September 13, 2017
Guest Blog

Let’s Take a Walk – Canada’s Philanthropy Support Landscape

By Michael Alberg-Seberich

When you live in the midst of a landscape it may be difficult to see the obvious. I realized this after many conversations about philanthropy and its support system in Canada. This is why I would like to invite you for a short, imaginary walk through the philanthropy landscape. Here we go:

Philanthropy would not exist without Canadians who give or invest in (positive) societal change. Canadians have always been generous and entrepreneurial. This has been well documented, for instance, in the “Personal Philanthropy Project” of Imagine Canada or the “My Giving Moment” campaign of Governor General, David Johnston. The fact that Canadians will transfer 750 Billion CAN$ through legacies in the next decade is an indication of the tremendous potential of philanthropy. The fact that Canadians live in an environment where giving is encouraged, recognized, and is often pursued with curiosity, feeds into a vibrant and extensive support landscape.

This support structure starts where you deposit your money: banks. Canada has one of the most successful and stable banking ecosystems in the world. You may envision it as an old growth rainforest of the Northwest Coast. These banks provide a variety of services to establish and run a foundation or donor-advised fund. Some institutions focus on the management of the money, while others provide some content related support to manage grants or impact driven investments. The banks are an important gateway to the overall landscape.

Another gateway is the extremely diverse ecosystem of independent financial advisors and the growing family office industry in Canada. It may be a bit like the Muskokas, where no island is the same. With a European perspective, I have been startled by the activities in this habitat. You may want to google a couple of the books that have been published by financial advisors on giving and philanthropy[1]. This ecosystem has been rather creative in finding many ways to make philanthropy part of its product portfolio and its ethos.

The third gateway into this landscape is the legal profession. Picture a majestic glacier. Many practitioners in this profession have been long-term, trusted partners of Canadians in a variety of private and professional matters. That is why they are also an important gatekeeper when people think about philanthropy.

The last gateway into the philanthropy landscape is the accounting and estate planning profession. Again, they are their clients’ partner in a variety of ways. You may envision them as a large beach the arrival point when entering the world of philanthropy.

The accountants, especially of the large firms, are often connected to another profession that may be involved in philanthropy, which is the strategy and management consulting profession that provides occasional services for philanthropists and foundations – often pro bono. These professionals may be seen as dunes that move rather quickly through the landscape.

Are you with me so far? We now enter an uncharted part of the landscape, that has not been mapped out in detail yet. This is a mountainous area where evaluation, social change and social innovation explorers are trying to figure out the right way to create lasting social, environmental impact. This territory is rough because it lacks standards. The rewards for society are high up in these mountains but you will also find valleys of collective pockets of service for philanthropy and new forms of organizing a business around this type of work.

The next ecosystem within our philanthropy support landscape is the fundraising and gift planning one. It is characterized by a couple of very large waterways and many, many small lakes and canals. This is an ecosystem that tries to access the gateways to donors. It competes with causes, ideas and sometimes “cause” marketing.

The fundraising ecosystem goes hand in hand with an endless second or third growth forest that is the not for profit organizations and charities across Canada. There are thousands of trees in this forest that try to outgrow each other. Many of the trees look rather similar, but somehow an unsurpassed diversity has survived here – so far.

Many of the trees are marked because they have been organized in associations on the national, provincial and municipal level. These associations often do not stand out in the overall diversity of the charity sector. They are struggling for bargaining power with the gatekeepers of this landscape and government.

The last distinct ecosystem within the landscape is the one of regulator, the government. It is symbolized by a couple of high mountains that allow a decent view of the landscape to regulate a diverse philanthropy support landscape, and to try to encourage overall giving and civic engagement – along with everybody else in the landscape.

As an outside observer, I am amazed at the lack of pathways through this philanthropy support landscape and the high degree of competitiveness. This is not uniquely Canadian, but it can sometimes be exemplified in Canada in disturbing ways.

If philanthropy requires an infrastructure to manage it, to ensure its legitimacy and (positive) societal impact, then there is a need for more synergies and transparency within the landscape. I am concerned that the support system in Canada, and also everywhere else, can become more about financial profit for the infrastructure providers than about the impact for the greater good that philanthropy is supposed to provide unless we can start to build new, connecting roads within the landscape.

Michael Alberg-Seberich is the inaugural CKX Philanthropy in Canada Fellow and a Mercator Fellow. He has worked in the past for the German Youth For Understanding Committee and the Bertelsmann Foundation. He is an executive partner at Berlin based Active Philanthropy, and a managing director of Beyond Philanthropy.

[1] For example: Thomson, Keith (2011). What Was Your Great Grandmother’s Name? Fifty Thoughts On How Canadian Philanthropy Can Transform You, Your Family And Your Community. Toronto & Bergman, Jack & Marlena McCarthy (2015). Ripple Effect: Growing your business with insurance and philanthropy. Toronto. Civil Sector Press.

Related Posts

  • Looking Back, Looking Forward
    At the end of this very eventful year, it’s a good time to look back and also to look forward, since one without the other risks either too much disappointment or too much irrational hope!


  • First You Build Your Scaffold…
    Is there a case for funding infrastructure organizations supporting the charitable sector in Canada?


  • Thoughts on A Sector in the Fog
    The recent release of new data from Statistics Canada on giving and volunteering brings to mind some questions that go beyond charity and giving.


Add Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.