Philanthropy is the target of much criticism, and good critique is part of a conversation. Sector leaders talk about what to do in response to the criticism that philanthropy has failed to provide support “where it’s needed most.”
Allan Northcott, the president of Max Bell Foundation, has been hearing a lot of criticism of philanthropy lately. It’s not one specific article, not a specific speech, not one loud voice in particular. It’s simply a refrain he sees and hears often in public conversation about charity and philanthropy in Canada – it’s what he dubs “a rise in declamatory statements about the failure of funders to provide support ‘where it’s needed most.’”
There are more than 86,000 registered charities in Canada and many more non-qualified donees – community groups, organizations, and other grantees – all responding to, even triaging, compounding crises. The current situation has been dubbed a “polycrisis” – a tangle of global crises with compounding effects, from climate change to housing to poverty to healthcare to racism. Support is needed, well, everywhere.
There’s a rise in declamatory statements about the failure of funders to provide support ‘where it’s needed most.’Allan Northcott, Max Bell Foundation
Meanwhile, research in recent years has made clear the inequity of philanthropic funding in Canada and abroad: less than 2% of philanthropic funding to organizations serving women and girls, 1% of charitable funding to Indigenous groups. Seven cents for every $100 to Black-led organizations.
The headlines reveal no shortage of criticisms. Philanthropy “fails to alleviate poverty.” Philanthropy keeps “losing the battle against inequality.” Philanthropy “benefits the super-rich.” Philanthropy is “failing democracy.”
“Would the world be better off without philanthropists?”
For Northcott, who is known in the sector for being receptive to conversation and committed to change, criticism is important, but it is also most helpful if it’s actionable or concrete. When it comes to the criticism that philanthropy fails to provide support where it’s most required, he asks, “How does one decide ‘where it’s needed most’? And how can society have a better conversation about these issues?”
How does one decide ‘where it’s needed most’? And how can society have a better conversation about these issues?Allan Northcott
In a previously unpublished op-ed, Northcott put out a call for answers, so The Philanthropist Journal spoke with sector leaders – funders, grant-seekers, academics, and people who have worn many hats – to see what they thought about how to foster better critiques.
In a world where so many opinions are shouted into the void of social media, The Philanthropist Journal sought a different approach. Polarization is a top concern for many Canadians, and difficult issues are too often a catalyst for polarized opinions. In turn, as has been pointed out by journalist Amanda Ripley, “complexity collapses, and the us-versus-them narrative sucks the oxygen from the room.” In the spirit of “complicating the narratives,” The Philanthropist Journal decided to wade into the difficult issue of how to improve critique of how funders determine where funding is “needed most” – with a variety of voices.
Rather than publish Northcott’s ideas in a typical way – handling any other comments or opinions behind the scenes – the Journal sought to bring in a diverse array of perspectives, asking a variety of people whether Northcott’s observations resonated with them, and how they would respond to his central thesis and questions.
Have difficult conversations – in public
James Stauch is the executive director at the Institute for Community Prosperity at Calgary’s Mount Royal University. For Stauch, good critique needs to be part of a two-way conversation. “We need leaders to step up with what they’re thinking,” he says, noting that leaders in the sector need to be more forthcoming about their ethics and investment priorities – and how they arrived at those priorities. Where support is “needed most” is a fraught conversation, with so many places in need. Too often, he says, leaders have those conversations in private: in boardrooms or over coffee, rather than in the public sphere.
As a thought experiment, imagine asking the leaders of each of those organizations “where support is needed most.” I expect there would be a very wide diversity of answers – maybe even as many as there are organizations seeking support. —Allan Northcott, “We Need Better – and More Useful – Critique”
“We need open spaces for dialogue,” Stauch says, adding that conversations need to be able to be unvarnished or even approaching taboo to push the boundaries of the sphere of cultural and societal norms in which the sector operates.
We need open spaces for dialogue.James Stauch, Institute for Community Prosperity
Jehad Aliweiwi, executive director of the Laidlaw Foundation, says it’s important that funders are open and forthcoming about their goals and rationale. “Say publicly, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’” he says. “If it’s not working, try something else.”
