In part two of a series looking at the role of The Philanthropist Journal within the broader charitable and non-profit sector, contributor Tim Harper shifts focus from the past to the future, from the sector’s “elders” to its “reformers.”
A look into the future of the charitable and non-profit sector means, perhaps now more than ever, anticipating crises and challenges that we cannot predict. The only safe prediction is that the challenges await.
To look 10 years out is to be reminded of what the previous decade has delivered. The sector has been tested by a litany of societal inflection points – Truth and Reconciliation and the reckoning over residential schools, a global pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and summers of heat, wildfires, and floods hastened by climate change.
In June of this year, we looked back on more than half a century of The Philanthropist (it became The Philanthropist Journal in 2021) and the evolution of the sector it chronicled. It began as a niche publication that focused on the legal technicalities for donors, and, after broadening its reach over the years, we now look to its future. What ideas must it foster, and what developments can it champion? How can it lead the way on change or provide momentum for change that is already underway?
What ideas must The Philanthropist Journal foster, and what developments can it champion? How can it lead the way on change or provide momentum for change that is already underway?
For the first piece, we leaned on the memories and expertise of what we affectionately dubbed “the elders,” those with authority gleaned from years of service and leadership in the sector. Now we cede the floor to the “reformers,” a more diverse cohort that seeks change much more quickly than those who came before them, considers risk-taking essential, and aims to create coalitions based on trust. They reject the notion that those sitting on foundation boards always know best. They are Indigenous, Black, and Muslim, and they represent new entities that understand the culture and goals of those they fund. They are changing the traditional donor–donee hierarchy to partnerships and coalition-building. They work within the confines of long-serving charities and powerful foundations, but they share many of the same ideas about accelerating change and predicting a path for the sector.
They believe the non-profit sector must “embrace discomfort.” It must rid itself of its top-down structure and trust communities to do the work they know best. In the short term, they believe the sector must prepare itself for a potential change in national government, so it does not find itself shorn of power and influence at a time when it may be needed more than ever. There is a belief that a restrictive disbursement quota (the minimum amount that registered charities are required to spend each year on their charitable activities, including grants) will be busted in the coming decade, so that what Rebecca Darwent cites as the “trillions of dollars” sitting in donor-advised and private-foundation funds across North America can provide substantive change.
The non-profit sector must ‘embrace discomfort’ and rid itself of its top-down structure and trust communities to do the work they know best.
Darwent, a philanthropic advisor and co-founder of the Foundation for Black Communities, is among those who will be driving change in the years ahead. She speaks of meeting with philanthropists and seeing smoke from wildfires obscure the view from their office windows, yet hearing hesitancy from the denizens of those offices to commit dollars. “The world is on fire, and philanthropy should not be comfortable with 5% – that is not enough,” she says of the disbursement quota.
This reformist cohort also believes that, without sacrificing accountability, charities must convince governments and other funders to lighten their micromanaging, allowing charities to operate more freely without sacrificing good work to paperwork and surrendering autonomy. Charities must be allowed more freedom to build capital reserves instead of being compelled to spend every penny on program delivery, says Sylvia Parris-Drummond, CEO of the Halifax-based Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute (DBDLI). Such reserves are too often discouraged by funders, she says, making it difficult for organizations like hers to plan more than six months in advance. Parris-Drummond says that requested paperwork can sit on government desks for months, and her charity, which has been creating educational change and opportunities for Nova Scotians of African ancestry for more than a decade, is continually asked to restate basic information. “Why do we need to do all this again?” Parris-Drummond asks. “And what are you doing with what we gave you? We will give them something and it will sit on a desk, and it’ll come back with ‘Oh, would you tell us more about this?’ Sometimes I just want to tell them off,” she says with a laugh.
Charities and funders must craft a way to allow young, talented workers to stay longer – and be paid better.Sylvia Parris-Drummond
Buckets of funding for human resources or program delivery would free charities and is something to strive for in the coming years, Parris-Drummond says. She believes charities and funders must craft a way to allow young, talented workers to stay longer – and be paid better. “Why not just a bucket of salary money that allows me to do what I think is most effective?” she says.
Progressive think tanks were left to wither and die as government funding taps were turned off. Abdul Nakua, an executive with the Muslim Association of Canada and a board member at the Ontario Nonprofit Network, is among those who believe they must be somehow revived. Where are the think tanks and conventions to replace the Mowat Centre or the Couchiching Conference? he wonders. The sector should be funding more efforts to bring together thinkers who can come up with big ideas, he believes.
Others note that the sector shares many of the same workforce challenges faced by employers across society. There should be a greater acceptance of sabbaticals to allow ideas to germinate and burned-out workers to regenerate, and passionate entry-level workers who seek real societal change must be better paid so they don’t flee to jobs that will allow them to pay the rent and buy groceries, these reformers say.
If these changes happen, there is optimism and there is an acknowledgement that there has been some progress. Monica Allaby, a communications specialist at MakeWay, says she has seen many examples of the sector supporting communities demanding equity and accessibility. “That gives me hope,” she says.
