November 15, 2017
From the President

Listen. Learn. Act: Further Reflections on Philanthropic Practice

By Hilary Pearson

In my last blog, I reflected on the insights that we drew from our discussions at the PFC Fall Symposium on the topic of building foundation and community capacity to engage in dialogue. There were so many thoughtful and substantial ideas presented that our recap certainly didn’t do them justice. For this reason, we are very pleased to offer four short videos that do give you a sense of the energy in the rooms that we witnessed in Montreal.

Two observers also have shared their take-aways on the October conversations (see blogs by Jillian Witt and Michael Alberg-Seberich). They both referenced a shift in the Canadian philanthropic community towards a “community of practice”, towards becoming a community of funders who are taking the time to listen deeply and use this knowledge to learn and act differently. This requires taking the time to build trust and relationships, not only with community partners but also with other grantmakers.

It is this shift that I want to reflect on. And it is a shift that I see clearly as I look back at the series of fall meetings that PFC has convened since 2012 under the overall theme of “making change”.

It was only five years ago that PFC began to organize bi-annual fall one-day symposia. These meetings, which began in 2012, were intended to take place in years in which we did not plan a larger and longer two-day conference.  These longer conferences typically take place in the year in which our colleagues at Community Foundations of Canada (CFC) do not hold their own two-day conference. Since 2011, when both PFC and CFC held major conferences in the same year, we have collaborated by avoiding two important philanthropy conferences in the same year. But the appetite for gathering and meeting each other is strong within the PFC membership. So we began our thematic one-day symposium series in in 2012 as a way of meeting this demand.  The symposia have been held in 2012, 2013 (in the year of a CFC conference), 2015 and now 2017.

We realized we had an opportunity to create a symposium around a specific theme for one day. So in 2012, we began with the driving idea of examining what it takes to “make change”, change that can be systemic, or more wide-ranging, deeper and more effective in addressing some of the complex challenges that face Canadian funders: poverty, homelessness, climate change, substance abuse, mental illness, social exclusion etc  We also saw these symposia as an opportunity to examine a particular approach to practice for Canadian funders. We felt that we could use our one-day meeting to examine a practice more thoughtfully, from various sides, and to feature examples of Canadian practice in action.

The first practice that we looked at, with the goal of using it more effectively to “make change”, was the practice of collaboration. In 2012, our Montreal symposium was all about the whys, hows and whats of funder collaboration. This gave us an opportunity to produce a summary paper on the key insights of our participants. One of these, articulated by Tim Brodhead, was that “it’s not the pooling of funds but the pooling of perspectives, ideas, insights – collaboration can be as much about framing a problem as it is about bringing money to the table – it’s paying attention to what matters.”

We took this idea and moved to examining a different practice in 2013 in Calgary, that of thinking systemically about how to bring about change. How as a funder, can you bring creativity, fresh eyes, and broader or horizontal thinking to the table with community partners? In 2015 in Toronto, our symposium focused on the practice of public policy change.  How do we as private funders work more effectively with public policy makers and systems to bring about deeper and more sustained social changes? How do we solve challenges together?  And in 2017, in Montreal, we explored the practice of listening. How do we as funders listen better, hold better conversations, reach out to hear those voices that we need to hear and aren’t hearing?

As I look back on this five years, I believe that we are indeed creating a community of practice as funders. Collaboration, systems thinking, policy change, listening… all important practices and ones that we will continue to examine in Canadian philanthropy. Can you suggest the next area of practice that we should address for our 2019 symposium? We are all ears!

And of course, you don’t need to wait for 2019. PFC’s two and a half-day conference is in Toronto on October 16-18, 2018. More details on that coming soon!

Related Posts

  • Moving Beyond Good Intentions
    Jillian Witt Community Engagement Consultant for The Philanthropist, explores some of the common threads regarding self-reflection and shifting power asked of funders at the PFC Symposium in Montreal in October 2017.


  • The Magic of Listening
    Former CKX Philanthropy Fellow and Managing Partner at Active Philanthropy and Beyond Philanthropy, Michael Alberg-Seberich, shares his insights about the unique state of philanthropy in Canada as observed from conversations at the 2017 PFC Symposium.


  • Listen. Learn. Act.
    In her latest blog piece, PFC President, Hilary Pearson, highlights some of the lessons learned about listening and learning effectively as funders that were shared during the 2017 PFC Symposium in Montreal on October 17 and 18.


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