Reconciliation as a driver for engaged philanthropy


Michael Alberg-Seberich


From 1st till 3rd November,  the members of Philanthropic Foundations Canada (PFC) gathered for their bi-annual conference in Vancouver. From an outsider’s perspective, this was not the usual philanthropy conference. It was a very thoughtful, energetic gathering to explore philanthropy’s role in the reconciliation with Canada’s First Nations and the overall struggle with inequality. These societal challenges provided the backdrop for a forward looking discussion of philanthropy’s role and tools today and in the future.  

The conference explored ‘New Horizons for Canadian Philanthropy’. It did so in an inclusive and respectful way. It started out with a conversation about inequality, pluralism, and reconciliation with Chief Dr. Robert Joseph from Reconciliation Canada and Khalil Shariff, CEO of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada. Both leaders mapped a road towards a more inclusive society. The takeaways of that discussion from attendees seemed to include an open dialogue, empathy and openness. The 200+ participants of the conference took these observations seriously in many intensive roundtable and workshop conversations.

Putting this issue on center stage in philanthropy is part of a national process in Canada that started with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission whose final report was published in 2015. Indigenous voices and a group of foundations expressed the need to contribute to this process in “The Philanthropic Community’s Declaration of Action”.

This must be why collective impact was present in many discussions and project presentations at this conference. Outside of Canada we may not be aware, for instance, of the Artic Inspiration Prize, initiated by a Swiss philanthropist living in Canada that awards annually more than 1 Million Can€ to ideas and teams for societal innovation in the Arctic. This prize is an amazing documentation how philanthropy can work together with government, indigenous communities, business and civil society.

Other examples for such collaborations are the Northern Manitoba Food, Culture and Community Fund or the Northwest Territories On-The-Land Collaborative Fund. These are all efforts to improve the overall situation of (mainly) indigenous people in a very inclusive and process oriented ways. The impact that was presented in a workshop on “Funder Collaboratives: Partnering with Indigenous Communities” is hands-on, concrete and for many communities life changing.

Reconciliation, as a theme, allowed the Canadian philanthropic community to intensively explore also inequality in its society overall and around the world. Even though the conference took place during the week when Canada was hailed as a beacon of liberty, fairness, and openness on the cover of The Economist, the conference did not shy away from exploring the consequences of growing inequality.

In an intense closing plenary Kavita Ramdas from the Ford Foundation, Kevin McCort from the Vancouver Foundation, and Katrina Pacey from the Pivot Legal Society, showed that philanthropy has a role to play in this field on the policy, the social innovation and the day to day level of getting the voices heard of the people on the fringes of society and in the struggle to improve their access to rights and better living conditions.

The conference also addressed many of the methodological and thematic questions discussed in philanthropy in many parts of the world: How to work with the government? How to support journalism? How to measure impact? What is the role of impact investing? How to use systems thinking and social innovations as drivers of strategic philanthropy? How to use the UN’s sustainable development goals in philanthropy?

In some of these roundtables, discussions innovations where presented that may have an effect on philanthropy overall. One example is the Ontario Trillium Foundation’s effort to implement standardized metrics and outcomes as well as open-data to drive evidence-based decision making for grants. Another one is the very thorough way how philanthropy in Canada explores social innovation as a theory and strategic tool of philanthropy.

In a world where everybody talks about globalization, it may sometimes surprise how context still does frame philanthropy. The PFC conference has shown that an intensive reflection on this local context can create meaningful practice and innovation. With an outsider’s perspective, I therefore would claim that this conference did not only define some new horizons for philanthropy in Canada but for the wider, global philanthropic community.

Michael Alberg-Seberich is a managing partner at Active Philanthropy and Beyond Philanthropy.

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