The Room Where It Happened: Lessons from Vancouver
I write in the afterglow of our early November Vancouver PFC conference, well attended by many new participants and colleagues as well as by a large and diverse contingent of our members. The conference rooms had great buzz. Energy levels stayed high right through to after our closing plenary. Our brains were stimulated and our emotions were engaged by our articulate and at times moving speakers and by a conference program that kept its focus on the complicated “big” issues that we face as Canadians. We made connections, and commitments, and I hope that many of us were able to do what the conference offered us the chance to do: look up, look out at new horizons for philanthropy.
So what were my personal take-aways from this event?
Reconciliation is up to us– our speakers made it clear that we have an unprecedented opportunity as Canadians to change the narrative, to begin to reconcile with Indigenous Canadians by acknowledging as Chief Robert Joseph told us, that we now know that we do not know. We have much to learn about Indigenous communities, cultures, history and worldview, much that is valuable for all Canadians to know, particularly as we face big changes coming. Listening and learning together is the first step to reconciliation. It is possible but will involve hard work. Many conference participants showed that they are ready for that hard work.
Big Shifts Coming –If we think that the last 15 years have seen big changes, we should get ready for even bigger ones coming soon. Climate change, migration, political and economic tensions, and tough to resolve conflicts between sustainability, economic exploitation and inequality of opportunity are going to test Canada. We are not immune from global stresses, far from it. The more diverse we are, the more pressure there is on our resources, the more that inequality is apparent, the greater the challenge for philanthropy as an active force in society. And philanthropy is indeed an active force, as many of our speakers from the government and corporate sectors acknowledge. So how are we going to deploy our leverage, our assets and our connections? As our plenary speaker Khalil Shariff warned us, our open society is both admirable and fragile. Philanthropy has work to do to help strengthen it in the face of global tensions.
We need to work more “upstream” – the problems that philanthropy works on are complex. Many of them have root causes that we have to search out. But the talks at this conference revealed that Canadian funders are looking and working more and more ~upstream~ at these root causes. The Right Honourable Paul Martin, one of our plenary speakers, told us about how his philanthropy is shifting focus upstream after several years of work in partnership with Indigenous communities, from adolescence to childhood and families. Healthy children in functioning families become healthier adults. His shift Is not the only one happening as more foundations think about the interconnectedness of social problems and the need for prevention rather than alleviation.
We are all in this together – For many funders at the conference, the idea that resonated most was that we cannot be effective if we work alone. Our plenary speaker Phil Buchanan pointed out that, in contrast to the corporate world, if a foundation’s strategy isn’t shared with or engaging others, then it is more likely to fail. Competition in philanthropy is a losing proposition. This is not only because foundations are too small to make much difference unless they are focused and aligned with others, but also because the issues they confront are too complex to be handled by any one player. We heard a lot about new platforms that bring foundations together with others, whether for learning, for dialogue or for innovation. Some examples shared at the conference: Foundation House, SIX (social innovation exchange), Tides Canada platforms, Montreal Collective Impact Project, to name a few. And the idea of “we are all in this together” supports reconciliation, protects our pluralist society, and helps us confront inequality
There was so much else to talk about during our two days in Vancouver. For more on the presentations and topics, check our conference website for issue briefs, slides and pictures. And we will soon have videos of our plenary talks for your information. Enormous thanks go to all who made the trip to the West Coast! Your participation was a key success factor for this conference. And the conversation will continue in Montreal at our next gathering on October 17-18, 2017. See you there!
Note: The pre-conference activities were an important part of the ongoing learning and conversation. In particular, PFC offered a Grantmaking Roundtable over two days pre-conference that covered many of the nuts and bolts of philanthropic work including how to sharpen and hone your practice in obtaining, selecting and making good grants, and how to use digital tools to make your job easier. This roundtable is offered annually and it is a great way to supplement the learning about broader themes and issues that takes place during the conference itself. Don’t miss it next time!