December 7, 2016
From the President

Looking Back, Looking Forward

By Hilary Pearson

At the end of this very eventful year, it’s a good time to look back and also to look forward, since one without the other risks either too much disappointment or too much irrational hope!

Looking back at the beginning of 2016, I struck a hopeful note in my blog post on the power of philanthropy to support people’s engagement in meaningful conversations about their communities. I noted that while the hourly Twitter feeds in our media could discourage us, we were seeing innovative ways in which people could talk to each other about issues that matter, facilitated through philanthropic support. But crucially, as 2016 has rolled on to its end, we realize that similar people talking to each other about similar issues and perspectives isn’t enough. We need more conversation among those with very different points of view.  Many observers are noting that the results of the Brexit vote and the US election, if nothing else, should force us to listen for the perspectives and voices that want to be heard. The voices of the marginalized, the less powerful and the remote (rural and northern Canada for instance) are by definition harder to hear. How can they be brought into the conversation more effectively?

Where are the points of intervention for philanthropy in this discussion? If one looks back at the political events of 2016 outside Canada, it is possible to feel disappointed. It is also humbling to think  that Canadian philanthropy has not focused harder on hearing the voices of the unempowered. One thinks especially of indigenous voices but also the voices of young people and of newer Canadians. While Canada is “officially” committed to diversity and inclusivity, organized philanthropy in Canada is still not populated by diverse faces. Certain points of view are quite likely to be lacking therefore. And ultimately the challenge for Canadian philanthropy is how to build more empathy with people who are unlike each other.

On a hopeful note, 2016 showed signs of change. A significant one has been the sustained interest in recognizing and listening to indigenous voices. There are now over 50 signatories to the Philanthropic Community’s Declaration of Action on Reconciliation. This is a remarkable commitment and one that we believe that funders will live up to by committing to seeking out and hearing indigenous voices speak about their experience. It`s only the beginning and a long road but an important start.

In 2016, we also saw great commitment on the part of many Canadians, not just philanthropists, to empathizing and listening to refugee voices. The refugees from Syria have been particularly prominent in our public conversation and organizations such as Lifeline Syria, supported by many foundations and corporations continue to welcome them and to give them voice.  The Sidra Project supported by founding partners Inspirit Foundation and RBC is an example of an effort to build empathy among Canadians for the refugee experience.

And young people from these up to now voiceless communities gained strength in 2016 as they built youth-led organizations with the help of philanthropy. The 4Rs Youth Movement is a great example of a youth-led organization that is creating dialogue between indigenous and non-indigenous young people, with the aim in part of building that necessary empathy and familiarity that is essential to better listening. The 4Rs are supported by three foundations (J.W. McConnell Family, Counselling and Inspirit) and by CFC, among other partners.

Our Vancouver conference was held in the week before the American elections. Since those elections, much has been written and said about the need to listen better, to try to understand other points of view and to work more actively to counter social exclusion. While the conference did not have the outcome of the election as context, the words of some of our speakers were prescient it seems. Plenary speaker Khalil Shariff of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada warned us that our open society is fragile. Philanthropy has work to do to help strengthen it in the face of global tensions.  What better way to do it than through strengthening the capacity for dialogue?  Plenary speaker Phil Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy told us that we are “all in this together”. Building on this idea is what will support reconciliation efforts, engage new voices and help us confront inequality. We were also joined by a senior advisor at the Ford Foundation Kavita Ramdas, who shared a perspective similar to Darren Walker, leader of the Ford Foundation, who in a recent commentary, reiterated his belief that “listening” is the most effective way to learn. “When it comes to the relationships we seek to build and maintain with individuals and institutions, understanding what they truly need should be our first priority.”  I think we got some good advice in Vancouver as we turn to face what 2017 brings.

I will close with some suggestions for reflective reading as we move into 2017 with its troubling currents.  From the Center for Effective Philanthropy comes a new report The Future of Foundation Philanthropy:  The CEO Perspective that captures foundation leaders’ views on concerns about the changing landscape in which they work, practices they believe to hold the most promise for helping foundations reach their potential, and the most pressing issues that will influence foundation philanthropy in the coming years.

And from the Council on Foundations comes a new series of blog posts that showcases big ideas that will shape the world in 2017. The Council invited thinkers from a dozen fields to contribute their predictions on what lies ahead in some major fields of interest that will in turn impact the philanthropic community.

In the end, we must look forward to 2017 as a year of opportunity to do better. And look back on 2016 as a year of steps in the right direction.

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