Foundations working from generosity towards justice
I am in a privileged position. I get exposed to innovative practices and opportunities that several foundations are developing. There is a lot of discussion about foundations moving from generosity to justice as a ‘’lense’’ to view their work (see Darren Walker’s new book). It is an important conversation to have. Ideas matter but I am also struck that foundations are taking new approaches in their programming without getting too bogged down in more abstract arguments. Let me share a few international and Canadian examples.
- I attended the Arctic Inspiration Prizes in Ottawa in early February. The prizes celebrate innovative projects (and the teams behind them) that address wide-ranging set of challenges facing people in the North. These projects are imagined, rooted and led by citizens of the Arctic. The project leaders know who they are, who they serve and what they want. Some foundations have played important incubating roles in supporting these community-led initiatives. However, the sustainability of these community-led efforts is very much in question. To achieve systemic change, these projects will need to be supported for many years to come. Some foundations are taking advantage of the review and due diligence behind the Arctic Inspiration Prizes to begin new long-term relationships for participatory grant-making. (The sums involved remain relatively modest as the scope of projects and the absorbing capacity are limited). What is needed are partners capable to listen, to nurture trust and to accompany these Arctic’s initiatives for the long term.
- Following the terrorist massacres in Paris in January 2015, some French foundations underwent uncomfortable soul searching about their role in building bridges with marginalized and alienated Muslim youth. They recognized that they were largely absent, established a joint program and asked for proposals. Ideas poured in. One specifically encouraged youth to explore their voices and to listen to each other. Issues of poverty and exclusion remain but it is powerfully moving to see young citizens realize that they fully belong in French society and have a right (and the capacity) to be heard. (See a short clip about the Eloquentia project). Another exciting initiative is support for MediaLab93, an incubator hub supporting creative, entrepreneurial and local media start-ups in one of the poorest urban neighborhoods in France. Where are the Canadian equivalents in Jane/Finch in Toronto or Montreal North? Some do exist, with philanthropic support, such as InWithForward in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and Bâtiment 7 in Montreal’s Pointe St-Charles borough.
- Canada has also experienced its dark moments with terrorism and racism. Anti-semitic violence has increased in recent years and six worshippers were killed at the Great mosque of Quebec City in an Islamophobic attack in January 2017. Indspirit foundation is helping with bridge-building efforts, including supporting the creation of a moving documentary.
- Civic space and democracy itself are under pressure throughout the world. For many, the future of liberal democracies appears at stake. Since joining PFC, I have heard similar concerns in Canada and in the US. This undoubtedly involves riskier and edgier programming. To share the risks and to achieve critical mass, a group of European foundations have pooled resources and launched a joint program called Civitates to revitalize public discourse and to encourage a diversity of voices to be heard. We have been here before as a society. In a recent NewYorker article, Jill Lipore outlined the myriad of initiatives that were launched, several with foundation support, to address the democratic crisis of the 1930’s. Is it time to revisit and recontextualize some of these efforts for the 2020’s?
There is much to learn and explore from the examples above. Sharing lessons and increasingly working together will improve our collective contribution to the emergence of pragmatic and lasting responses to wicked problems facing the world. With our proposed revamped 2020 programming, PFC intends to do so by:
- Enhancing capacity-building , for both volunteer boards and staff, through online and in-person learning and networking events on responsible investing, data and evidence, reconciliation, DEI, NextGen and the art of grantmaking practices. PFC is also organizing a 3-day conference in Québec City on October 20-22, 2020 on democracy and philanthropy,
- Strengthening support for collaboration and learning. Opportunities to join more communities of practice (i.e. affinity groups) will be offered notably in the areas of transition to a more resilient low carbon society and of investment practices and as well as improving PFC’s support to existing groups.
Helping its members become more effective change agents goes to the core of PFC’s mission. At times, it will entail convening members to discuss difficult and sensitive issues. It will always involve sharing evidence-based practice that can help all of us to achieve our philanthropic objectives, regardless of where we stand philosophically on the generosity/justice continuum.