Philanthropy in Canada: A new generation of donors, and social investors


Hilary Pearson, President & CEO, Philanthropic Foundations of Canada

Michael Alberg-Seberich, Managing Director, Beyond Philanthropy

Interview with Hilary Pearson, President & CEO, Philanthropic Foundations of Canada and Michael Alberg-Seberich, Managing Director, Beyond Philanthropy


Hilary and Michael, what are the three broad issues that will drive the Canadian foundation and philanthropy sector in the next 10 years?
Canada has a very large baby boom generation. This generation in now inheriting enormous wealth and has also created wealth. This means that there is an increased focus on philanthropy. Much of this philanthropy is family-run as most businesses in Canada are family-led. A new generation of donors, and social investors is getting involved in philanthropy in Canada. This is a tremendous opportunity for growth of the foundation sector and more innovative choices of strategies including granting, convening, advocacy, programme operations and social investing.

Reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous peoples is dominating the political and philanthropic discourse. Canada’s Philanthropic Community released in June 2015 ‘A Declaration of Action’ to commit to support of the reconciliation process with Canada’s indigenous people. This commitment is promoting much more activity and discussion around cultural competency, recognition of need for inclusion, and new forms of funding including participatory grantmaking, impact investing and collective impact work. These are developments that could influence philanthropic work in other countries.

The effects of digital technologies are changing Canadian practices of giving and grantmaking. With CanadaHelps.orgCharity Village or benevity, Canada is home to some important technological innovators in the field. There is much more to come.

Which topics do you expect philanthropy to focus on?
Canadian foundations have typically tended to give the bulk of their grants to three sectors: education, social services and health. In Canada, most funding of education is at post-secondary level to colleges and universities. While grants may still go in large amounts to these three sectors, there is a group of Canadian foundations who are more interested in the smaller charities working in the areas of social inclusion, reconciliation, youth development, immigrant integration, urban environments and climate change strategies and protection of the environment. They will use strategies that go beyond grantmaking (convening, funding research, building community organisation resiliency and capacity, partnering, etc.).

What is traditional philanthropy and how do you expect this to develop in the future?
More traditional philanthropy in Canada is focused around making arms-length grants to charities, many of which are hospitals and health institutions, universities and larger community centres and arts organisations (museums, festivals etc.). Many foundations are place-based in their grantmaking and focus on their immediate communities. There is relatively little international foundation granting. Foundations have been crucial as supporters of the local university, the local theatre, the local nature reserve or the local homeless refuge. While these commitments will continue, there may be more direct involvement of the foundation board and staff in projects, and more collaborative funding. One indicator of the latter trend is the growing number of affinity groups among philanthropic organisations in Canada.

What role will philanthropy take?
Foundations are starting to move beyond the isolated grantmaking role to roles that involve them as partners with others in the corporate sector and with governments. Foundations (just a few but more) are willing to play an advocacy role. The federal government announced in November 2018 a major investment in a social finance fund that will certainly involve more foundations in becoming social impact investors. The government is also changing and removing the limits on advocacy activities by charities, which will perhaps encourage more foundations to become engaged in public policy development.

Will Canada’s philanthropy be more nationally focused or also regional and global?
Philanthropy in Canada is focusing much more on issues of diversity and inclusion (going beyond borders to recognise the many cultures of the world now represented in the Canadian population). Giving is also becoming more global. An important reason for this is the growing philanthropy of immigrant communities in Canada. The Jewish community in Canada has been highly engaged in giving in Israel. Canada has one of the largest populations of south Asians in the world outside the sub-continent and the Sikh community is an important donor in India. The Canadian Chinese community is very important in giving to China.

Is there any other subject which you consider as vital for the sector?
Canada is one of the countries with an extremely dense and engaged community foundation network. Look out for more to come from this collective form of philanthropy. Already today initiatives like ‘Vital Signs’ are spreading from Canada around the world.

If people want to get informed about news and trends in the sector in Canada, where can they find this information?

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