Frequent Philanthropist Journal book reviewer Hilary Pearson’s new book profiles a selection of Canadian foundations that have evolved from static grantors to active participants in building capacity, strengthening community, influencing public policy, addressing climate change, and engaging in reconciliation through relationship.
From Charity to Change: Inside the World of Canadian Foundations, by Hilary Pearson. McGill–Queen’s University Press, Montreal/Kingston, 2022; 192 pp; ISBN 978-0-2280-1450-8.
Hilary Pearson tells a good story. Her new book, From Charity to Change: Inside the World of Canadian Foundations, quite literally, would have been very difficult for anyone else to write. As the founding president of Philanthropic Foundations Canada for almost 18 years, she has an insider view of foundations across Canada that few could emulate.
This perspective is reflected in the intimate way Pearson has portrayed each selected foundation. Each case includes a historical outline of the foundation, noting key personalities, events, and contexts that both shaped and reshaped their direction and focus. This is followed by some important takeaway lessons.
Following a short contextual overview of the foundation landscape in Canada, Pearson gets to the core theme that runs throughout the book: examples of foundations that have moved from static grantors to active participants in building capacity, strengthening community, influencing public policy, addressing climate change, and engaging in reconciliation through relationship.
The goal of the book is to provide a more nuanced and deeper narrative that shows how these foundations play a part in our social ecosystem.Hilary Pearson
The introduction is a portrait of Pearson’s own entry into the world of foundations through her relationship with Philanthropic Foundations Canada. This is followed by an overview of foundations in Canada and the United States. She is candid that the known history of foundations largely comes from the perspective of the foundations themselves, and not from grantees or partners. Her stated goal for the book is to “provide a more nuanced and deeper narrative that shows how these foundations play a part in our social ecosystem.” While Pearson indeed succeeds in providing a more nuanced perspective and a deeper narrative, the voices of grantees and partners remain largely muted. That said, the voices that are heard in this book reveal interesting nuances about the influence of family members, executive directors, and inter-generational shifts in perspectives and priorities.
The profiles throughout the book are very well presented and thought out. What I found disconcerting at times was to read an opening profile in a chapter, then a contextual analysis before reverting to more profiles. I appreciate the dilemma facing an author in this regard, but the editors could have done more to sort this out in my view.
Underlying the statistics is a profile of foundations in transitions.
In the first chapter, the landscape of Canadian foundations is explored from a statistical perspective. There is a definite pyramid of foundations in Canada, with relatively few foundations holding a significant proportion of total assets. The proverbial elephant in the room is the Mastercard Foundation, with assets of $23.7 billion in 2018. Given its size, it’s a noted absence in the list of foundations that are profiled in the book. Underlying the statistics, however, is a profile of foundations in transitions. Particularly noteworthy is the inter-generational shift as assets in family foundations migrate from one generation to another. In other cases, professional staff have been added, although often minimal in number. Pearson reports a greater influence and engagement of women on boards, as well as an increase in both short- and long-term collaborative efforts. The influence of the founders remains significant and long-lasting, whether it’s to a particular cause, or, in some cases, to no specific cause at all. It’s near the end of this chapter that Hilary introduces the dolphin as an analogy for the foundations she has chosen to profile.
The profiled foundations are grouped around seven specific themes: building fields, strengthening community, shifting power, advancing public policy, confronting climate change, partnering for impact, and advancing reconciliation through relationship.
Dolphins are described in the book as intelligent, curious, flexible, and willing to work together. While this may not be the first analogy that comes to mind when one thinks of foundations, it does underpin why Pearson has chosen these particular foundations to profile. She makes no apology for being selective in her choices, and as such, they are examples that reveal a very modern approach to foundation governance, mission, and action. The selections are grouped around seven specific themes: building fields, strengthening community, shifting power, advancing public policy, confronting climate change, partnering for impact, and advancing reconciliation through relationship.
