June 20, 2019
PFC Blog

Creating a Philanthropic Community in Canada

An Interview with Hilary Pearson

by Jennifer-Lee Thomas, Communications Director

Hilary Pearson has been President and CEO of Philanthropic Foundations Canada (PFC) since 2001. During that time, PFC has grown from a few founding members to over 130 grantmaking organizations across Canada. Hilary has written over 60 blogs and facilitated countless member gatherings highlighting issues such as reconciliation, diversity, equity and inclusion, impact investment, and private foundation accountability and transparency. Hilary has championed the practice of effective grantmaking and the important role of organized philanthropy in contributing to thriving communities.

On July 1st, Hilary Pearson will officially transition from her role as President and CEO of PFC to new projects. I sat down with Hilary to find out what she plans to do next and to reflect on her last 18 years, working alongside some of the largest private foundations in Canada.


Jennifer: Let’s talk about the early years of PFC. Can you describe some of the challenges you faced?

Hilary: At the time when PFC was first established, private foundations were not seen as active participants in the non-profit sector. They were seen as separate. Different. This is something we wanted to change. The first CEO Julie White did a lot of the prep work. So, when I first took over as CEO, my goal was to register PFC as a charity, establish a statement of values, build the brand and change the perception that funders are not accountable.


Jennifer: 18 years later… what do you think PFC has achieved?

Hilary: I believe that we made philanthropy visible in Canada and we’ve created an awareness of Canadian philanthropy outside of Canada. We’ve educated the broader public about the role of philanthropy in contributing to thriving communities. We also creating a solid set of Canadian tools and guides about our philanthropic models and practice. We’ve added structure. We’ve created the framework and provided the opportunities for collaboration. I guess our greatest achievement is that we created a community.


Jennifer: What lead to your decision to step down as CEO and President of PFC?

Hilary: I think timing is important when a founding leader of an organization decides to step down. I felt like the timing was right as we are between conference years and we’ve just completed our three-year strategic plan. After several periods of growth, I thought PFC could use a new perspective and a fresh pair of eyes to see it through further expansion.


Jennifer: What is next for Hilary Pearson?

Hilary: You can take Hilary Pearson out of PFC but it is hard to take philanthropy out of Hilary Pearson. Having learned as much as I have, I think I still have important contributions to make. I will definitely stay involved, act as an advisor. I am also thinking of writing a book about Canadian foundations, their role in our communities and the issues they face. I would also like to play a mentoring role to other women in the sector. When I first started at PFC, I was encouraged by Monica Patten who led Community Foundations of Canada at the time. I also learned a good deal from my colleague Lynne Toupin, who then headed the Human Resources Council of the Voluntary Sector and now chairs Imagine Canada.


Jennifer: Many people know you professionally, but they may not know you on a more personal level. What do you do when you are not working?

Hilary: I read a lot. I like reading books about philanthropy as well as blogs and articles. I am currently reading Melinda Gate’s personal memoir The Moment of Lift. It’s very interesting to get her perspective on the work of the Gates Foundation to empower girls and women. I also read a lot of fiction. Historical fiction is my favorite genre. It takes you into a different world. I just finished reading Transcription by Kate Atkinson. It’s a great book set in World War II and the difficult choices people have to make.


Jennifer: What would you like your legacy to be?

Hilary: It’s difficult to untangle my legacy from PFC’s. We are such as small team and we’ve accomplished so much together. I am very proud that we stayed ahead of the curve. We did not stay the same. We moved forward. We created a solid ground of knowledge, practice and content. It’s important to keep moving, not stay in one place and keep adding.

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  • Learning from Philanthropy In Action

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