Time to modernise dated definition of philanthropy to reflect new Canadian reality?


Katherine MacDonald


Amidst the many activities happening to launch the 2019-2020 academic year, the Certificate in Philanthropic Management of Université de Montréal paired up with PhiLab to add their own event to the mix: a conference led by Ms. Hilary Pearson, former CEO  and president of Philanthropic Foundations Canada (PFC).

Ms. Pearson’s talk began with an overview of PFC’s extensive role in moulding the Canadian philanthropic sector. In particular, she highlighted that prior to the founding of PFC in 1999, most information on philanthropy was based on American reports. According to Hilary, while there has been much progress in developing Canadian resources for the sector, the sector’s legal and administrative framework has been neglected for too long and is in dire need of a new roadmap. Will the recent report released by the Special Senate Committee on the Charitable Sector, with its 42 recommendations lead the way? The new permanent Advisory Committee on the Charitable Sector, co-chaired by Hilary herself, might be part of the solution, but the upcoming elections might also tilt the scales in a different direction.

While there are indeed many more Canadian resources for the philanthropic sector available today, Hilary based the second portion of her speech on an article from an American journal that listed the eight myths of American philanthropy. Is her choice of reference representative of the persisting lack of coverage the philanthropic sector has in Canadian media even today? Do we still defer to content stemming from our Southern neighbour when discussing a philanthropic issue? Regardless, the discussion that ensued revolved around the question of what those myths would be in Canada. Two of the myths that were raised at the conference were that women and immigrants donate less than others and that Millenials did not get involved in volunteering.

Recent reports on the Canadian Philanthropy Sector prove these are indeed just myths, with women giving more than men, for example. However, Ms. Pearson brought up a very interesting question concerning these perceptions. Do the current definition and legal framework of the charitable sector, in fact, exclude a significant portion of the Canadian population (e.g. women, immigrants, indigenous people…) because their participation does not fit into the Eurocentric definition of philanthropy? In fact, is it possible that the definition of what is charitable, a definition that was made over 200 years ago, desperately in need of modernisation in order to take into consideration a new Canadian reality? The exchanges that took place during the conference seemed to support this notion.

A final point worth mentioning is the predicament many foundations and charitable organisations find themselves in concerning their relationship with the state. On one hand, a partnership between the philanthropic sector and government could be beneficial in combatting large scale issues such as social inequality and the climate crisis. On the other hand, as Hilary Pearson pointed out,  such a partnership is unbalanced if not impossible, since the government makes the rules foundations operate under, not exactly fertile grounds for a genuine partnership to form.

The need to modernise and revise the charitable sector’s regulatory framework was insisted upon in order to continue moving forward at the pace necessary to address the many issues facing our modern society.

Katherine MacDonald is Communications Manager at PhiLab

This article was originally published on the PhiLab blog on 1 October 2019. The original article can be viewed here.

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