Chapter two, on the changing roles of foundations, could be retitled “From Country Club to Engaged Governance.” What Pearson makes clear in this chapter is that with active engagement comes a new set of responsibilities and obligations. In short, as is noted, “it takes hard work.” From an ecosystem perspective, foundation governance becomes more complex and challenging. There are many more actors to engage with, and this engagement requires both humility and deep relationship building, which in turn takes a great deal of time and effort. As this book exemplifies in spades, these foundations uniformly feel that the time and effort is worth it. In a broader context, complemented by data tables, Pearson outlines foundations that have the independence, means, and resources to identify gaps, engage, and use their social licence and capital to make a specific social impact.
In chapter 3, “Building Fields,” Pearson hits her stride as a storyteller. Profiles of the Counselling Foundation of Canada, the Lawson Foundation, Inspirit Foundation, and the McConnell Foundation draw a historical context and lineage that align their investments with their mission and purpose.
I must admit that the term “field building” was new to me, but from an ecosystem perspective, it makes a lot of sense. In a business context it would be known as “vertical integration.” Yet this isn’t field building that starts with a grand plan. For the most part, the field building profiled here is an organic process that builds with people- and community-centred processes and guides the relevance and importance of long-term, timely, and focused investments.
Chapter four, “Strengthening Community,” builds on themes touched on earlier, namely the importance of humility, patience, and a taste for learning. In these cases, the place-based philanthropy communities are centred in Montreal, Toronto, and other Ontario communities. In each case, the foundations (Metcalf, McConnell, and Atkinson) have leveraged their creativity, flexibility, independence, and their particular blend of fiscal, positional, and convening capacity to work to eliminate poverty, promote racial and economic justice, and foster community social infrastructure.
The Lucie and André Chagnon Foundation learned the hard way that a top-down, government partnership doesn’t wash well with communities that want to have a direct say in their futures. This is the opening salvo in chapter five’s profile of the importance and impact of participatory grantmaking. “Shifting Power” also highlights the importance of a foundation’s leaders and people having shared values and behaviours when it comes to participatory funding. The Laidlaw Foundation, grounded in Toronto, with a long-standing commitment to inclusion, diversity, and community engagement, took a strategic shift with hiring a new executive director in 2014. This shift was toward even greater participatory funding and power-sharing, specifically with youth. The side lessons here for those who really want to make this shift: look to board representation, key personnel choices, and the decision-making capacity and impact of advisory groups. Fundamentally, though, Pearson points out, there is also an institutionalized mindset within many foundations that creates significant inertia to this type of change. The examples she profiles (also included is the Lyle S. Hallman Foundation) are intended to say “It can be done.”
Chapter six, “Advancing Public Policy,” features the work of Maytree, Max Bell Foundation, and the Muttart Foundation. I have argued elsewhere that the previous regulatory limits were largely a red herring, and advocacy limitations were a self-imposed golden cage. While the “shackles” on regulatory limits on public policy engagement have been lifted, these foundations are three of several who didn’t wait for the federal government to see the light. These foundations appreciate that sound public policies can institutionalize critical societal changes in arenas such as human rights and early childhood learning and development. But to do so, as Muttart and Max Bell demonstrate, policy change also needs both a robust charitable-sector infrastructure and trained public policy advocates.
Chapter seven, “Confronting Climate Change,” offers the examples of the Ivey Foundation, the Donner Canadian Foundation, and the Trottier Family Foundation. Climate-change confrontation is not for the faint of heart. The Ivey Foundation, according to Pearson, has chosen to create new institutions and networks that are designed to fill the gaps in Canada’s policy capacity to transition its economy to net-zero. The Trottier Family Foundation has followed Ivey’s lead while working at the local level on the transition to low- or net-zero carbon emissions. The Donner Canadian Foundation is accelerating efforts to protect marine environments, steward land, and mitigate and adapt to climate change. The efforts of these three foundations have resulted in the Canadian Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change, collaborative environmental funding initiatives, and a substantial investment ($183 million) in Low Carbon Cities Canada (LC3). These initiatives and their creative impact deserve our attention, particularly when less than 2% of global philanthropy goes to mitigating climate change. So, to quote Mark Carney, as Pearson does, “What are you doing to get to net zero?”
