October 22, 2018
From the President

Connect. Create. Change: Six Take-Aways From the PFC 2018 Conference

Hilary Pearson

It’s a wrap for our 2018 Toronto Conference, after an active three days full of workshops, plenaries, break-out sessions and informal exchanges. For many, an event difficult to sum up easily. Certainly, each conference participant will have had a very individual experience. But certain shared themes and insights did emerge. Hallway conversations, tweets, posts and comments crystallized some valuable take-aways. In no order of priority, here they are:

  1. We Are Not Alone

What’s the point of a philanthropy conference anyway? For many participants, the point is connection.  To feel part of a community, to know you are not alone in this often lonely work, to feel validated in the effort to do more and better, to learn from others. The theme of connection played out repeatedly in Toronto, both on an individual level and in discussions about connecting organizations (collaboration was a theme in itself).  Importantly, this connection is not always comfortable.  In Toronto, connections were made with others with very different points of view.  But this is essential. Philanthropy is small in Canada, relatively speaking. All the more reason to reach beyond foundation “walls”, literal or figurative (from known to unknown networks and opinions).  And to know that while we are a pond not an ocean, as Gerry Salole of the European Foundation Centre put it, we are powerful beyond our means.

  1. We Have Power. Do We Know How To Use It?

Our European colleagues in philanthropy were the first to tell us, but it was a point reinforced by several other speakers. Foundations have power, not just in monetary terms but in brand, in connections, in ability to convene and to bring information to the table.  So, what are our responsibilities in handling that power? How do we establish relations of trust with the people and communities with whom we work, given the power imbalances?  This is an especially important question in an age that is dominated by economic and environmental disruption and in which populist politics based on fear seem to be gaining ground. Philanthropy can’t afford to be elitist. And we have the power to bring people together, to hear from lived experiences, to create safer, more neutral spaces in which people can exchange points of view.  Philanthropy should not decide for community. But it can and should help community make decisions that are more informed, more fact-based, more inclusive.

  1. Nothing About Us Without Us

This sentence is one used by communities that are marginalized, and usually not included in anyone’s decisions about them. In Toronto, there were calls to pay attention to voices and communities that matter. Canadian and global women leaders urged philanthropy to use a gender lens in all our actions. Indigenous leaders repeatedly drew attention to the need to consider and respect indigenous world views and ways. And young people called for recognition as leaders of today, not tomorrow. This was challenging, as it had to be.  Previously silenced but newly bold communities speak up and insist on inclusion and this is socially disruptive. But it also brings so much more to our work. In Toronto, PFC made a start at discussing the diversity, equity and inclusion policies and practices of Canadian foundations. For most foundations, especially family-run, this may seem difficult or uncomfortable territory. But there are more and more examples to share of how to bring more diverse views to philanthropic decision-making. And evidence that this is not only right to do but smart to do.

  1. Collaboration Is The Next Big Thing

Many speakers suggested that the role of philanthropy is enormously amplified by collaboration. This includes not only funders working together on issues but also cross-sectoral work with the private sector and with government. Peggy Sailler of the Network of European Foundations noted that this was a driver of policy change in Europe.  As that continent, and as we in Canada, face the challenges of climate change, migration, aging population, and the disruptions of a “fourth industrial revolution”, foundations can collaborate on targeted funding to build evidence for policy makers, to engage with grantees in solution design, to support advocacy for policy ideas, to create more informed policy debates through public interest media, and other initiatives. PFC is making a priority of fostering the growth of funder affinity groups on specific areas of work as well as peer networks for foundation leaders, program managers and board members.  Our pre-conference workshop on emergent philanthropy underlined the importance of collaboration to share and “return learning to the system”. Working together, funder collaboratives can help to develop lines of sight on a problem and mobilize knowledge around it.

  1. Ask Good Questions and Get Reliable Answers

How do we know whether we are making a difference? In an excellent session on evidence-based philanthropy, both Caroline Fiennes and Janet Smylie made powerful points about what to look for in assessing funder impact.  Caroline Fiennes suggested that funders can and should be bold in their innovations while being rigorous in their evaluations. In her view, the key is the design of good questions that matter, and flexibility in the use of tools and time frames methods for collecting information to answer them. Luc Tayart de Borms from the King Baudouin Foundation echoed this point: “take a disciplined approach to assessing your impact but don’t get stuck on indicators”. Janet Smylie pointed out, from an indigenous perspective, the importance of considering non-quantifiable data, such as family bonds, and different ways of “knowing”, in answering questions about what difference an intervention makes. A session on data-sharing also underlined the powerful tools that funders could have access to for developing deeper and more accurate data, and for including communities in the data collection (see “nothing about us without us”).

  1. We Need To Defend Our Legitimacy for the Future

Foundation philanthropy is not a “sacred cow”. It is vulnerable to charges of elitism, lack of relevance, lack of ambition to fully use its potential. There were active debates during the conference about foundation accountability, privilege, and legitimacy. Perhaps not what one would want to come to a philanthropy conference for? But if not here, among us, then where?  We need a narrative for philanthropy that makes our case in ways that are relevant to today. Many of our speakers from the foundation world and outside it emphasized that foundations cannot take their generosity as sufficient evidence of their right to carry on without self-questioning. This wasn’t just a critique. Helpful advice was given. Foundations were advised to invest in youth, in the talent of the next generation in Canada that is now tackling so many difficult issues. Finding and supporting young leaders, building competencies for dialogue and problem-solving, supporting the empathy and tolerance that will be so critical to finding solutions, these are strategies for bridging between the privilege at the top and the talent on the bottom. And bringing them in to careers in philanthropy could be the best defense of all!

Canadian philanthropy has much reason for optimism and aspiration as it looks forward from this conference. The message from our next generation of leaders is clear.  If we move towards participation, inclusion, a sharing of power and a focus on engaging with community, philanthropy will be both more credible and more meaningful for all of us.

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  • Harun Otwoma

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