November 18, 2015
From the President

Public Policy and Private Funders: Building a Bridge?

By Hilary Pearson

The third in a series on philanthropy and civic engagement.

Why do private funders need to pay attention to the public world of policy makers and government officials? The changes that have already taken place since October 19th are one convincing answer.

The announcement of the reinstatement of the long-form census by the new federal Liberal Government is an indication of the difference public policy makers can make in the work of foundations and their grantees. Without the data provided by the long-form census, many organizations were having trouble identifying areas of need in their communities and tracking the impact of their interventions over time. The return of the mandatory census will address that problem.

This is just one example of why public policy matters to private funders.  Other examples were provided at the recent PFC Symposium in Toronto on the theme of building bridges between public and private funders. Some terrific stories were told by foundations such as The The Atkinson Foundation, The J. W. McConnell Family Foundation, the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the Ivey Foundation, all of whom are working actively in collaboration with public funders and governments at all levels. And some challenging ideas were put forward on the role of foundations in our public life.

What did we learn from these foundations and others who spoke at the symposium?

We must work more than ever collectively to articulate a theory of philanthropy to accompany the public and political theory of the role of the state in Canada. We have an opportunity now to articulate the role of civil society as equal partner with government, while maintaining our independence as a voice for the marginalized and the under-represented.

Foundations can do more to build the capacity of their grantees to shift the direction of public policy; there are lots of success stories already.

Foundations can also do more to shift the direction of government whether by funding government initiatives directly or by entering into government-led collective efforts. But we need to make sure that in doing so we are neither letting government off the financial hook nor intruding too much into the public and democratic domain of public priority setting.

Private funders must be committed to evidence-based policy decisions. We can and must fund the generation of evidence. There can never be enough data for good policy formulation.

We can and must take risks. Policy ideas don’t always fly. And policy implementation can be full of flaws. But is it worth doing in spite of the risks, in spite of the failures? If the answer is yes, it must be done.

It’s not easy working with government. There are lots of barriers to overcome and cultural/communication gaps to bridge. We can learn from the lessons of funders who have figured this out such as the Lucie et André Chagnon Foundation.

Sometimes it’s best not to over think, just to do, and find many partners to work with. The Ontario Trillium Foundation is entering into partnerships with government and others as a way to increase leverage in community investment.

There is still lots of room for charities to act on policy in ways that are not “political” we just need to be aware of the rules. And we should not be afraid to advocate and be thought leaders. Nothing in the rules says that foundations can’t do that, as Adam Parachin of the Law Faculty at Western pointed out as long as they have clear charitable goals.

Private funders are not just passive citizens. Foundations can act to change the “story field” of our culture said Delyse Sylvester, speaking on the role of media and communications. Foundations can be story-tellers and providers of content to a world that is hungry for deep knowledge in specific areas of interest.

Funders can also change the context for policy by changing the mindset of the audience, whether influencers or the general public. Tanya Beer showed foundations how to think about their levels of engagement in advocacy and intended outcomes in terms of who they want to influence and for what (awareness, will or action).

PFC Symposium 2015 was an insightful day of conversation that left one participant tweeting #PFC2015 about leaving in a “serious philanthropic swoon”… a good outcome we conclude!

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