June 11, 2019
From the President

A New Paradigm for Philanthropy Support

Hilary Pearson

Are we Kodak just before the iphone? Or Blockbuster just before Netflix? Could foundations be at that moment….and are we about to be massively disrupted?

These provocative questions were asked by Ingrid Srinath, Director of the Center for Social Impact and Philanthropy at Ashoka University in New Delhi, and a former Secretary-General of Civicus. She was participating in a challenging panel conversation on the future of philanthropy which I moderated during the recent Community Foundations of Canada conference in Victoria.

These are also necessary questions to ask as I write my final blog as President of Philanthropic Foundations Canada. I will be stepping away from the position at the end of this month after almost eighteen years. So it’s an important moment for me to reflect on change and disruption in philanthropy.

There is no doubt that over these eighteen years, the changes in philanthropy and philanthropic practice have been enormous. Foundations are using digital tools that give them access to vastly more information and contacts. Many more are professionally staffed. Collaborative initiatives, from information-sharing to co-funding, and crossing over into other sectors, are more frequent. In many ways, practices such as landscape scanning, strategy development, impact measurement and communication have developed to become much more sophisticated. Much of this has been helped along by philanthropy support organizations, such as PFC.

But in some basic ways, the foundation model has not changed. Many foundations are set up to transfer financial resources from a pool of capital (endowed or not) through flows (mostly grants) to non-profit organizations (in Canada mostly registered charities). And they do this without any requirement to make decisions democratically or transparently or indeed in communication with anyone outside the foundation. In Canada, this model is also shaped (even straight-jacketed) by our charity regulatory models and common law understanding of what purposes and activities are charitable. But what if, as we continue with all good intentions to improve the basic model of the charitable grantmaking foundation, the ground that it stands on is being swept away? And what does that mean for the role of philanthropy support organizations?

We know that the so-called “ecosystem” within which philanthropic foundations operate is changing in unpredictable ways. If people can give to each other directly, why should they ask foundations? Or give through foundations? If corporations are being challenged to practice more inclusive capitalism, shouldn’t foundations practice more inclusive philanthropy? Who gets to control the message in a world in which anyone can create “news”? Why should foundations stay private when we exist in a sea of information? Why do private foundations get to hold the power over what is needed for public good? These are troubling and disruptive questions.

They were also on the table at our panel discussion in Victoria. As well as Ingrid, our panel included Benjamin Bellegy of WINGS, Andrew Chunilall of Community Foundations of Canada, and Jon MacPhedran Waitzer of Resource Movement. All of us are engaged in organizations that support philanthropy. And all of us agreed that our organizations are facing some deep questions about our roles in a world of disruption. We know that we have an important role to play in serving the needs of philanthropic organizations. But we also realize that first we must take more risks and be prepared to step outside of our own models. I quoted from a blog post by James Magowan, the Co-ordinating Director of DAFNE (Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe):

“The challenge ahead will be …. around how to create a new paradigm where the work of support organisations, operating individually and collaboratively, becomes essential to achieving effective philanthropy – underpinned by critical thinking, informed by learning from practice, and delivered at scale.”

What could this new paradigm for philanthropy support look like in a world that is being disrupted?

  • To be activists within the ecosystem
  • To be catalysts for robust business model shifts
  • To be “sense-makers” in a bewildering world of change
  • To create sandboxes for safe experimentation and new approaches
  • To bring knowledge in from the margins and create models for participation and inclusion
  • To help philanthropy develop the muscles of listening with intent and with openness, of hearing criticism without defensiveness

We may have to shift our thinking as organizations from being defenders to builders, from acting as takers to acting as makers and from serving needs to challenging beliefs. We are already doing some of this but surely not yet with the degree of boldness that we need in a disrupted ecosystem. Ingrid Srinath challenged us to be the platform, not the “app”.  To be the place where ideas and knowledge can come to be shared, where new forms and models can take shape. I am leaving now with this vision and hope that Canadian foundations will seize their opportunities to disrupt before they are disrupted, and that they will be supported and guided through that disruption by an effective, risk-taking and forward-looking platform such as PFC.

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