Darwent also sees progress in diversity: “The people I see around the table at conferences are much more diverse. I see the progress because we have had to kick down the door or go in the side door, but now when I walk in that room, I know I bring three, four, or five people with me.”
But skepticism remains whether a sector comfortable with incrementalism will move quickly enough to satisfy a younger workforce in a hurry.
“Is the sector preparing and ready to respond in different ways to crises and to things that make us all uncomfortable and fearful? For me that is a big unknown,’’ says Justin Wiebe, lead of innovation and strategic growth at the Mastercard Foundation. “I haven’t seen the sector show up as openly and progressively and be as forthcoming on issues emerging now, and I don’t know what will happen when we have a much more conservative government.” The philanthropic sector will then be needed more than ever, he says.
Is the sector preparing and ready to respond in different ways to crises and to things that make us all uncomfortable and fearful? For me that is a big unknown.Justin Wiebe
Certainly, debate over the pace of change in the sector and its place in society is not new, and Wiebe acknowledges that there has always been a tension around the role of philanthropy and whether foundations should be advocating and championing causes.
Wiebe identified one challenge for the sector at its door right now: protecting trans and non-binary children (and the entire LGBTQ2S+ community) under threat by politicians on the right who accuse teachers of “indoctrinating” youth. He spoke days before protesters and counter-protesters took to the streets of Canadian cities in a show of the volatility surrounding the debate.
Wiebe believes the sector should “embrace discomfort” by taking on projects in which the results are unknown. Risk should be part of the sector ethos, he says, because without taking risks, larger opportunities are squandered. “We need to shift power and decision-making to other people, to other communities,” he says. Risk, he says, can mean giving up power or decision-making.
Darwent says it means foundation leaders stepping aside earlier and making room at the top for change-makers trapped in the status quo. It also means boosting junior staffers in the sector by allowing them to take the lead at a conference while senior staff step back. Her professional development was accelerated, she says, because Bruce Lawson did just that for her during her time working with the sector leader.
Generational change will mean more leaders advocating for charitable donations as investments in the search for solutions, not as merely a means to provide services.Abdul Nakua
Nakua, who came to the sector as an outsider, brings an analytic view of philanthropy as part of the larger societal picture. Demographic changes cannot be ignored and are key to the sector’s future, he believes. The boomer generation is exiting workplaces, taking with it knowledge and expertise, and is being replaced by younger, often racialized Canadians looking for a place for themselves. “There are so many smaller organizations which are made up of newcomers,” Nakua says. “The bigger foundations have the old money of yesterday. One has resources, and one is trying to figure a place for themselves. But they are far apart. They are not reaching each other, and you will often find the money is not where it is needed. People are trying to effect change, but they don’t have the resources. This is a tension within the sector.”
Generational change will mean more leaders advocating for charitable donations as investments in the search for solutions, not as merely a means to provide services, Nakua says. While the traditional sector may want to attack poverty by increasing the number of those in need being served, the change-makers would prefer a solution that would generate employment or provide healthier food, he says. This gulf could grow over time, he says: “Society is changing, and the sector needs to adapt.”
Allaby gained a perspective from her work both with a small organization, Community Forests International, a rural New Brunswick charity focused on forestry management and restoration, then a foundation that aims to help nature and communities thrive together.“Moving from a charity to the foundation side has given me an appreciation of the immense privilege that comes from working at a foundation. With that privilege comes the responsibility to think a little more deeply about systemic change,” she says. It also allows her to think more deeply about how to create the conditions for community groups, non-profits, and charities to thrive.
I think the sector, especially on the funding side, is in a period of learning – and unlearning – with the multiple crises we are going through.Monica Allaby
MakeWay describes itself as “both daring and reliable” and says it takes risks and blazes trails others in the sector won’t. “I think the sector, especially on the funding side, is in a period of learning – and unlearning – with the multiple crises we are going through,” Allaby says. “The moment now is responding to those community voices and being better partners in driving community work going forward. We have seen many examples of the sector supporting those communities, and that gives me hope.”
At the heart of MakeWay’s work is a word constantly used in conversation with these change-makers: trust. MakeWay believes in a less rigid and more culturally based monitoring and evaluation of programs, so those reports from the field could be “story-based” or “case studies” instead of the traditional “check-the-box” monitoring and evaluation, Allaby says. Relationships and connections that MakeWay has been able to foster with communities – and holding those relationships – is paramount in everything the foundation does, she says. “We have tried to break free from some of the traditional philanthropy relationships, which tend to be top-down and don’t always trust communities to know what is best for them.” If you are measuring results in a more intangible way, you need deep relationships built on that trust, she says.
MakeWay has tried to break free from some of the traditional philanthropy relationships, which tend to be top-down and don’t always trust communities to know what is best for them.Monica Allaby
Darwent says the Foundation for Black Communities’ (FFBC) funding model was key to the Liberal government’s decision to provide $200 million in funding. FFBC is changing the definition of “philanthropist,” creating trust-based partnerships and community-led collaborations. The organization traces its genesis to the ground-breaking 2020 Unfunded report, which revealed the glaring gap in funding, with as little as seven cents of every $100 flowing from foundations going to Black-led organizations. “We never had a seat at the table in traditional philanthropy,” Darwent says.
