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‘Indigenous folks have always been philanthropists’: A conversation with Janine Manning

The president of the Laidlaw Foundation’s board of directors talks philanthropy and reconciliation – both the challenges and the opportunities.

The president of the Laidlaw Foundation’s board of directors talks philanthropy and reconciliation – both the challenges and the opportunities.


It was a bold move. On June 28, 2021, the Laidlaw Foundation board named Janine Manning as their new president. Manning is Anishnaabe and a member of the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation (Neyaashiinigmiing), which is located off Georgian Bay on the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula in southwestern Ontario. She grew up in Toronto and, as a mature student, graduated with an honours degree in environmental studies from York University, where she also served as president of the Indigenous Students Association. Manning has dedicated the last 10 years to Indigenous relations and community development efforts, most recently in the public and philanthropic sectors. She managed the Indigenous Culture Fund for the Ontario Arts Council, served as senior manager for the United Way of Greater Toronto, and heads annual giving and donor relations for Anishnawbe Health in Toronto. Manning is the first Indigenous board president of a non-Indigenous-led private philanthropic foundation in Canadian.

In a recent conversation with journalist Miles Morrisseau (Métis, Grand Rapids, Manitoba), Manning talked about the challenges and opportunities of being in the philanthropic sector – a world dominated by old money, government bureaucracy, taxation and non-profits laws, guidelines, and the tyranny of Robert’s Rules of Order – from her place of intersectionality.

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Miles Morrisseau: Given all the interest in Indigenous issues as Canada comes to terms with the true history of this country, how has that impacted philanthropy?

Janine Manning: With the increased awareness, there has been an uptake of interest in supporting Indigenous organizations, communities, and grassroots efforts as a way to reconcile settlers and their role in colonization. I don’t think it’s unexpected. When folks start opening their eyes and ears, they also start to open their hearts. In philanthropy, that means opening up their wallets. So, yes, we definitely are seeing a positive trend in giving to Indigenous organizations, which is long overdue. Across Canada, just over 1% of grants are to Indigenous groups annually – about $1 for every $178 given to non-Indigenous groups. So, there’s a lot of room to grow.

MM: If it’s only 1% of the money, which is just a stunning fact, how do they access more dollars and bring more dollars to the communities, or what can they do to change themselves?

Individuals can and should support Indigenous efforts beyond the expectation of a tax receipt.

Janine Manning

JM: Well, there’s the act of making donations by regular people who are interested in just giving on a personal level. But then there’s the organizations within the sector itself, which are the private and public foundations. The Laidlaw Foundation is a private foundation that has a majority public interest, so there’s more public members on the board than family members in this case. The way in which these organizations can and should change is by supporting Indigenous organizations and grassroots efforts. Individuals can and should support Indigenous efforts beyond the expectation of a tax receipt.

Funding for Indigenous “causes” or “issues” has often been entrusted in the hands of non-Indigenous organizations and charitable networks. Just like Indian residential school was meant to solve the Indian problem,” those funds are given to non-Indigenous organizations to do very similar work to create systems to support Indigenous people to be like settlers and to fit into the settler populace.

The ways in which we can be more positive in philanthropy is allowing for more trust-based and participatory philanthropy, wherein we not only engage Indigenous folks, communities, and the organizations that serve them, but we follow their lead. We have them build opportunities and review grant applications so that it’s community-informed and what community wants, not what settlers think we need.

I guess the most bold and grand way for the philanthropic sector to change is to hand over the wealth to those folks in this country that need it the most. As we all know, that is typically Black and Brown people, as we’re living in a society of stolen land and stolen labour.

Being one Indigenous person in philanthropy doesn’t mean I know everything about giving to all Indigenous communities.

But that’s a very idealistic way of thinking, or very utopian. In the meantime, everyone seems to be very keen on jumping on the diversity journey, which is a start but definitely not the whole journey.

I have often felt “othered” in my volunteering, as an Indigenous person. I am often the only [Indigenous] person at the table or in the room. I’m constantly asking, “Where are the other Indigenous folks who are leaders in that sector? Where are the Indigenous youth?” when we’re speaking about Indigenous youth efforts.

We need to build on diversity and actually create welcoming, inclusive environments where people feel they belong. Even now, I don’t feel I belong in many rooms and at many tables. Being one Indigenous person in philanthropy doesn’t mean I know everything about giving to all Indigenous communities. I might know something about my province, my community, but this is a big country. And I’m only one First Nations woman; I am not Métis and not Inuk.

MM: That is always a challenge, when you have to be the expert of all experts. But you just can’t speak for everyone. It goes to trying to make the sector understand the complexity of our communities.

That’s always my driving force, to kind of insert myself into these spaces and to stay long after I’m exhausted, because I know that I’m seeing slow, but sure, change.

JM: Exactly, it’s exhausting. And it’s not just this sector; it’s every sector. When paired with the recent diversity, equity, and inclusion bandwagon, we’re also expected to be equity, diversity, and inclusion experts. Being a person who’s from an “equity-seeking group,” for lack of a better word, does not necessarily mean we are.