Funding networks take centre stage in chapter eight, “Partnering for Impact,” which profiles the work of the Graham Boeckh Foundation, the Helderleigh Foundation, and the Azrieli Foundation. For these foundations, working in partnership with others is a way of life. For the Graham Boeckh Foundation, it takes the form of integrated youth mental health services; the Helderleigh Foundation addresses food and media literacy, while the Azrieli Foundation partners across a wide variety of areas. So, while their particular focus is different, they each see the importance of an ecosystem approach to funding, but they do so with the understanding that these partnerships take time, understanding, and patience. In several cases, the partnerships involve educational and research institutions. A specific focus has been leveraged through meaningful partnerships, with the explicit understanding that a) they can’t make their desired change alone and b) relationships must be built on trust, time, listening, compromise, and care.
The last profile chapter, ‘Reconciliation through Relationships,’ is to my mind one of the most important in the book.
While chapter nine, “Reconciliation through Relationships,” is the last profile chapter, to my mind it is one of the most important in the book. The three foundations highlighted here are the Gordon Foundation, the Catherine Donnelly Foundation, and the Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund. Catalyzed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, the Declaration of Action was created and signed by more than 20 foundations in 2015 (now more than 85). Like many of the foundations profiled in this book, the commitment of these three to their particular focus predates any specific event or the TRC.
I’ll quote Roberta Jamieson, as does Pearson, because her words (on page 160 of Philanthropic Foundations in Canada: Landscapes, Indigenous Perspectives and Pathways to Change) hold more wisdom than anything I could write:
Reciprocity is the foundation that underpins all our relationships; it is the lens through which we look at all relationships, both human and non-human. Reciprocity is the essence of how we give and receive. It maintains the cycle of life and the sustainability of our people.
In the case of the Gordon Foundation, their involvement with the North began in the late 1980s and led to the creation of the Arctic Council. This, in turn, led to an understanding and a commitment to enhance the voices of Indigenous Peoples and environmental issues, including regional Indigenous knowledge and climate change. In other ways they have invested in building the capacity of Indigenous people in the North to be their own public policy advocates and treaty negotiators.
After more than 40 years in the Arctic, the Gordon Foundation is both known and trusted. Known because they have stayed the course of building connections over time, and trusted because they keep listening to community leaders, governments, and Elders across the North.
The Catherine Donnelly Foundation’s commitment to social and environmental justice led to their creating the Righting Relations network in 2015. The involvement of Indigenous women in this network has had a profound and long-lasting impact on the foundation. The foundation’s signing of the Declaration of Action led them to a journey with Kris Archie, now CEO of The Circle on Philanthropy. Over time, initiatives have included Healing Through the Land, a First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Indigenous steering committee to develop a new funding model for land-based initiatives, and significant no-strings-attached contributions to Indigenous organizations that support survivors of the residential school system. Decolonizing philanthropy is tough work, but the Catherine Donnelly Foundation is connecting, in Kris Archie’s words, “head, heart, and hands.”
The Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund was initiated by a group of Indigenous leaders, hosted by Community Foundations of Canada, and funded by multiple foundation signatories to the Declaration of Action. The fund is led by Indigenous people, and Indigenous values permeate all aspects of their policies and practices. Building enduring and real relationships is at the core of the fund.
At this point in time, these foundations are in the ongoing process of learning about, and confronting, in a good way, their colonial histories, legacies, and mindsets. If the hard work continues, the best, as they say, is yet to come.
Foundations, as Pearson points out in her conclusion, have strategic and positional advantages few organizations in society enjoy – significant assets, higher risk tolerance, and longer time horizons. At the same time, she is quick to point out that no foundation can or should hoard its assets, give grants that are inconsistent with its purpose, or provide a private benefit. What’s on the horizon? Certainly, a call for more transparency and diversity, better and more comprehensive data, and a fundamental desire to measure impact. Add to this the growth of funding networks, an awareness of deep and pervasive social inequities, and an appreciation for how the pandemic challenged the granting status quo.
What I am left with as I conclude this book review is that first and foremost, Pearson is a good storyteller. A good storyteller keeps the listener/reader engaged. Even more important, a good storyteller tells a story that has multiple levels of understanding and stands the test of time. When you read/hear a good story a second, third, or fifth time, new lessons emerge, new perspectives take hold, and new questions arise. One can expect no more from a book, and in this regard, Pearson has delivered.