December 6, 2018
From the President

Learning from Philanthropy In Action

Hilary Pearson

We have spent the past year at PFC working on our storytelling. And, as you can guess, we work on stories about what foundations do, not just because stories are entertaining and humanizing, but because they send a message. We want to send a message to a bigger audience out there about the amazing and unique things that foundations work on across Canada. These stories are also meant to share experiences and learnings from the funders themselves. We want to use stories to make foundations a little more real, and to show how they play roles that go well beyond simply cutting a cheque!

We have posted nine short stories now on our stand-alone site Philanthropy In Action. If you haven’t checked it out recently, it’s worth a look. These stories range all over the charitable sector and beyond. We identify them by the broad funding area in which the story takes place, such as environment, the arts, health, education, social services and reconciliation with Indigenous communities. They are stories about preventing concussion in young hockey players, saving iconic freshwater rivers, finding a roof for young homeless people, getting kids to play more outdoors, preserving the Inuktut language….and more. Couldn’t be more different in subject matter. And each story is about just one organization (although many of them work with others not alone). So yes, they are very different. Indeed, it is hard to generalize. As we often say in the philanthropic foundation space, each foundation is not like the others.

Ok, so are there any common themes in these original and interestingly different stories? The answer is yes. As you read through them, some very clear commonalities emerge:

  • Money certainly isn’t everything – working with partners and doing more than cheque writing to one grantee are the ways in which these foundations are having much more impact.
  • Size isn’t everything either. Many of the foundations in these stories don’t have much in the way of assets. We are not looking at foundations with big endowments. Of these nine stories featured, none of them are about larger foundations.
  • Partnering is a productive strategy – whether it’s with a college, with governments, with researchers or with other funders. But partnering is an active role. As Helderleigh Foundation showed with its partnership with a college on a new nutrition curriculum for chefs – you don’t stand back as a partner.
  • Persistence is key when a funder is interested in making a bigger change, be it policy or systems
  • Seeing things differently – many of these stories show how funders can take a completely different approach to a problem that is hard to solve, whether its access to mental health services for youth, or protecting our rivers, or preserving an Indigenous language.
  • Asking good questions is key – many of these stories show how the foundations embarked on their strategies by asking searching questions of their grantees.
  • Getting people together or convening them to bring many more ideas to the table can lead to significant breakthroughs. Foundations can use a cohort approach to bringing grantees together who are working on a common problem, as with Lawson Foundation, , or simply convene all the players on an issue around the same table, as with Catherine Donnelly Foundation.  Convening is a catalyst for change.
  • Foundations can take risks…and every one of the foundations in these stories took a risk to bring about an important outcome. Risk may be scary but is also enormously productive. And foundations more than anyone else, arguably, can take productive risks.
  • Finally, learning is crucial. All these foundations agree that they have learned from their experiences. And they want to learn some more. Sharing their story is one way to digest and spread the learning to the rest of the philanthropic community.

We have learned ourselves from editing the stories for Philanthropy In Action. Each of these stories doesn’t really have an end, although it has a beginning…and while we have tried to capture a big moment in each story, they don’t stop. These foundations are carrying on and hoping for some more big moments to come.

Are you intrigued now? There’s another story coming soon! Go see for yourself. Spread the word. And maybe you will share a story with all of us too?

We want to send appreciation and recognition to our collaborating writers on these stories: Sadia Rafiquddin, Alasdair Cheng, Jillian Witt, and Annie L’Italien …. And to all the foundations who have been so generous in sharing these stories with PIA.

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