Against incrementalism: The charitable sector must do more, and faster, to eliminate inequity

The executive director of Youth LEAPS calls for sector leaders to take urgent steps to address inequity, starting with increasing the disbursement quota.

The executive director of Youth LEAPS calls for sector leaders to take urgent steps to address inequity, starting with increasing the disbursement quota.


The following remarks were delivered at the Annual TD Lecture on the Future of Philanthropy, hosted by Carleton University’s MPNL program and TD Bank Group, at which the author was a panellist. This year’s topic was From Charity to Social Justice: Philanthropy Is Being Transformed – To Help Advance a More Inclusive, Just, and Equitable World. How Is It Doing? The remarks have been edited and revised for publication.


There’s no doubt that Canadian philanthropy is changing. But depending on whom you ask, you might hear conflicting reactions to this transformation. Some argue that we are moving too rapidly and altering too much, while others assert that the changes are insufficient to produce the more equitable sector that so many of us demand.

In the last 15 years, as a board member, grantmaker, adviser, and even grantee, I’ve observed that the issue of inequity has been a constant and puzzling dilemma.

On the surface, the problem might appear simple enough to solve. To eliminate inequity, we must:

  • realign our purposes to include those communities we overlook;
  • guarantee that those communities are represented in decision-making processes; and
  • ensure that these communities receive the resources they need to address the challenges they face.

Realign, represent, resource. Then repeat. It’s a simple recipe for dismantling inequality.

Many people I meet, including board chairs, foundation CEOs, advisers, and staff, also seem to like this recipe, in theory anyway.

The hitch comes when deciding on the pace at which to institute these changes.

Some believe we can’t change too much or change too quickly. First, we must gather more data, enlist the help of others, and establish trust. These steps, they claim, are all necessary parts of the learning journey.

What do we think is happening while our sector is on a learning journey?

Such requests appear reasonable until we examine what the delay in action might mean in terms of real-world issues.

What do we think is happening while our sector is on a learning journey?

Do people believe that the unnecessary and totally avoidable despair, suffering, and devastation that so many communities are experiencing will pause? Do people believe that the depth of poverty diminishes with the anticipation of us acting?

Just ask the four million Canadians suffering food insecurity, the 1.3 million children living in poverty, the two million seniors receiving income less than the minimum standard of living, and the more than 235,000 Canadians experiencing homelessness.

Their answer would likely be a resounding no. Because while we ponder, their circumstances deteriorate further and their challenges become more intractable.

It should be noted that the philanthropic sector cannot and should not be expected to solve these complex socioeconomic problems on its own. Governments must also have a prominent role in alleviating these circumstances, which are largely a consequence of poor public policy and unequal access to economic opportunities and resources.

We must reject the notion that we should not move too quickly or that incremental change is sufficient. Instead, we should be concerned about not doing enough or moving quickly enough.

To put it charitably, the paralytic procrastination that calls for a learning journey is akin to a fire truck taking the scenic route to a house fire. That journey’s cost is preventable human suffering, and it puts the lives of millions of Canadians in jeopardy.

That is why we must reject the irrational notion that we should not move too quickly or that incremental change is sufficient. Instead, we should be concerned about not doing enough or moving quickly enough.

We already know the issues – the litany of inequity continues to get larger, more entrenched, and increasingly indefensible.

Despite this, many of our sector leaders remain apathetic, displaying no sense of urgency, raising doubts about how serious we are about addressing inequity in our sector.

Far too often, these leaders want to be applauded for tinkering at the margins instead of embracing much-needed wholesale reforms, like significantly increasing disbursement quotas, mandating equity benchmarks to drive greater representation, strengthening investment into equity-seeking groups, and expanding impact investment portfolios. Additionally, foundations should adopt a trust-based philanthropy approach for their grantmaking, which encourages multiyear unrestricted funding, streamlined reporting, transparency, and soliciting and acting on feedback from grantees.

Transformation within mainstream philanthropy seems to occur at the speed of convenience, forcing Black, Indigenous, and gender-diverse communities to take the work of increasing equity into their own hands by forming their own organizations – such as the Foundation for Black Communities, the Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund, and the Equality Fund – to address the social deficits.

It is the moral and ethical responsibility of those in leadership positions within our sector to lead the charge.

But these groups should not have to take these steps. Addressing inequity in philanthropy should not be the job of those who are burdened by it.

It is the moral and ethical responsibility of those in leadership positions within our sector to lead the charge. More than that, it is their fiduciary responsibility as well, given the tax treatment the sector receives.

That is why we must begin to hold our sector and those in leadership to account for our poor record on equity. We must adopt the appropriate sense of urgency, reject incrementalism, and demand transformation at scale.

And all that change begins with substantially increasing the disbursement quota and tying that increase to improving outcomes for equity-seeking groups.

The deadline for submissions to Finance Canada is September 30, 2021.

I understand that the topic of disbursement quotas has become a lightning rod in our sector. It is, nevertheless, a crucial discussion – a referendum on the sector’s commitment to equity.

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