Do Foundations need strong foundations?
What does it take to build a solid house? Most would say, start with a solid foundation. For organizations, not houses, a solid foundation is made up of bricks and mortar but also, and crucially, staff, skills, capital and tools. This is sometimes abbreviated as “capacity”. When funders get together, they (sometimes) talk about the capacity of their community partners: do they have the capacity to perform, to achieve results, to sustain themselves, to get the job done and make the difference they aspire to make? Do these funders talk about their own capacity? Probably not often enough.
So, what does it take to have a conversation about funder capacity? I think it starts with the awareness that foundations as funders are not isolated, that they exist in a context a field, a system. Their strength, their capacity to perform, is dependent on the system’s strength.
Seeing the system is easier when you have a map. Do we have a philanthropy system map for Canada? We are beginning to, as the system becomes more populated. Last year, our Philanthropy Fellow, Michael Alberg-Seberich, who joined us as an external observer from Germany, analyzed the philanthropy system in Canada and wrote about it for The Philanthropist. He and others are helping us to map a support system for the development of the field. It includes national networks such as PFC and Community Foundations of Canada, national, regional and local funder affinity groups such as the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers Network, university centres such as PhiLab in Montreal, and Carleton University in Ottawa, databases such as GrantConnect, publications such as The Philanthropist, and many individual philanthropy consultants.
So we have the beginnings of a map. But what’s the importance of being able to visualize a philanthropy support system in Canada? Simply put, a support system accelerates the path to better philanthropy. It creates an “enabling environment”. Barry Gaberman, a senior leader at the Ford Foundation, summarized that enabling environment as:
- a legal environment that empowers rather than shackles;
- a tax structure that provides incentives, not penalties;
- an accountability system that builds public confidence in philanthropy and civil society;
- sufficient institutional capacity to implement effective activities;
- and enough resources to undertake these activities
In his view, it is the support system for philanthropy that helps makes this enabling environment a reality.
A global discussion about the importance of a strong support system, using the hashtag #LiftUpPhilanthropy, is actually now underway in organized philanthropy and stimulated by WINGS, the global support network for local philanthropy support networks. Earlier this year, WINGS made the case for a strong ecosystem of support to philanthropy.
This case highlights the value that a solid support system brings to funders:
- space for reflection and discussion
- collective action on rules and standards
- thought leadership on key issues
- tools for capacity-building
- an advocacy voice for the system as a whole.
Arguably, Canadian philanthropy will be an even better version of itself if its support system is fully developed. We are working on it! The system is certainly more populated than it was a decade ago. But I return to the question that started this reflection: do funders talk enough about the importance of investing in their capacity? And if they don’t, why not? Strong and capable foundations require solid foundations!
We will return to this topic at the October PFC conference in Toronto, in a panel discussion featuring leaders of global philanthropy support networks. Not to be missed!