December 8, 2015
From the President

Creating A Civic Infrastructure

By Hilary Pearson

As we wind down 2015, and look back on the many positive but also the many troubling events of this year in Canada and in the world, it is worth reflecting on what philanthropy is for. What is philanthropy’s role in addressing global and local complex issues such as economic inequality, refugee migrations, climate change, the spread of diseases or systemic discrimination?

There are many possible answers. But there is agreement that to address these difficult problems will take many minds working together and a democratic engagement of many within communities. One indication that people are engaged in their communities and participating in the civic conversation is the level of participation we see in political life. The simplest form of engagement is the vote. The good news for us in Canada is that voter turnout and popular engagement in politics seems to be stronger, judging by the results and turnout of elections at all levels in Canada. The strong turnout in the federal election is part of the positive story of 2015. People want to talk about issues and to work for and vote for representatives who will pursue the conversation.

In the United States, foundations have focused a large amount of funding on issue-based participation, defined as “supporting non-election related organizing, engagement, and advocacy around the policy-making process that is focused on specific issue areas or population groups.” The data on this funding is shown in an interesting new mapping tool of US foundation funding for democratic engagement available through the Foundation Center  Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy.

However, an insightful blog post by Cindy Gibson, a well-known philanthropy blogger and researcher in the United States points out that “…it may be time for philanthropy to rethink its theory of change when it comes to democracy… taking civic engagement to the next level is about creating “civic spaces that put people first and encourage them to identify and address the issues they believe are important. Such spaces intentionally involve all members of the community — not just those who agree — in deliberating and deciding on collective action to resolve public problems using the tactics they deem most appropriate — whether it’s volunteering or community organizing or something else. Through these kinds of deliberative processes, people become civic actors rather than merely consumers of taxpayer-funded services; culture change becomes as much a focus as short-term outcomes, issues, or victories; and cross-sections of entire communities, not just parts of them, are encouraged to participate.”

Gibson suggests that “…this requires building a civic infrastructure that strengthens the ability of ordinary people to engage in public problem-solving.” So can this be what philanthropy is for, at least in part? Should philanthropy move beyond funding issue-based advocacy to funding more broad-based public capacity to engage in meaningful conversations about their communities? I believe we are seeing more examples of this sort of open-ended civic conversation capacity building in Canada, from Possible Canadas to Canada’s EcoFiscal Commission to Cities for People to the Atkinson Decent Work Fund to the Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver.  All are supported by philanthropy.

As we move into 2016, we can be worried about the daily headlines or hourly Twitter feeds on the difficult state of the world. But we can also be encouraged by the innovative ways in which people are talking to each other about how to tackle these worrisome issues. And we can only be optimistic that funders will increasingly answer the question “what is philanthropy for” by lending their support to public dialogue on solving the big complex issues that concern us all.

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  • Jahan Zeb

    I am borrowing many concepts from this article including “the concept of “civic infrastructure” and plan to use as a “peace infrastructure”.

    Thank you .

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