“The main benefit to publicly stating commitments is that you hold yourself accountable. The more important part is the external recognition,” he says. “It improves the understanding and reduces the gap, the schism, between those who want to do something and those who are better able to provide resources.”
Someone who has been on both “sides” of the funding equation is amanuel melles, executive director of the Network for the Advancement of Black Communities. When he was a funder, he says, “I was able to see that funders are struggling on the inside with the same questions.”
“We need to figure out how we can create a collaborative table where we have difficult and necessary conversations and allow data to drive our design of programs and investments,” he adds.
Elizabeth Mulholland, CEO of Prosper Canada, points out that it’s clear governments and philanthropic organizations need to be effective in order to maintain public trust. But they also need to communicate their strategies. “They need to communicate that they’re preventing problems, not just band-aiding them,” she says, adding that the efforts of organizations on the front lines of crises are also clearly an essential part of any response.
Literal conversations are a great place to start.Deina Warren, Canadian Centre for Christian Charities
Deina Warren is the director of legal affairs for the Canadian Centre for Christian Charities – which represents approximately 3,200 charities working in everything from environmental protection to food banks to summer camps. “We need to have some face-to-face conversations or types of conversation where there’s an opportunity to dig a little bit deeper, to understand that there is a shared desire for social justice, supporting vulnerable groups, and working together toward a common good,” she says. “Literal conversations are a great place to start.”
Work to counteract the power imbalance
Aliweiwi agrees that much needs to be done to address power imbalances to get at more meaningful critique. “Communities still do not have full confidence that they can express exactly how they feel about a funder,” he says. “Nobody wants to jeopardize their capacity to get resources; no one wants to burn their bridges.”
“We haven’t been excellent at showing and demonstrating that we’re open to meaningful feedback,” he adds.
We haven’t been excellent at showing and demonstrating that we’re open to meaningful feedback.Jehad Aliweiwi, Laidlaw Foundation
The Laidlaw Foundation, he says, tried to do anonymized surveys, to get feedback on its practices. “We got hesitant feedback: nobody wants to bite the hand that feeds them.”
There is a “huge power imbalance,” says Mulholland of the traditional relationship between those doing the funding and those receiving it. That makes criticism difficult. “It’s very difficult to give feedback without feeling like you’re putting your future chances at risk,” she says.
It’s very difficult to give feedback without feeling like you’re putting your future chances at risk.Elizabeth Mulholland, Prosper Canada
Mulholland points to the potential of a feedback system like those of online retailers. It may be crude, she says, but it works. Having a public forum for feedback makes it possible to raise red flags – she envisions that organizations could read “reviews” of grantors and get a more honest sense of what to expect.
Transforming funding relationships
Others point out that the power imbalance that exists needs to be overhauled entirely.
For too long, melles says, the relationship between grant-makers and grant-seekers has been transactional. “It’s about shifting mindsets. We need to remove this dichotomy that exists about someone funding and another receiving funding. We need to move toward being partners in solutions. What are the solutions to systemic challenges?” he says. He suggests a rethinking of the very nature of the relationship, starting with what constitutes reporting: “If we stop talking about you giving me funding and me giving you back reports and say, ‘Hey, we are partners in solution here. What is the data leading us to? What are the best practices, and then, okay, how much is it going to cost us?’”
We need to move toward being partners in solutions . . . We need to move funding relationships from transactions to transformation.amanuel melles, Network for the Advancement of Black Communities
For melles, there needs to be a radical rethinking of how funders see relationships with communities and grant-seeking organizations. “We need to move funding relationships from transactions to transformation,” he says.
“Reporting and granting – it’s always one-way,” says Patti Pon, the president and CEO of Calgary Arts Development. “What if the reporting was two-way?” she wonders. “What if it was: I report to you what I did with the money that you gave me, and you in turn report to me about what you hoped on balance the funds you invested in the program [would] achieve?”
Reporting and granting – it’s always one-way. What if the reporting was two-way?Patti Pon, Calgary Arts Development
“It’s not about more communication; it’s about different communication,” she adds.
Warren agrees, pointing to the ethos at the heart of charity. “Charity at its core is not transactional,” she says. “Trying to put it into some of these frameworks, I think, creates a challenge.”
