The sector and The Philanthropist Journal have travelled more than 50 years together. Contributor Tim Harper talks to five sector “elders” about The Journal’s past and what its role, as a publication that belongs to the sector, should be going forward.
This is the first in a series of articles that will engage a wide range of voices and perspectives to explore the role of The Philanthropist Journal – a shared resource for the sector – as it moves from celebrating its 50th anniversary into the future.
It would be, dare we say, uncharitable to describe The Philanthropist Journal of days of yore as merely grey, dense, or, as one pioneer called it, “pretty turgid.”
At times, yes, it was all those things, but it certainly caused no concern with the early editors. It didn’t aspire to be more than a journal written by lawyers for lawyers, the only added spice the occasional piece that might lure some accountants’ eyeballs to its pages. It had its target audience and it delivered on target.
It was very traditional – not quite academic but close.Patrick Johnston
“It was very traditional – not quite academic but close – with the citations and the long-form essays,” recalls Patrick Johnston, whose association with The Philanthropist dates to his relationship with its co-founder, John Hodgson, and his work with the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy, which briefly published the Journal. “It originally dealt primarily with legal issues, then branched out to tax and accounting issues. A pretty traditional, staid publication. The circulation was very limited, maybe a couple of hundred. Every cover was grey. It was a four-by-six softcover that came out quarterly – or it aspired to be a quarterly. It was a pretty turgid read, to be honest with you,” Johnston says.
It was a niche publication, but it was a valuable niche.Susan Phillips
Susan Phillips, a member of the editorial advisory board in later years, remembers it as a niche publication, “but it was a valuable niche.” And as to whether it was overly technical, Alan Broadbent, the chairman and founder of Maytree and a former board member of the Agora Foundation, publisher of The Philanthropist Journal, says that was very much in the eye of the reader: “If you mention the Constitution to some people, their eyes glaze over. But some people’s eyes light up.”
Under the early leadership of Bertha Wilson, the grey tome of charitable and tax law would drop with a thud in mailboxes and eventually make its way, usually well-thumbed, onto the bookshelves of law offices across the country. Its publication schedule was officially deemed “spasmodic.”
The Journal and the charitable and non-profit sector have undergone enormous change in the 51 years since the first edition hit the printing press.
The Journal and the charitable and non-profit sector have undergone enormous change in the 51 years since the first edition hit the printing press. Back then, it and the sector leadership were almost exclusively white. Today, both are much more diverse, with more diversity still needed. As the Journal broadened its audience, the sector broadened its reach, both moving with society, sometimes struggling to keep up, at other times leading the pack.
The Philanthropist Journal of today was built on the shoulders of those who came before – Wilson, Hodgson, Mary Louise Dickson, John Gregory, Bob Wyatt, Lynn Bevan – with many others too numerous to mention. The sector became more expansive in its work and its funding choices, a sector infrastructure was built, and seminal moments such as the Ed Broadbent Panel and the Voluntary Sector Initiative shaped the sector of today. Not every initiative was successful, and progress was not always linear, but today it is a robust economic engine as well as an engineer of social change, light years removed from what Susan Manwaring, a charitable adviser and lawyer at Miller Thomson and a former member of the Journal’s editorial board, describes as its “alms to the poor” mission of years past. It has survived the WE Charity scandal and government indifference and restrictions and is still searching for ways to break down silos and speak in a voice that cannot be ignored in the halls of Parliament.
The Journal is a publication that belongs to the sector, and the sector should guide its future.
But this is not merely a historical tale or an exercise in nostalgia. It is a way of providing context before The Philanthropist Journal, a shared resource for the sector, moves further into its next 50 years, a way of gauging, with input from sector leaders, workers, and readers, whether it is fulfilling its role and is meeting the moment in the sector. The Journal is a publication that belongs to the sector, and the sector should guide its future. We are always thinking about our contribution to the emerging issues and the questions that vex the sector.
What are the sector’s information needs and what, really, is the role of this publication? You will tell us, and we will listen.
Over the years, more than 900 contributors have shared their perspectives on these pages, including luminaries in Canadian law and international development, and the bylines include at least one former prime minister, Paul Martin.
Fifty years ago, The Philanthropist (as it was then called) was raising the question of whether the government was more progressive than cautious, conservative foundations. There were provocative writings on the responsibilities of foundations and the ideals of charitable works, along with analyses of the Canadian tax system. The human resources development minister of the day, Pierre Pettigrew, took to these pages to push government and what was then known as the “voluntary sector” to work together to encourage the full development of human achievement. And fully 22 years ago, Wyatt was lamenting a question that is still being pondered in the summer of 2023: why can’t the sector find a collective voice?
