the risk-taking of business and politics.
Can Canadian funders challenge themselves in a ‘risky’ way? Can we talk about failure, to ask self-critical questions, to discuss the big problems which we are uniquely positioned to work on? The PFC plenary speakers will ask these questions. We have also asked several European philanthropy leaders to reflect on these questions with us. These discussions are even more important because they signal to grantees, civil society leaders and leaders in the other sectors that private foundations are indeed willing to risk taking on the conditions of inequality and exclusion. The stakes are high. If funders can take these risks, we can play a significant role in building a less fearful and more engaged society.
Hilary Pearson is President of Philanthropic Foundations Canada