50 years of The Philanthropist Journal

This month our publication celebrates a milestone birthday. To kick off the new year, Leslie Wright, the executive director of the Agora Foundation, which publishes The Philanthropist Journal, looks back on five decades of (still timely) writing about the sector.

This month our publication celebrates a milestone birthday. To kick off the new year, Leslie Wright, the executive director of the Agora Foundation, which publishes The Philanthropist Journal, looks back on five decades of (still timely) writing about the sector.


The Philanthropist Journal marks its 50th anniversary in January 2022. From the beginning, The Philanthropist has been a platform for those who advise, work in, and volunteer with the charitable and non-profit sector in Canada. Over the years, almost 900 contributors have brought their experience, expertise, and ideas to the Journal, publishing more than 1,300 pieces.

When The Philanthropist was launched, its first editor, the Honourable Bertha Wilson, pledged to “offer a forum for an informed and constructive critique of the charitable and philanthropic scene in Canada … intended as a vehicle of expression not only for lawyers but for those engaged in the operational side of charity, for public servants charged with the responsibility for the supervision of charity and for private individuals interested in a more contemporary way of expressing their benefactions.”

In 2022, The Philanthropist Journal will celebrate its 50th anniversary by looking back and looking forward.

As The Philanthropist begins its sixth decade of publication, the board of directors of the Agora Foundation (the publisher of the Journal) remains committed to a publication that will be a strong and relevant voice for the charitable and non-profit sector in these challenging and uncertain times. We will continue to publish a wide range of accessible and timely news, critical commentary, and technical and expert analysis on the issues and policies that leaders in the sector need to be reading.

In 2022, The Philanthropist Journal will celebrate its 50th anniversary by looking back and looking forward – revisiting the history of the voluntary sector, thinking about the transformative moments of 1972 to 2022, reflecting on philanthropy and the language that informs our work, and looking out at 2022 and beyond. We will start with some of the thinking and perspectives The Philanthropist has presented over the years; we have chosen excerpts from our archives that continue to be as relevant today as when they were first published.

Though only a small sampling, these excerpts illustrate the challenging issues we have faced in the past, issues and questions met, and those still left to resolve, whether it be our relationship to government, leadership, our capacity for a collective voice, equity and inclusion, or the role of foundations and philanthropy. You can quickly scan these excerpts, climb into one or all the pieces we have highlighted, or use them as an entry point for others that you want to read or re-read.

To all of you, the directors of the Agora Foundation thank you for your support, insights, and engagement in the charitable and non-profit sector and with our publication. We look forward to our continued collaboration. Let’s start by looking back at some of the things our contributors have said over the past five decades.


The power and privilege of foundations

From “A Good Foundation,” by Donald S. Rickerd, January 1, 1972 

Undoubtedly, foundations occupy a somewhat privileged position in our society today as the government, presumably in an effort to encourage private philanthropy, has conferred upon foundations a tax exempt status. In return for that significant concession, it would seem to me that an enormous responsibility is imposed on those who control and operate foundations, and, if that responsibility is not lived up to, then steps should be taken either to correct the faulty operation or to terminate the privileged situation in society which the founda­tion occupies….

One might ask at the outset why the state’s strategy should involve the encouragement of private philanthropy at all? Is there evidence to demonstrate clearly that from a societal point of view more is accomplished through a system that involves private efforts than would be the case if the state itself undertook the full range of charitable activities now carried out by the private sector? Are foundations only duplicating on a small scale what govern­ment does on a large scale? It is my view that a very strong argument can be made in support of the contention that a strong, parallel, private-sector effort can not only accomplish desirable ends itself, but it can also stimulate the state to improve the quantity and quality of its undertakings as well. Why is this so?


The conservatism of private philanthropy

From “From the editor,” by The Philanthropist, January 1, 1973

When The Philanthropist was launched a year ago this fall, it was with the intention that a vehicle of some kind was needed for an informed and construc­tive critique of the charitable and philanthropic scene in Canada.

Most of us acknowledge a role for government and a role for private philanthropy, but the time is propitious for charitable institutions and those who support them to delineate with greater precision the particular role of private philanthropy. Are there some things that fall within the proper ambit of government responsibility and others that government might better leave alone? What policy considerations are relevant to such a determination? Should government, for example, use tax dollars to support what one panellist at the Conference at the Guild Inn called “the growing edge of knowledge,” or is this a role more appropriate to the charitable foundation? Would you be surprised by an allegation that today it is governments which by and large are in­novative in the projects they sponsor, and charitable foundations which are conservative and cautious and tied to traditional patterns? It is hoped that we can explore this in greater detail in future issues of The Philanthropist.


