January 10, 2017
From the President

What’s Trending in Canadian Philanthropy?

By Hilary Pearson

The beginning of a new year is always an interesting time to pause and look at the trends in our environment that could affect our priorities and the context for our work in the coming few months. As a case in point, the Johnson Center for Philanthropy in the US has identified eleven philanthropic trends for 2017. How do these US trends compare to trends we might see in Canada? Here are five trends that we also see north of the border, and a few that we don’t (yet).

Growth in Foundations: In the US, in the decade from 2004 to 2014, there was a 33% growth in the number of independent foundations. This trend is paralleled in Canada. Over the decade from 2005 to 2015, according to data from the Canada Revenue Agency, we saw a 28% increase in the number of private foundations (mostly family foundations). This means both more private funders and, potentially, more collaborators and partners, if foundation leaders seek out connections.

Generational Transition: The millennial generation – people in their 20s and 30s – is having an increasing influence on philanthropic work. This large generation both in Canada and in the US shows signs of giving very differently, with more focus and more engagement than older generations. What will this mean for foundation and grantee strategies? How quickly and how radically will the next gen start to change philanthropy? Is the next gen willing to take more risk?

Increasing Focus on Systems Change: Philanthropy is focusing more on how social systems –health, education, income support etc – interact. New tools and frameworks for managing complexity and systems work are emerging. This is certainly true in Canada. For an example see the Academy for Systems Change and their work with Reconciliation Canada. PFC’s 2013 symposium in Calgary focused on making social change with an emphasis on systems thinking. Since then all of our annual gatherings have featured discussions of the systemic thinking and work that many Canadian foundations are doing, including their efforts to influence public policy.

More Social Media Philanthropy. While much foundation work remains firmly anchored in grantmaking and long term and structured funding of charities, the importance of social media as a conduit for information, for connection and even in some instances for funding is a definite trend. It’s difficult to do one’s work effectively as a funder today without being connected to social media. And the millennial generation mentioned above naturally leans on this channel for information and ideas, as well as movement building and crowd funding.

More Investment in Leadership. Funders have been called on for some time to provide more open-ended and more multi-year funding to nonprofits so that they can build their capacity and pursue their strategies with greater effectiveness. In a rapidly changing environment what is trending now is investment in adaptive leadership.  This is true both for funders themselves and very much for the organizations that they fund. The idea that many organizations today are evolving to become networked, nonlinear and self-organizing means that adaptive leadership is more critical than ever to enable these organizations to be effective social change agents. How will foundations respond?

What don’t we see happening as trends in Canada? Extreme wealth concentration, increasing political polarization, and serious challenges to the philanthropic sector to justify its existence and privileges. These are some of the consequences of increasing economic and political inequality, as we have seen south of the border. But while we in Canada can say that we are not seeing a trend in more divisive debates over values, the role of government and the rights of citizens, we do join US philanthropy in concerns about the implications of inequality. We need to look at the inequalities that exist in in Canada and remind ourselves, as the eloquent Darren Walker, leader of the Ford Foundation did recently in a new year’s reflection that recognition of “the universal quest for dignity is a prerequisite for any meaningful work towards social justice.” A step toward recognizing people’s dignity is to listen to them. Funders in Canada must challenge themselves to ask questions about who is being heard, and who is being included, in developing strategies to reduce inequality.

Our next conference in Montreal in October 2017 will focus on what Canadian funders are doing to listen more to people affected by injustice, to promote responsible and inclusive discourse, to invest more in community leaders and to reach out to new partners, particularly in Indigenous communities. Let’s try to make listening and learning the trending topics in Canadian philanthropy in 2017!

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