Philanthropy is a sector that has been dominated by older white men, many of whom have created these tax shelters and [were] allowed to build foundations, often in their family names, to give however they choose to any charitable organizations of their choosing or personal interest. They’re not often using the funds that have been diverted from taxes, from the community and the social purse, and putting it towards social systems that need the support. So, yes, we definitely need more Indigenous folks and Black folks and people of colour to be speaking and participating and included in this sector so that we can drive the money where it means the most. That’s always my driving force, to kind of insert myself into these spaces and to stay long after I’m exhausted, because I know that I’m seeing slow, but sure, change. I’m really hoping that settlers keep learning the true essential history of Canada and its relations with Indigenous folks and that they keep that in mind when it comes to making donations to causes and issues.

MM: Oftentimes, Indigenous people were indoctrinated or socialized: you go to the government. We’re not seeing this sector for what it could possibly be, as something that can help us or we can be involved in. What do you think about that?

JM: I think Indigenous folks have always been philanthropists. Indigenous philanthropy is the giving of your time and your talents. I mean, that’s the basis of a community: people contributing what they have and what they know, when they can.

There needs to be more for diversity and inclusion of Indigenous folks – not only our bodies, but our worldviews and our spirituality – beyond the land acknowledgements.

I also like to say NDN tacos are a part of Indigenous philanthropy. [“NDN” is a self-identifier often used on social media or in other text communications.] I think about how many NDN taco sales there are to help support kids going off to post-secondary, or fundraising for junior hockey leagues and stuff like that. Indigenous folks are charitable and philanthropic. We just may not use the Western terminology. So I often encourage folks who don’t think of themselves in that way [to ask], What do I have to give? Or how can I be a part of this sector? There needs to be more for diversity and inclusion of Indigenous folks – not only our bodies, but our worldviews and our spirituality – beyond the land acknowledgements. I often encourage people who have never had experience in the philanthropic sector to use the skills they have on boards, which are often looking for governance support in HR or lawyering or community engagement and, depending on the foundation or the charity, expertise with youth or seniors.

When I joined the Laidlaw Foundation board three years ago, I served as a regular member and chair of the granting committee. There’s rules and regulations to follow, CRA guidelines, federal and provincial acts. And, of course, there’s the dreadful Robert’s Rules [of Order]. All very intimidating for folks who are coming into the sector. But there’s ways for the sector to appreciate that people may not have these technical or professional skills, and to be more flexible. There are ways to create that inclusive environment if you’re wanting to attract Indigenous folks. If you want someone to volunteer, you need to make it as easy as possible.

White supremacy in the sector is persistent through the hoarding of wealth and because older white men have more time, freedom, and mobility to make these meetings, whereas single mothers like myself, community-minded people, grandmothers – they are giving their labour freely elsewhere by helping raise children or taking care of family.

For me, my father passed away two years ago. He had Alzheimer’s and I had to help care for him. My mom recently got sick, so I also take care of her. I’m the sandwich generation, supporting the generation before me and behind me. We need to make opportunities equitable as well as accessible if we truly want to make this sector diverse.

I often advocate for offering opportunities for professional development. The CRA says that board members cannot receive renumeration. But there’s no laws against offering a professional development budget, so that after giving three or six years [on a board], they can walk away with not only the experience, but also some sort of training.

Moving forward, boards have to really accept ongoing anti-oppression and inclusion training.

MM: If you’ve grown up thinking a certain way and then you find out your grandfather was just horrible and responsible for all these horrible things, and how you personally benefit from this history, how do you reconcile with that reality? I think a lot of that is what’s going on in Canada.

JM: There’s a lot of resistance. Philanthropy is deeply entrenched in colonialism. If we look at families who started foundations, many of them wouldn’t have gotten their start without access to free or cheap land, from which Indigenous people were displaced. Or they amassed their wealth through resource extraction and the abuse of Mother Earth.

When folks are thinking about reconciliation and the harms that have come to Indigenous people from the church and the state, they shouldn’t remove themselves from any equation. They should really be thinking about how they can reconcile how they’ve gained wealth. A lot of people don’t want to do that. That’s why I think it’s important to have public members on private foundations, or to turn private foundations over to the public, so they can start uncovering those histories and start reconciling for the ways in which wealth was amassed and removed from the public to cause further harm for Black and Indigenous folks.

That means facing the truth. Moving forward, boards have to really accept ongoing anti-oppression and inclusion training so they can keep up the momentum of learning their privileges, their biases, and their microaggressions. This interest in reconciliation, whether it’s with Indigenous Peoples or other communities – this reconciliation of wealth hoarding can continue through that learning lens.

MM: I appreciate you taking the time out to do this. Is there anything that you would like to add?

JM: The only thing we didn’t touch on was grantees. The philanthropic sector is nothing without the grantees that access the funds these foundations put out. The most important thing to do is cut out the middleman and give directly to Indigenous organizations, communities, and grassroots efforts so we’re not using charitable networks that take, then redistribute, donations. Many take 15 to 20% off the top [to] create granting programs, and then they micromanage the funds on behalf of the donor. They create this industry based on the needs of our communities instead of just putting the money directly into the hands of Indigenous folk who know exactly what their communities need.

When we start doing that, grantees have to be at the table. We have to shift this focus from donor dominance and power and privilege to grantee empowerment. At Laidlaw, we support Indigenous youth grantees through an Indigenous Advisory Council. The funds that we put towards their communities and peers is fully informed by them. They created the program. They created the application. They deliberate. And then they leave it to the foundation to do all the paperwork and grantee support. That’s what I would like to see put into action – more grantee empowerment and less donor dominance.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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