Outdated definitions of charity

From “Viewpoint: Political Activity and Charitable Organizations,” by Henry G. Intven, January 1, 1983

In all likelihood the best long-term solution to the problem lies in an amendment to the Income Tax Act defining a charity in terms of what it is generally accepted charities stand for and do today. I would like to suggest such a definition, not as a final product that should be incorporated into the Income Tax Act tomorrow, but as a basis for discussion.

As with Senator Godfrey’s proposal, there is no restriction on charitable activities so long as they are carried on by a registered charity in furtherance of its charitable objects. Such a provision would leave it to the directors of charities to determine what means to use to advance their charitable objects without risk of loss of their charitable status. To coin a phrase, it would remove government from the boardrooms of charities.


Philanthropy as an expression of love of humanity

From “Viewpoint: The Role of the Charitable Foundation in a Changing Society,” by Walter M. Pitman, January 1, 1988

It is my own hope that philanthropy will continue to be “rooted in universal values,” based on the principles of love “towards all humanity” and “dedicated to the promotion of the well-being of all persons as well as to the development of a higher quality of life within society.” These principles may seem idealistic and impractical. Yet, in a world seemingly set on a course of self-destruction, idealism becomes the only realism, and foundations, consciously and thoughtfully directing their funds toward those activities which enhance human dignity and ensure survival, can make a difference.


Foundation accountability

From “Viewpoint: The Accountability of Foundations,” by Alan Broadbent, January 1, 1990

Modern philanthropy requires that foundations evolve beyond their traditional role as charitable donors or patrons of good causes. One of the central issues in this evolution is that of accountability. To what extent are foundations prepared to be accountable for what they do? … Many foundations still operate under notions of noblesse oblige, and consider that their dispensation of charity is something for which others should be grateful. This attitude is becoming less tolerable to many Canadians. For them, society has progressed beyond such ideas, and many things which were once the province of charity are now seen as basic rights.


Building a caring community

From “Strategies for a Caring Society,” by Sheri Torjman, January 1, 1999

This is a difficult time to promote caring communities. Concern for human and environmental well-being took a back seat to the fiscal bottom line during the deficit-slaying years, and it looks as though this bottom-line agenda will continue to rule – at least for the next few federal budgets. It appears that [infectious disease] is Ottawa’s major health concern and the looming threat of global recession has caused other key public issues to recede from governmental consciousness.…

It is difficult to promote the notion of a caring society in what appears to be a less compassionate world. In fact, some would argue that the very talk of building community capacity is a dangerous trend. It is seen as a way of reducing public responsibility by letting governments off the hook. It lets them do less because someone else is doing more. Others contend that building community capacity to solve deeply rooted and complex problems such as poverty, homelessness, or crime can have an opium-like effect. It can dull the anger and pain that force fundamental social change through conflict and confrontation.…

I do not accept the notion of waiting for government to do everything. Governments have a crucial role to play – perhaps more than ever in light of an insecure economy and turbulent labour market – but there are many actions that communities can and should take to solve problems and to improve the quality of life. In fact, there are some things that communities can do far better than governments.


Sector–government relationships

From “Viewpoint: A History of Trust, A Future of Confidence – Canada’s Third Way,” by Pierre S. Pettigrew, July 1, 1999

Our voluntary sector is already an established and indispensable part of the fabric of this country. Along with government and business, it is the “third pillar” of a civil – and civilized – society and occupies a role long recognized by the present federal government.

Over the decades, voluntary groups have demonstrated time and time again their ability to mobilize individuals and communities to take on many of society’s challenges and many global challenges as well. It is through them that individuals can express their hopes and dreams for themselves, for their neighbours, and for humanity.… I want to see what I call this “accidental partnership” between the government and the voluntary sector develop into a more conscious, more deliberate, and more lasting alliance.

We need to build new relationships with those in the voluntary sector and in the business sector who want to help create a world where values count, a world where the full range of human achievement is encouraged, a world that offers every person countless ways to realize his or her own potential.


Civil society and trust

From “Democracy Is Coming: The New Interest in NGOs, Civil Society, and the Third Sector,” by Kathy Brock, July 1, 2001

Does the quest for more accountability in the sector serve the interests of citizens? Just as the public has become more cynical about government as it has been subjected to greater scrutiny, is the growing attention being paid to the third sector emblematic of a breakdown of civic trust? Are agencies once thought of as altruistic now in danger of being viewed as self-interested organizations with little concern for the broader well-being of society?