Manwaring remembers a “quite brilliant” resource for the legal profession dealing with charities, but when she joined the editorial board, as it was about to move to online publication, questions were raised about what it should be and for whom. Should the articles be shorter? Should the writing be more general? Until then, it had a tiny subscription base, and when people in the sector, not just lawyers, began looking at it, its focus and breadth evolved as society and the sector evolved.
Even as it turned into an online publication, we were still talking about how we needed legal articles … but it also made sense that if this was to survive going forward, we needed a broader audience.Susan Manwaring
“Even as it turned into an online publication, we were still talking about how we needed legal articles, they need to be reviewed and have substance to them, in keeping with the John Hodgson framing of this as an academic-style publication,” Manwaring says. “But it also made sense that if this was to survive going forward, we needed a broader audience.”
Questions were emerging, both at the publication and in the sector itself. At editorial discussions, “we started asking why we were doing this,” Broadbent recalls. “Is this just about creating vehicles for people to make donations to their favourite charities? We could do that through a foundation.” There were bigger questions about the public policy aspect of philanthropy being debated at the time. James Joseph, the head of the U.S. Council on Foundations, started asking questions about philanthropy as a public policy – that is, leaving capital in private hands as long as it was doing good.
We were grappling with [big] questions. Shouldn’t The Philanthropist be writing about that kind of thing so there is some sort of test of the value of philanthropy?Alan Broadbent
“How do we know what constitutes public good? Is this just the family supporting the private school their kids go to?” Broadbent recalls. “We were grappling with these questions. Shouldn’t The Philanthropist be writing about that kind of thing so there is some sort of test of the value of philanthropy? We began to branch out a little bit beyond legal and accounting stories.” He says there was no concerted pushback during this transition, but there was a little bit of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
These changes mirrored changes in the sector itself. When Broadbent cites the changes over his decades in the sector, he points to the greater professionalism of foundations that have moved beyond funding their favourite schools, hospital wings, or research into a disease that touched a family member.
He quotes David Rockefeller, who told him some 20 years ago that “philanthropy over a generation had moved from the hospital wing to the Amazon basin.” People are more concerned today about impact and the mechanics of philanthropy, Broadbent says. He says they are debating the value of many small grants versus a few big ones or whether it is better to provide long-term financing to allow a charity to develop a body of work, or better to seed a number of initiatives and see what grows.
Manwaring has her own “aha” story as a metaphor for fundamental sector change. Retired accountant Deryck Williams, who worked extensively with charities, shared with her the tale of The Leprosy Mission, now known as Effect Hope. For more than 100 years, it focused on care for sufferers of leprosy and funded hospitals dedicated to their treatment. Even after a cure for the disease was found in the 1950s, The Leprosy Mission continued to focus on treatment and the stigma and social isolation of those stricken. But things pivoted for the charity when it realized not enough was known about the bacteria that causes the disease and how it is transmitted. “If this is known, it can be eradicated,” Williams says. The charity changed its focus to prevention and eradication.
It may seem obvious, but as Williams says, “We all are encased in a view of our organization purpose.”
The sector is infinitely more diverse now than it has ever been, although there is a long way to go, Johnston says. Diversity and inclusion were discussed 30 or 40 years ago, he says, but more in passing and certainly not with the rigour of today. It has a greater understanding that issues affecting Indigenous Canadians must be addressed by the sector, and there is broad agreement that more Indigenous Canadians should be among its leaders. As recently as the early 2000s, The Gordon Foundation, of which Johnston was CEO, was one of the very few to engage in any way with Indigenous organizations, particularly in the North.
It was Johnston’s 1983 book, Native Children and the Child Welfare System, which built on research done by the Canadian Council on Social Development, that identified what came to be known as the “’60s Scoop,” the practice by governments of “scooping” Indigenous children, who were overrepresented in the child welfare system, and placing them with white, middle-class families across Canada. Some were shipped abroad. An estimated 16,000 Indigenous children were placed with other families between 1965 and 1985. Two years after writing his book, Johnston says, any interest in the issue fell off the radar for more than two decades, until it was highlighted again by Justice Murray Sinclair.
Two events were consistently raised by the “elders” The Philanthropist Journal spoke with for this piece.
