July 7, 2016
From the President

Effective Conversations… Effective Philanthropy?

By Hilary Pearson

This spring and early summer, if you have been watching and listening to discussions in philanthropic circles in both Canada and the United States, you have witnessed something new and significant. We are witnessing conversations that are more honest, and therefore more uncomfortable. These aren’t conversations about what philanthropists typically talk about with respect to their work, whether a challenge such as poverty, or an opportunity such as investing in children. These are conversations about something that is personal – about values, biases and personal experience in relation to equity and race. The attitudes and beliefs that we hold individually are being recognized as important factors in whether funders can be truly effective. That’s not a conversation that people were having, at least in public, five or ten years ago.

Where are these conversations happening and do they intersect? They are happening at gatherings and conferences of philanthropy. They are also happening in media, in blog posts and in commentaries. And they are happening in learning events such as webinars. I am beginning to see the intersections, although inevitably the focus of these conversations differs in Canada and the US.

One thing stands out from these conversations in both countries….we have not been candid enough about how issues of equity are influenced by questions of race and racism. In Canada, the ongoing impact of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has highlighted our need to acknowledge what we don’t know and have not been willing to acknowledge, which is our lack of understanding and discomfort in discussing the issues faced by indigenous peoples. In the US, the conversation in philanthropy has focused for a while on race (including racism against Native Americans too). But rarely has organized philanthropy offered opportunities for people to acknowledge and discuss their own biases. Strategies that focus on poverty, inequality, or the social determinants of health may not take into account the culture and experiences of the foundation staff who are pursuing these strategies. And this is what is being pinpointed as limiting the effectiveness of these strategies.

Let’s take a couple of examples. In Canada, the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have been compelling for foundations. Since June 2015 over 60 funders have signed the philanthropic community’s Declaration of Action committing to action on reconciliation. But once you sign the Declaration, what next? Effective action starts with acknowledging what you don’t know about indigenous cultures. This acknowledgement is uncomfortable. But it also reveals vulnerability and openness to learning. In a recent webinar offered by the Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada (and co-sponsored by PFC, CFC, CEGN and individual foundations), I Don’t Want to Say the Wrong Thing! Shedding Light on Language, Wanda Brascoupe Peters, leader of The Circle, asked participants “to hold a willingness to be uncomfortable” as a way of moving to better understanding. There were well more than a hundred listeners in this webinar, an extraordinary rate for philanthropy webinars in Canada. People are stepping up to this “uncomfortable” conversation in record numbers. There will be more webinars in this important series on the Journey to Reconciliation (check www.pfc.ca for details).

Here’s another example. The Lieutenant Governor of Ontario hosted a gathering in Toronto recently with foundations and indigenous leaders to discuss actions for reconciliation. At the outset of the meeting, people were asked to speak about their own family history as a way of presenting themselves to each other. To do this we stood in a circle. This may have been uncomfortable for many who aren’t used to presenting their lineage before beginning a conversation. But it showed respect and created openness. It taught us that we can all share in indigenous knowledge and practice in a new way that is not simply ~business as (non-indigenous) usual~.

In the United States, we are seeing more focused efforts by philanthropy to acknowledge discomfort around underlying attitudes and beliefs. There were some remarkably candid conversations about race, culture, equity and effectiveness in philanthropy at the May conference of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. I recommend viewing the candid and eloquent debate on equity as an effectiveness imperative featuring both black and Native Americans as well as a white, self-described “ally” (captured in a GEO conference video).

In a blog post commenting on this discussion, Kathleen Enright, leader of GEO, reflected that “the discomfort sparked by conversations about racial injustice takes many forms. Some white people might be uncomfortable because they don’t see themselves contributing to racial inequity. Others may not have yet come to grips with their own privilege. For some people of color, these conversations may dredge up negative emotions and personal experiences they’d prefer not to revisit. For others, they may feel impatient as white people catch up to their understanding of these issues.~ But as she also notes, discomfort can lead to awareness and thus to more effective relationships and work in philanthropy. She is willing, she says, to admit her own blind spots and to acknowledge what she doesn’t know. Perhaps this is the starting point for all of us as we look for ways to commit more effectively to work on equity and reconciliation here in Canada.

PFC is creating more space for these potentially uncomfortable but important conversations at our upcoming conference in Vancouver. See you there!

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