As organizations strive to meet the requirements set by governments and corporations in partnerships, will many lose their appeal to locally involved citizens and increasingly be seen as impersonal bureaucracies? Will government standards replace community bonds and norms that have defined these agencies? Will accountability just translate into more work for lawyers, accountants, and consultants with no measurable benefit to citizens? Will partnerships between the third sector and governments restore the lustre to government or just serve to tarnish the third sector? Will Canadian corporations see the benefits of adopting social audits and community responsibility practices, or will they fear the effects on their international competitiveness?

These are tough questions. The answers lie in the future, but one thing is certain: a significant cultural shift has occurred in the past quarter century whose effects are only beginning to be felt.


Collective action is essential

From “If Not Now, When?” by Bob Wyatt, July 1, 2001

The fact that we are not able to enunciate a common vision – even on those central issues that do, in fact, apply to all of us – robs us of power. When governments ask for the sector’s viewpoint on any one of a number of issues, they get so many responses that they tend to say “a pox on all your houses” and simply do whatever they want to do. The sector cannot, I suggest, be a significant player in public policy issues unless we find some way to marshal our strength – our numbers and our creativity.

If we are unable to raise a collective voice, if we are unable to focus on a strong collective position … We are going to see an increasing gap between the “haves” and the “have nots.” We are going to see people suffer and die needlessly. And we are going to face an even greater loss of what my friend and colleague Bob Couchman calls “the sense of reciprocal obligation” that was the basis of the development of this country.

Because of our failure to organize, because of our failure to find ways of developing common positions, because of our failure to speak out on even those issues … we leave ourselves open to be ignored and bullied.… Many of the opportunities facing us can only be exploited if we look at ourselves and our sector differently. The time for debating whether the world should change is long past. It has changed. It is continuing to change. We can either get ahead of that change or we can be lost as it passes us by.


The boomer exodus

From “Exploring the Looming Leadership Deficit in the Voluntary and Non-profit Sector,” by Lynne Toupin & Betty Plewes, October 1, 2007

There is a lot of talk in the voluntary and non-profit sector about the leadership deficit, but if you dig down a little further, you will find that there is a range of conversations that give different meanings to the term. Some of these conversations revolve around the need for community or collective leadership to solve specific problems or take specific actions, often in a geographic space. Others discuss the need for better organizational leadership so that organizations can collectively build their capacities to deliver on their missions.…

There is no doubt that the proverbial clock is ticking. The question is whether the time left to address the expected leadership deficit should be counted in minutes or in hours. David Foot, demographic expert and author of Boom, Bust and Echo, maintains that there is no immediate labour crisis. He argues that the real labour shortage will not occur for another 15 years, as the majority of the boomers are still working and will probably continue to work for the next several years….

We are sitting on the cusp of the boomer exodus. While the clock is ticking, it does not appear that we have yet reached the 11th hour. There is still time to discuss issues and develop strategies to cope with the demographic shift … It is important that the sector reflect and act upon what the implications of these trends will be for leadership in voluntary and non-profit organizations now, before the crisis arrives.


Resilience in challenging times

From “The Road to Resilience: Working Together,” by Judith Maxwell, October 26, 2010

It’s time to stop trying to do more with less and to start setting bold objectives to do much more with more. The new demographic, economic, political, and technological context for our work as a non-profit sector compels us to take on the big transformative projects as well as the smaller ones that strengthen our operational capabilities. It also drives us to work together.…

Governments are pulling back, while business has to compete on a global playing field. This leaves a huge opening for civil society organizations to reimagine who we are and what we might become. There is a growing awareness in the sector that we need to do things differently. This means taking more risks, thinking outside the box, and strengthening our capacity to handle the turbulence ahead. Our mission and our commitments to social change and social justice call us to different paths. The road to resilience will help take us there.


Building a robust democracy

From “Going, Going, Gone: Dismantling the Progressive State,” by Alex Himelfarb, November 7, 2012

So what is the alternative to the relentless decline of the progressive state? It is, at least in part, the demand for a more robust democracy; more transparency, not less; more public education and information, not misinformation and deception; more citizen engagement, not voter suppression; more diversity of views, not the chilling of dissent. It is the recognition that essential services have to be organized around the citizens they serve rather than be “marketized,” converted to commodities sold to consumers who can afford them. Above all, it means a renewal of our sense of the common good and our capacity for collective management of the future rather than retreating to our private interests and fears and surrendering our future to the vagaries of the market.


