September 30, 2016 Guest Blog

Small Foundations, Outsized Impact

Microphone stand and wooden stool under a spotlight on a stage

By Elizabeth Dozois

Over 80% of registered grantmaking foundations in Canada are smaller foundations (with endowed assets under $25 million). While this number is sizeable, what do we know about the impact of these smaller

foundations? Can small foundations create outsized impact? What practices, structures or approaches can help these foundations to extend their reach and even promote system-level changes?  These questions may be difficult to answer but they are critical to the strength and effectiveness of the overall philanthropic sector. Small foundations may be limited in assets or staff but they are capable of leveraging resources in ways that create possibilities for significant and long-term change.

To understand how smaller foundations are doing this today in Canada, three partners (Burns Memorial Fund, the Mindset Social Innovation Foundation, and PFC) began an exploration of these questions in 2016 by talking in depth to three smaller Canadian foundations working to achieve systems change. The findings from these interviews have been summarized in a brief report.   They will also be the subject of a panel discussion that will be presented at the PFC Conference this fall.

Three foundations were invited to participate in the interviews:  Fondation DuFresne et Gauthier of Quebec City; The Graham Boeckh Foundation of Montreal; and the Toskan Casale Foundation of Toronto. All of these foundations were started by families and individual donors who are still highly engaged in the work of the foundation. However, the focus and scope of each of these foundations vary considerably, and each has a slightly different approach to philanthropy. The Graham Boeckh Foundation employs a highly collaborative approach to philanthropy, working with a range of partners at the provincial, national and international levels to revolutionize the way that mental health services are designed and delivered in Canada; the Toskan Casale Foundation promotes participatory philanthropy by engaging secondary school students in the decision-making process around selecting grantees and identifying key social issues, thereby helping to create the next generation of philanthropists; and Fondation Dufresne et Gauthier uses “neighbourly” philanthropy, focusing on strengthening the system of supports available to vulnerable families and transforming the ways that organizations function within specific neighbourhoods.

Despite the differences among these foundations, common themes emerged around the practices they use to achieve outsized impact.  Each of the three foundations places a strong emphasis on the following:

  1. Developing a functional understanding of the targeted system, including the dynamics of cause and effect and the key intervention points.
  2. Identifying and nurturing strategic partnerships with those who have the ability to influence leverage points within the system.
  3. Cultivating and maintaining a sustained focus, and resisting the temptation to move on to the next new thing or to succumb to a ‘flavour-of-the-month’ mentality.

The case studies provide specific and illuminating examples of ways in which these practices are implemented.  Yet there is still much more to learn about the role that small foundations can play in promoting systems change. We believe that the insights shared in this report – together with the panel discussion and conversations that we plan to have at the conference this fall – will ignite further interest in collectively exploring ways to enhance the impact of small foundations.

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