One Foundation’s Approach to Impactful Philanthropy in the Age of COVID
More than one year later, we can sometimes forget what exactly those early pandemic days were like. I don’t think that anyone could quite predict what we were in for. But as toilet paper and canned goods flew off the shelves, and as news and scientific reports came in from around the world, it didn’t take long for the seriousness of the situation to settle in. The Trottier Family Foundation’s quarterly board meeting had been scheduled for that infamous Friday the 13th, and when we finally held our first virtual board meeting the following week (via zoom as a first!), it was quickly and unanimously decided that our foundation should step forward in a serious way.
It was clear to us that so many of the principles that underpin what can make philanthropy impactful – to take risks, to work with others, to move quickly and flexibly, to have trust in our partners and those working on the ground, to be bold – would be as important as ever. Here is a quick look at how we endeavoured to put those principles into action.
Ambition and flexibility. Our board approved a significant, additional budget to tackle COVID-19, bringing our disbursement rate to over 10% for 2020. Our thinking was, if it’s important to save for a rainy day, then it was imperative to come through when a 100-year storm was underway. About a third of this was disbursed almost immediately, in an emergency capacity, supporting long-standing partners working with communities on the ground. The rest we kept in reserve, in order to be able to fund other strategic initiatives quickly. And like many foundations, we moved to further relax reporting requirements, and give organizations maximum flexibility to adjust their programs and efforts as they saw fit, a trust-based approach that our foundation had already started on, and which we aim to maintain going forward.
Leveraging collaboration: We expected that it would be important to work closely with others in the philanthropic space, to avoid both overlaps and gaps in funding. But we also knew, having been a part of so many effective collaborations, like Environment Funders Canada or the Clean Economy Fund, that bringing multiple foundations together, to share ideas, knowledge, capacity, and networks, can only aid in sparking outsized impact. Very quickly, a consortium was established, with four foundations working together, namely the Trottier Family Foundation, the Molson Foundation, the Fondation Mirella et Lino Saputo, and the Jarislowsky Foundation, and with Philanthropic Foundations Canada on board in an administrative capacity and Felix-Antoine Veronneau brought in as coordinator. Since then, Fondation du Grand Montreal has gotten closely involved and other foundations have supported various projects through the consortium.
Bottom-up approach: Our consortium began by conducting a rapid assessment of the role that philanthropy could play in this context, with the understanding that the goal should never be to replace government efforts, but rather to complement and act as a catalyst, where we could. Quite quickly, it became clear that homing in on a territorial approach would be particularly effective. A community-based response is a key tenant of pandemic management, as has been well documented. We therefore started by funding local emergency action plans in the six neighbourhoods hardest hit by the pandemic in Quebec (which not by accident represent a higher proportion of vulnerable, marginalized and racialized communities). These brought together local actors, including community organizations, the tables de quartier, the local municipalities, the CIUSSS, and the Red Cross. We understood that those with the greatest knowledge of their community are best placed to identify the needs and come up with the solutions that made sense on the ground, including canvassers to raise awareness, distributing sanitation kits, and transportation services to testing centers. The impact has been so important that in the second phase of this work, our consortium has expanded this to cover nearly the entirety of the Montreal region.
Focus on causes: Another component that has been key to the consortium’s thinking is a focus on causes. It is of course important to address the devastating impacts of the pandemic, but just as important is thinking about how philanthropy could help slow the spread of the virus itself. For instance, we have funded projects that have looked at active, saliva-based testing, analysis of wastewater, communication around vaccine hesitancy, and financial support for individuals without status. Each of these projects has the aim of demonstrating a proof of principle, with the hope of catalyzing broader adoption and implementation. Beyond these, systemic reasons underscore why people of colour, of lower socio-economic or of otherwise marginalized status have borne the disproportionate brunt of this pandemic. With the vaccine rollout now underway, we are also seeing that these neighbourhoods, though hardest hit by the pandemic, are also subject to a lower rate of vaccination coverage. Looking at systemic issues must be part of the thinking as we look towards recovery.
As I said at the beginning, it is hard to remember what our mindset was like before the pandemic was declared. Picking up my daughter on what would turn out to be the last day of school in 2020, I remember another parent turning to me and saying, “I’m so tired of hearing about this virus.” One year later, I think we are all more than tired of not only hearing about it but of living with it. But if we want to move forward, philanthropy can in fact play an important part – of being able to look at and fund root causes, of supporting those most affected, and being both bold and ambitious in our work as we look towards building a more just and resilient society.