That’s a sign of how difficult it can be for some issues to finally gain traction, and it’s also an indication that moments thought to be seminal can have a short shelf life. Two events were consistently raised by the “elders” The Philanthropist Journal spoke with for this piece.
Hilary Pearson, the founding president of Philanthropic Foundations Canada and frequent Philanthropist contributor, cites the panel headed by former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent, on which Phillips was research director, as a watershed moment. The Broadbent Panel was formed in reaction to both an increase in corporate misconduct in the private sector and questions being raised by the Liberal government as to whether it was getting proper return on grants and contracts it was extending to the charitable and non-profit sector. Research done in 1996 by the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy also found that Canadians were becoming increasingly skeptical that their charitable donations were being used effectively and efficiently.
Broadbent’s final report, released in 1999, forced more accountability and professionalism on the sector and challenged it and its government partners to improve Canadians’ quality of life. As Gordon Floyd wrote in this journal at the time, Broadbent’s report envisioned a sector “that moves from the margins of community, economic and political life to become equal in importance to Canada’s public and private sectors.” Pearson says it challenged the government to view the sector as an economic player, not just a collection of social service agencies.
The Voluntary Sector Initiative (VSI) of 2000 to 2005 was the most intensive involvement with the government the sector had ever undertaken. It fell far short of expectations. Johnston co-chaired it with the government representative, Kathy O’Hara, then the secretary to the cabinet. The two spoke candidly of their involvement in the initiative afterward.
“She was absolutely, completely, and totally gobsmacked at how little the representatives of the sector understood about the process of policy-making and decision-making at the government level,” Johnston recalls. “She was aghast at how naive and ill-informed people in the sector were. People in the sector who were involved in this thought their federal counterparts were completely naive and misunderstanding of the issues in the sector. It was two solitudes.”
Pearson agrees that the VSI, coming on the heels of the Broadbent recommendations, was a turning point, but one marked by infighting and jockeying for favour and a voluntary sector caught off guard by the government initiative. Ultimately, Pearson says, the Jean Chrétien government spent most of the $95 million available for the process on internal consultations, and Phillips recalls the sector leaving money on the table, because the government never made clear that anything unspent at the end of the fiscal year could not be carried over. “The sector forfeited a large part of their money because they didn’t understand the government process,” Phillips says. While there was a lack of understanding on both sides, she says the sector is still largely misunderstood by the government.
It was 10 lost years under Harper. I still can’t believe when I look back on it how we lost all that time. How did we become so weak again?Hilary Pearson
The VSI has been dismissed by many, “but it sensitized senior government people to the sector and its issues for the first time,” Pearson says. But it was followed by a decade of the Harper government, which had no interest in talking to the sector; part of that is the fault of the sector that did not engage with the Conservatives while they were in opposition. “It was 10 lost years under Harper. I still can’t believe when I look back on it how we lost all that time,” Pearson says. “How did we become so weak again?”
Phillips, who did the process evaluation for the VSI, says the sector had too many priorities. It understandably wanted to get as many concerns on the table as possible, but government found it impossible to discern its real priorities on such a bloated list. Government also didn’t know what it wanted, other than to sign an accord – which was abandoned very quickly – and it became overly process-oriented, further hamstrung by constant churn at the table. During the VSI’s short three years of discussions, Phillips says, 10% of the sector leadership and 50% of government participants changed.
Broadbent says that over the years the sector has gained a greater sense of what it is doing and how it is doing it. Canada may be slower, but it is following a U.S. trend where a smaller percentage of funds is merely passed to schools or hospitals. Maytree defines itself not so much as a philanthropic grantmaker as activists with money. Phillips agrees that foundations are moving toward a greater interest in systems change and taking on big issues.
Pearson and Manwaring also cite the rise of social and impact investing, a trend that is now benefiting from better comparative metrics and more sophisticated strategies.
Change will continue. It will be up to The Philanthropist Journal to keep pace with that change and signal to the sector what might be right around the bend.
“This shows that we can move beyond this old notion that we are just charities,” Pearson says. “Many are now even rejecting the word ‘charity,’ just as ‘voluntary’ in the past became a non-word,” she says. “It connotes weakness, and inability to sustain yourself, lurching from project to project with thin overhead and a vulnerability to donors who come and go. It means a generally weak business model.”
Change will continue. It will be up to The Philanthropist Journal to keep pace with that change and signal to the sector what might be right around the bend. We will have more to say about that in ensuing articles. But it will be done with the help of you, our readers.