September 17, 2018
From the President

Open Talk About Taking Risk: A Challenge for Philanthropy

Hilary Pearson

Typically, Canadian foundations, although they operate for public benefit, remain private in their activities. They don’t draw much attention to their actions or decisions. It’s the rare Canadian foundation that grants more than $1 million a year to other charities. These grants are spread across many recipients and most of these recipients are not themselves engaged in public issues or controversies but are occupied in delivering services to Canadian communities.  This is generosity and there is much to be said for it.  But there is also an argument to be made that foundations have a rare and unique capability to confront and change the conditions that create social isolation, exclusion and inequality.  Such isolation and exclusion are drivers of what we see today in populist politics, “fake” news and social media angry rhetoric.  Should foundations be more willing to take on publicly the challenges of doing what is necessary to confront inequality and exclusion, even if this involves controversy or public attention?  Should they do this not just as a moral obligation, but because only they can?

These are questions that we intend to raise at the upcoming PFC conference in Toronto.   We have planned several plenary conversations about Canadian organized philanthropy confronting populism, building civic engagement, accepting more calculated risks and taking on more public accountability.  We are not alone in having these conversations. Our colleagues in Australia had their own conference recently with the theme Purpose: Is It Enough? They tackled the questions of how to work toward a just society and how to think about philanthropy’s role in democracy.  So must we in Canada, in my view. We seem to be in uncertain and fearful times. Political discourse in many parts of the country is divisive and full of worries. And civic engagement and community is threatened by the isolationist effects of poverty, inequality, racial exclusion and even the media. But there are innovative and positive solutions to many of these threats. Funders of civil society organizations can risk more to work with them to support experiments, pilots, new ways to figure out and test these solutions and to reinforce inclusion and engagement.

Larry Kramer, President of the Hewlett Foundation in California, was a keynote speaker in Australia, and a contributor to an online series on Civil Society for the 21st Century published this summer in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.  In his comments, Kramer provided a useful nuance on the question of how funders should think about risk, arguing that “we need to find the big problems that philanthropy can uniquely work on. These are invariably complicated, with embedded systems of conflicting interests. The only way to make progress on problems like that is to become part of an ecosystem and work patiently within it….We should pick problems that seem worth working on and ask ‘Can we make headway on this?’ If the answer is ‘yes’ then we should pursue it as best we can. The notion that you ‘should’ do something riskier just because it’s risky – I don’t get that.”  But Kramer points out also that funders are uniquely able to take on the risk, “not just that something may not work but the reputational risk of tackling controversial matters….what’s the point of being unaccountable if you never use it?”  By unaccountable he means not that funders should not be accountable to their partners and to the public but that they are not directly accountable to voters or to markets who so often constrain the risk-taking of business and politics.

Can Canadian funders challenge themselves, in a “risky” way, to talk about failure, to ask self-critical questions, to discuss the big problems that they are uniquely positioned to work on?  The PFC plenary speakers will ask these questions.  Observers of social trends and critics of philanthropic strategies such as Michael Adams of Environics and Janice Stein of the University of Toronto will be joined by young leaders of civil society such as Sevaun Palvetzian and Narinder Dhami who will provide their own perspectives.  Canadian and European foundation leaders will challenge the audience as well to reflect on these questions.  These discussions are even more important because they signal to grantees, civil society leaders and leaders in the other sectors that private foundations are indeed willing to risk taking on the conditions of inequality and exclusion. If funders don’t risk this, we face the worse risk of becoming a more fearful and less engaged society.

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