The rights of Indigenous youth must be acknowledged

From “Indigenous Youth Voices and the Role of Philanthropy,” by Jocelyn Formsma, April 24, 2013

The situation for Indigenous young people in Canada must change for the betterment of all people living in Canada. It is time we acknowledge the right of Indigenous youth to participate fully in the decisions that affect their lives. No entity, whether it is governments, communities, young people, or organizations, can achieve the goal of building or renewing the vitality of communities alone. Only those who are truly invested in the outcomes will help to create the positive intergenerational connections that will help propel future generations of Indigenous children, youth, families, and their respective communities into a place of well-being and balance.


Policy change is imperative for charities

From “Creating Better Public Policy: The Roles of Canadian Charities,” by Allan Northcott, February 26, 2014

Few Canadians think about public policy, though it touches our lives in innumerable ways every day. Taken together, the policy choices made by Canadian governments over time have created a range of societal features most of us simply take for granted.…

Civil society organizations – non-profits and charities – have a long history of playing important roles in that policy process. Laws against drunk driving, regulation of tobacco products, removal of bisphenol-A from baby bottles, and the effective provision in Ontario of mental health services to youth are all public policy choices that have been importantly shaped by the work of Canadian charities.

While the list of successes is long and should be celebrated, there is an even longer list of false starts, blind alleys, and clear failures … No policy advocate can expect success all the time, but as a sector, and as a society, we can do better. And given the complexity of many of the challenges before us – both at home and in our relations with the globalized world – there is good reason to try.


Decolonizing philanthropy

From “The Sweetness of Summer Berries: My Personal Journey to Learn About Decolonizing Philanthropy and True Reconciliation,” by Shagufta Pasta, February 3, 2020

There is no workbook on how to decolonize philanthropy. There is no checklist, no series of steps, no showcase of programs that can easily be transported from one context to another…. I listened more, I was more vulnerable, and I was more able to notice when it was hard for me to lean into the unexpected … It was the best way to start my learning, because it taught me that decolonization, first and foremost, begins with me.… For the rest of the summer, each experience taught me that the way to transform the philanthropic sector is not in simply implementing specific approaches or programs. Instead, transforming philanthropy requires us to build relationships, fully listen, relate, and show up in new ways. It is only through doing our own internal work and building relationships with others that we can transform ourselves and shift the sector as a whole.


The glaring need for transformation post-COVID

From “The Philanthropist Interview: Janice Stein,” by Kim Hart Macneill, November 9, 2020

COVID-19 has ripped the Band-Aid off, exposing the glaring inequalities in income, job security, housing, access to technology, and access to justice in Canadian communities. These inequalities are structural, and not fixable by the philanthropic sector functioning with its established practices. The philanthropic sector risks becoming a provider of emergency supports while it fails to push leaders in the public and the private sectors to address the fundamental challenges. These emergency supports can, under some circumstances, perpetuate rather than ameliorate these structural inequalities …

I would ask: How are the programs that we support providing breakout opportunities from deeply established and long-standing patterns of structural inequality? Who has voice in shaping these programs? How much agency do community members and leaders really have in making the critical decisions about what will work within their own communities?

The opportunities for change are once-in-a-lifetime. When established ways of working and living change, traditional models no longer work, and governments and communities are open to new ways of doing things because the established ways are no longer possible.


Rejecting incrementalism

From “Against Incrementalism: The Charitable Sector Must Do More, and Faster, to Eliminate Inequity,” by Liban Abokor, September 28, 2021

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 … 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.


Caring for ourselves to build a better future

From “Regrouping, Recalibrating, Reloading: Strategies for Financing Civil Society in Post-Recession Canada,” by Edward Jackson, October 26, 2010

What matters most, really, are basic organizational principles: Plan carefully. Get focused. Stay together. Celebrate the victories. And learn from the setbacks. Even more important is that the leaders of community service organizations, of all generations, take care of themselves, stay fit, love their families, and enjoy poetry, music, and the beauty of this land.

Building a country that is fair, clean, safe, and prosperous is not a sprint. It is a marathon. While short-term actions are the stuff of daily life, economics and politics are long games. It is time to regroup, recalibrate, and reload for the next phase of civil society’s mission: to build a better Canada for all.

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