Transforming funding relationships, says Bruce Miller, a member of Matachewan First Nation and team lead at the Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund, requires “not only thinking about transferring capital, but also transferring power.”
Form partnerships in communities
Funders, Aliweiwi says, need to ask themselves “How do we improve our connections and our understanding of the communities we want to work with?” Be proactive, he adds. Connect to communities and understand who’s doing what. The imperative is on funders, Aliweiwi says, to “improve your connections with the community you want to work with.”
“Having that willingness to discover other ways of doing it” is crucial, says Elizabeth McIsaac, president of Maytree.
Maytree employs a director of community engagement and investment who McIsaac says works to broaden out who the organization interacts with. The director listens carefully to what the community is telling them. “It really is about engaging with the grantees,” she says. “It’s not just cutting a cheque, but it’s actually how do we create a relationship with them and then understand their work and relationships with their communities?”
We actually want to learn from [grantees] and listen carefully to what their work looks like, what they’re discovering, and how does that inform what we do next?Elizabeth McIsaac, Maytree
“We’re not just getting a report that we spent X dollars on Y activities,” she says. “We actually want to learn from them and listen carefully to what their work looks like, what they’re discovering, and how does that inform what we do next?”
Liz Liske, with the Arctic Funders Collaborative, previously told The Philanthropist Journal that there’s a challenge when it comes to developing relationships – and trust – between funders and Indigenous communities. “Two worlds exist, and we don’t know how to combine them,” she said. “If you’re a white settler philanthropist trying to come into Indigenous community and you want to help . . . you could see pushback or hesitancy. Our experience with settler people in general hasn’t been a good one.”
Why do funders think they are the ones that have to initiate relationships? And why can’t it be the other way around?Liz Liske, Arctic Funders Collaborative
She said funders can be more open in how they approach these relationships. Too often, she said, the initiation of relationships starts on the side of the funder, with many saying they don’t accept unsolicited grant applications. “Why do you think you are the one that has to start it? And why can’t it be the other way around?” she asked.
Liske suggested that funders consider changing the nature of their interaction with Indigenous communities. “All Indigenous people are touched by trauma. Being trauma-informed is really important, but it’s also important not to focus on the trauma,” she said, noting she encourages funders to focus on healing-centred engagement – culturally appropriate engagement that seeks to find holistic solutions. “As Indigenous people, we do this work and we’re expected to represent Indigenous people,” she said. “We do this all while working and healing through our own traumas. That’s one thing I always have to remind not only funders, but also ourselves, of.”
“While most non-profit leaders support equity, diversity, and inclusion, far fewer pursue it with deep intentionality.” That was a key takeaway from Imagine Canada’s equity benchmarking study, released in July.
By now, sector leaders should be well aware of the necessity of embracing diversity and a representative workforce – an imperative with clear benefits for organizations.
Decisions about funding – where it’s “needed most” – should be aligned with reality and needs, Aliweiwi says, and that works best when funders are connected to communities. Having a diverse team increases the knowledge of, and connections with, communities. But still, Aliweiwi says, philanthropy is among the least accountable in the non-profit world when it comes to being held to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion. One start, he suggests, would be reporting requirements for boards – a specific requirement on the T3010 form.
The Imagine Canada study, melles says, “clearly shows that there’s a lot of work that we have to do” when it comes to diversity – and that has clear implications for ensuring that funders are truly hearing from communities where funding is needed.
Acknowledge eroding trust
A healthier dialogue around improving philanthropy starts with trust.
“As the world gets bigger and the demand for services from charities and the non-profit sector grows more and more – while distrust in institutions is growing – these kinds of criticisms should not be a surprise to any of us, particularly those of us who see ourselves as institutions,” Pon says. “Trust has eroded significantly among all of us.”
Pon points to the impossibility of truly seeing things from another’s perspective, and the importance of trust in trying to understand what others see and believe.
The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer results are clear: “A lack of faith in societal institutions triggered by economic anxiety, disinformation, mass-class divide, and a failure of leadership has brought us to where we are today – deeply and dangerously polarized.” The survey of more than 32,000 people in 28 countries, including Canada, found that people trusted businesses more than non-governmental organizations or governments.
