A Case for Voice: Foundations on the Stage
September 8, 2015
From the President

A Case for Voice: Foundations on the Stage

By Hilary Pearson

The first in a series on philanthropy and civic engagement.

Most grantmaking foundations in Canada would describe themselves as players behind the scenes… they back other charities to do their important frontline work. They are the arms-length funder behind the curtain. But as always in philanthropy, one role does not fit all. Foundations can and do play other roles. They convene dialogues, bring together experts, commission original work and operate their own charitable programs… so the stage is more crowded than we think, even if the players are not in leading roles. Interestingly, foundations don’t choose the speaking parts too often. Do they lack voice or do they feel that others should do the speaking? Or do they think they are actually not allowed on centre stage?

We can find examples of foundations who work to strengthen the voices of others. Maytree, Max Bell, Muttart, Bombardier, Ivey , for example, have all invested in training the voices of charities, whether on public policy issues or for advocacy and agency on their own behalf. Another way of amplifying voice is to create spaces for dialogue and the expression of views. The McConnell Foundation blog space is an example of a platform where both Foundation staff and guest bloggers draw attention to and express their opinions on issues that matter to the Foundation’s partners.

Going beyond this, some foundations use their own voice to highlight questions that matter in the public space. They use the many tools now available, especially in the digital space, such as newsletters, reports, or websites to speak on social and economic issues. An example is the Maytree Opinion section on the Maytree website. which currently features Five Good Questions We’d Ask at a Leader’s Debate. Another example is the George Cedric Metcalf Foundation’s Biennial Report which comments on the Foundation’s concern about growing income inequality, and the need to balance economic and environmental concerns.

One role that has rarely been played on stage by foundations up to now, however, is the role of public advocate, the voice that explicitly addresses policy makers as it articulates a policy position or a course of action to change a system.

Two recent examples this year suggest that a tide may be changing. In the spring, a group of Quebec-based foundations wrote an open letter to the Government of Quebec on the subject of the potentially disproportionate impact of fiscal austerity measures on the most disadvantaged. This summer another group of eight Canadian foundations wrote an open letter to the leaders of the five federal parties to advocate for investing more in quality early childhood education. Both of these groups are pressing on with efforts to convene others around the issues that concern them with the explicit goal of influencing public policy change.

What’s changed? Nothing in law or regulation. This advocacy activity, if based on well-reasoned argument, is perfectly acceptable in law. What has changed is the will of charitable foundations to step out more publicly, to go front stage in the effort to engage in the world of public policy. It’s an exciting development!

The PFC Symposium on October 27 and 28 in Toronto will feature more of these stories of the multiple and important ways in which foundations can engage in public policy work, ranging from the behind the scenes work of granting, convening, and capacity-building, to the front stage work of advocacy and public action for change. We’re seeing the development of a big and interesting stage!

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