November 15, 2017
Guest Blog

Moving Beyond Good Intentions

By Jillian Witt

Is the philanthropic sector “redressing past injustices or perpetuating them?” Heather Exner-Pirot posed this question along with a list of well-intended efforts gone wrong in The Philanthropist article entitled, “Philanthropy in the Arctic: Good Intentions or Good Works?” in 2015. The article prompted critical reflection in the sector and highlights from Philanthropic Foundations Canada’s Symposium last month continue to respond to this question.

Exner-Pirot, Strategist for Outreach and Indigenous Engagement at University of Saskatchewan, provided several examples of well-intended efforts in the North gone wrong. In all cases, the initiatives were created, developed and executed by outside actors, and did not reflect the realities and needs of Northerners. Several stories described missed opportunities and failures. A pattern emerges—far too often the people closest to the issues are not heard nor have a decision-making role in creating solutions. It seems at times the sector has accepted that this is an issue in principle, but in practice, changing it requires shifting of power and genuine listening, which are not always easy or noticeable for those in a position of power.

These challenges can be uncomfortable to explore but in Montreal this year, I was excited to see Philanthropic Foundations Canada’s Symposium tackle this theme and ask participants to examine:

  • How can Canadian philanthropy listen more effectively to our community partners?
  • How do we hear the voices of those most affected by injustice in our community?
  • How do we question our own assumptions and overcome imbalances in power and privilege?
  • And how do we find and share what works in community?

A common thread asked of funders was both self-reflection and shifting power. Funders have networks, influence and money, creating a power imbalance with grantees and communities in need of these resources. As a result, it can be easy for funders to hear and be told what they want to hear, but what assumptions does this reinforce? How do our own experiences shape how we see an issue and possible solutions? On a panel titled, “How do we learn to listen? A discussion with funders”, Colette Murphy of Atkinson Foundation warned how easy it can be to listen to confirm your bias.

Several examples profiled during the Symposium demonstrated the value and knowledge that communities affected by injustice bring to an issue. Meredith Graham from Vancouver Foundation described how the insights of youth in care are creating a better system for young people transitioning out of the system. “Elevate and integrate youth voices. We aren’t pity parties, we are partners.” In the case of Fostering Change, young people with experience living in foster care led the framing of the issue and identified solutions with community partners, resulting in a positive and effective campaign in BC.

A powerful example of shifting power came from Laidlaw Foundation. Gave Lindo of Laidlaw Foundation shared how the foundation embeds the community it serves into the organization at all decision-making levels, including the composition of the board and committees. It required the foundation to change its constitution to increase community representation on the board.

While good practices and approaches exist, I think it is fair to say they are not yet the norm. Most of the philanthropic sector does not reflect the lived experience and backgrounds of the communities they serve. Structures to share decision-making power with those closest to an issue exist, but are outnumbered by more hierarchical approaches.

The Symposium’s theme “Listen. Learn. Act” provoked the philanthropic community to listen deeply and use this knowledge to learn and act differently. This requires understanding ourselves, taking the time to build trust and relationships, and sharing power in new ways. As Exner-Pirot puts it, “Do your work in a spirit of humility and partnership. And remember, true philanthropy is not about you, or your organization, or your upcoming annual report.”

Jillian Witt is Community Engagement Consultant for The Philanthropist, a free, online journal on the nonprofit sector in Canada. Subscribe here:

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