Darwent is from the small Alberta city of Airdrie and realizes that the Black reality in rural Alberta is much different than the reality in downtown Toronto or Halifax. “Canada is a massive country, and it is a bit naive for a national office to say we have the pulse of every Black community in Canada,” she says. “It’s not possible. Our model goes from the ground up and listens to communities and gives them the decision-making power. They not only decide where the funding goes, but they set priorities.” FFBC trusts the community to do the work and make the funding decisions, she says. But building that trust was difficult: “You only go as fast as the speed of trust, so we are in the early stages,” she says. “Twenty years down the line we might still be rebuilding trust and undoing damage from a system that has not worked well for our communities.”
You only go as fast as the speed of trust, so we are in the early stages. Twenty years down the line we might still be rebuilding trust and undoing damage from a system that has not worked well for our communities.Rebecca Darwent
The concept of “donor knows best” perplexed Darwent. She would hear donors, behind closed doors, purport to know what was really best for the homeless, for example. “I was confused. How could a donor know what was really needed? Their lifestyle looked nothing like the people they were trying to help.” Donors have good intentions, but good intentions are not enough, she says. “A very small group of people are making all the decisions about funding,” she says in a TED Talk she delivered in June of this year. “Their dollars, their way.”
Both Darwent and Parris-Drummond draw inspiration from Ubuntu, an African philosophy of humanity that teaches “I am because we are” and places prominence on the intertwining of humanity. It conveys that what affects you, affects me; we are interconnected and have a shared responsibility to one another.
The grandkid of the industry titan who managed to make a lot of money and reap a bunch of tax credits to create a foundation is thinking radically different about their giving and what it looks like.Justin Wiebe
Wiebe points to generational change when he looks ahead to the next decade. “When we are into the third generation of a family foundation, the grandkid of the industry titan who managed to make a lot of money and reap a bunch of tax credits to create a foundation is thinking radically different about their giving and what it looks like. There will be more external pressure to shift, be more responsive, and do more, and I think there’s going to be more pressure as we inevitably deal with crises with the climate and its impact on people. There are going to be more calls for philanthropy to show up in meaningful ways.” The sector proved it could provide a robust response during the pandemic, Wiebe says.“Has that been sustained?” he asks. “Not really. Those who have been in the sector a long time say there have been moments of crisis and fear, and rather than spend more, this sector has spent less.” That has to change, he says.
All this means that The Philanthropist Journal’srole will be crucial going forward. Our change-makers want it to remain niche, approach its articles with unstinting rigour, provide space for voices rarely heard, and hold the sector accountable. They also believe there should be room for ideas they don’t support, and they should be reading articles that spur dialogue and debate.
“One of the most important things The Philanthropist provides is room for critical dialogue around issues facing the sector, including issues of transparency and accountability,” Allaby says. “The word ‘rigour’ comes up a lot in studying The Philanthropist, and historically ‘rigour’ has been used more in an academic sense. We can redefine that, and part of that is thinking carefully about how we are representing communities, whose voices we are including . . . How are we grappling with certain privileges, and how are we helping the sector engage in this work in a better way? That may be a new definition of rigour.”
One of the most important things The Philanthropist provides is room for critical dialogue around issues facing the sector, including issues of transparency and accountability.Monica Allaby
Nakua agrees The Philanthropist Journal is needed to provide the forum for an exchange of ideas “finding common ground and crafting a new narrative.” Importantly, he says, the Journal creates space for new voices, not merely the traditional voices of the sector.
Parris-Drummond says that when people have so much access to different sources of information, there is room for niche reporting and commentary, something endorsed by Wiebe. “It is a place where we can go and find dialogue,” Parris-Drummond says. “I love hearing from people who aren’t on the same page as me. I think it should be very deliberate in bringing in new voices that are not often heard in the sector, ensuring folks in the background are feeling confident and competent in welcoming adversity and are willing to do things differently.”
I think the Journal should be very deliberate in bringing in new voices that are not often heard in the sector, ensuring folks in the background are feeling confident and competent in welcoming adversity and are willing to do things differently.Sylvia Parris-Drummond
Wiebe says the “super niche” writing is needed for what he calls the charitable sector “nerds,” but, he adds, the Journal has a role to play in airing concepts and ideas across the spectrum and featuring new knowledge and new perspectives. The Journal must elevate and highlight people who are doing interesting work both in and out of the sector, he says. “How do we ensure that perspectives of people on the ground doing meaningful work are heard alongside philanthropic leaders?”
For her part, Darwent has praise for The Philanthropist Journal’s fellowship program, launched in the spring, for emerging Black and Indigenous writers. “The Philanthropist has taken the call to action on increasing diversity, feeling more inclusive, and being a little more critical of the sector as well, giving us the time and space to think.”