June 7, 2017
From the President

Matching Our Dance Steps: Philanthropy and Government

By Hilary Pearson

Dance metaphors come irresistibly to mind when foundations discuss the pros and cons of working with government partners. We talk about dancing together, finding the right partner, matching our steps, or falling out of step too. Is this is a useful metaphor? Can foundations be good dance partners for government and vice-versa?

To explore this question, and to look at some current examples of Canadian foundations working with government, PFC commissioned Sheherazade Hirji to interview several foundations working with government partners in Canada today and to reflect on the lessons they are learning. Her observations are captured in a new PFC publication Grantmakers and Governments: The Possibilities of Partnership.

What do we learn about the realities of attempting to dance awkwardly with partners who are very unequal in resources, unlike in structures and accountabilities, and perhaps incompatible in cultures? Is this a dance doomed to failure? Not judging from the number of efforts that are profiled in Grantmakers and Governments. The interviews and case studies suggest that much valuable work and real change can be brought about through partnership. After all, government remains the biggest and most powerful player in determining social, environmental and other outcomes in our communities. How can we not consider dancing together?

Of course there are many different ways of describing philanthropic-public joint efforts: levels of government (federal, province, municipal or indigenous community), structures of the partnership (joint venture, co-funding or simply one funding the other) and approaches (research, evaluation, service delivery, policy development etc). Given these differences, is it possible to generalize about the success and failure factors in pulling off these awkward dances? And are the benefits worth the risks?

The experiences documented by Sheherazade Hirji suggest that the benefits are real. These examples show us that knowledge is created, networks are established, policies are revised or brought forward, and communities and people see changes for the better. But there are also very real questions about how well foundations and government can truly work together (not simply exchange information or consult with each other). These questions have to do both with internal capacities and with external expectations.

On the internal front, it is obvious that foundations and government have different resources of money and people at their disposal. While government are financially constrained and public funds are not necessarily plentiful or flexible, there is still much more in the public purse. And most Canadian foundations have a particularly important constraint in terms of their people, since they tend to be thinly staffed. Internally as well, the structures of government and foundations are very different. The smallness of foundations is balanced by their capacity to work horizontally and to make decisions relatively rapidly. Governments work in silos and have demanding accountability structures that make decision-making and course corrections rather slow relative to smaller philanthropic organizations.

Externally, the differences are also very great. The biggest difference is in the very nature of public government and private philanthropy. Governments in Canada have public stakeholders and democratic reference points. Private funders have stakeholders but in their nature are privately organized (not just by families but even by groups of individual citizens). Every registered charity has a requirement for public accountability so it is not a clear-cut statement that governments are public and foundations are not. But the time-frames, political directives and citizen expectations of government are undeniably different from those of foundations.

A reflection on how these differences in internal capacities and external expectations play out on a foundation-government relationship was very ably articulated by Jean-Marc Chouinard of the André et Lucie Chagnon Foundation at a PFC symposium in 2015. This is well worth a read. Chouinard, who also participated as an interviewee in the Grantmakers and Governments study, poses some important questions for foundations considering a structured partnership of any kind with government. These questions also serve as a checklist for foundations contemplating and seeking a productive venture with government at any level:

  • Do we agree on what we are doing together? Specifically, do we understand each other’s use of language, and underlying assumptions?
  • Can we overcome the tendency towards silo and hierarchical thinking and behaviour that is inevitable in government?
  • Are we both and equally able to deal with the risks of failure of our project together? What do we do with failure when it happens?
  • How long can we both commit to our mutual project? Let’s make sure we discuss timeframes upfront.
  • Finally, how do we establish legitimacy and overcome external doubts and critiques of our partnership, which are likely especially if our project involves large sums, sets ambitious targets and is publicly visible?

A final word on the possibility of successful public-philanthropic dancing together: it is important to maintain the separate identities of the dance partners. There is talk these days of the blurring of roles between government and civil society as government seek funding from foundations and foundations seek the goals of public policy. But blurred roles, combined with lack of transparency, create discomfort on all sides. Philanthropy is not government. Government is not philanthropy. Different dancers can match their steps. But they need to be clear about which dance rhythm they are following, who leads, who follows and when the dance is over.

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