Am I talking about completely changing funding practices? Kind of I am.Patti Pon
Improving how the sector is perceived – and the trust that follows – requires acknowledging the failings and mistakes of the past and present, Pon says. “There are systemic practices in the mainstream philanthropic field that are biased,” she says, adding that it’s imperative that funders are willing to examine and move away from early-19th-century assumptions and practices. “We are in a different time,” she says. “Am I talking about completely changing funding practices? Kind of I am.”
“Trust is only built when you share in responsibility in the community,” says Miller, with the Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund.
Trust is only built when you share in responsibility in the community.Bruce Miller, Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund
Miller points to what he calls a “pivotal moment in philanthropy,” when in 2015 the philanthropic community released its Declaration of Action in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations. That, he says, is a “framework for meaningful engagement,” one that includes promising the sharing of resources and networks. “The kicker is new ways of thinking,” he says.
Take a systems approach to funding decisions
“The whole funding environment is a scattergram,” melles says of the seemingly disjointed and scattered way that funding decisions are made. “Sometimes the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. We need to move to an environment of collaborative funding.”
“People need to get a lot more sophisticated, and that takes an ecosystem view,” Mulholland says, if any headway is to be made on addressing the question of where support is “needed most.”
“Funders should be really interested in talking to other funders working in the same space, trying to make sure they’re not leaving big holes,” she adds. “Pieces missing in the puzzle leave a big gaping hole.”
Funders should be really interested in talking to other funders working in the same space, trying to make sure they’re not leaving big holes.Elizabeth Mulholland
Sector leaders are adamant that an ecosystem approach to funding decisions is imperative. Data, melles argues, must inform decisions about where funding is needed, and that data must take into account what is already being done by other funders.
For Stauch, data is crucial – but it’s not always about needing more research. “It’s not just about data,” he says. “It’s about all the information we already know that we’re not putting into practice.”
Warren, at the Canadian Centre for Christian Charities, is clear that there are many areas organizations can – and should – be working together. “We can be more effective in finding and meeting needs when we are having conversations, identifying strengths, and working together on those overlapping priorities,” she says. “There are actually a lot of areas of shared interests and common ground where there’s opportunities for collaboration,” she adds, speaking specifically of cooperation between faith-based and non-faith-based entities. Oftentimes, she says, the “goals are the same and the end result is the same on both sides.”
When are you going to start funding in a smart way and letting data and evidence and relationships inform your grants?amanuel melles
For melles, identifying those shared goals is key – as is ensuring that evidence is leading collaborative decisions. “When are we going to stop counting the beans?” he asks. “When are you going to start funding in a smart way and letting data and evidence and relationships inform your grants?”
At the heart of this whole conversation is this question: should philanthropy respond just to immediate crises, or does it have a much bigger role to play in digging deeper to underlying issues that cause problems? “Addressing root causes requires a commitment to systems thinking,” Stauch says. Without that, it’s very difficult to see the landscape in any sort of big-picture way. “Fish don’t know they’re in water until someone takes them out of the fish tank,” he adds.
Sector leaders agree that many people have been working hard to improve philanthropy over the years. But some say the improvement that is needed most might not happen organically.
“I’m of the view that a lot of, if not most of, the meaningful social reforms throughout history have not happened because people chose to do them,” Aliweiwi says. “They were actually legislated.” Government involvement, he says, could help hold boards accountable and ensure that progress is made on the most pressing of critiques.
In the end, Northcott sums it up: “Philanthropy is imperfect because it’s done by human beings.”
We need to not only shift our resources, but we need to shift our ways of thinking. That takes philanthropic courage to learn, unlearn, and relearn.Bruce Miller
It’s a complex world. “We’re all human, and it isn’t one size fits all,” Pon says. “When we make those giant generalizations, that’s when we get into trouble. Instead of building bridges, we break them down and it gets harder for us to then try to actually find a solution together.” Finding solutions, she adds, “will take more time, will cost more money, and will have to involve more voices and more people. It will. And that can be very difficult for those of us who have been in institutions where we didn’t have to do that before.”
“We need to not only shift our resources, but we need to shift our ways of thinking,” Miller says. That, he says, takes “philanthropic courage to learn, unlearn, and relearn.”