We need better – and more useful – critique

I’m reluctant to offer a view without evidence, but I’m going ahead because any curious reader can readily find many examples on their own of what I’m about to address.

In the last several years, public conversations about charity and philanthropy in Canada have seen a rise in declamatory statements about the failure of funders to provide support “where it’s needed most.” Unsurprisingly, those who make this criticism usually offer their own personal answer to “where it’s needed most.”

To my mind at least, this immediately raises two questions: who decides “where it’s needed most,” and on what basis should such decisions be made?

There are some 86,000 registered charities in Canada and thousands more non-qualified donees. 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.

To be a little more analytical, one could ask whether all of those organizations cluster around some smaller number of causes. A reasonable answer can be found in Candid’s taxonomy of causes that link the civil society organizations that seek financial support and the ones that can provide it. The taxonomy identifies some 850 unique types of cause in that ecosystem of relationships. We might think of each of those 850 as civil society sub-sectors. Which one or ones are where support is needed most? Who should make that decision? On what basis?

As an aside, the recent emergence of the effective altruism movement, and the thoughtful interventions of both its supporters and detractors, has provided a focal point for the debate over possible answers to these difficult questions.

I would argue that given this context, the criticism that “funders” are failing to provide support “where it’s needed most,” without significant elaboration and qualification, is too simplistic to be useful.

In the last few years, we’ve also witnessed several sweeping criticisms of “funders.” As a leader within an organization that provides financial support to others in the civil society ecosystem, I take it as part of my responsibility to hear and understand critique and, as possible, respond. One of the challenges in doing so is trying to understand at whom any given critique is directed. There are many different categories of funder, each of which has quite different enablers, constraints, and operating models. That includes individuals, with incomes ranging from low to high. It includes crowdfunding platforms. It includes United Ways, corporate giving programs, public foundations, private foundations, family foundations, hospital foundations, and so on. And swamping all of these in terms of size is governments.

Not only does each of these categories represent a unique operating model, but there is variation within it. So when a critique is being launched broadly of “funders,” without specificity, it’s challenging to understand what sense to make of it.

The last concern I’ll raise has to do with proportionality. Targeting organized philanthropy in Canada (i.e., public, private, and family foundations and corporate giving programs), many have recently and publicly made the critique that these funders haven’t made significant progress on (let alone resolved) some of society’s most challenging problems – like racism, climate change, poverty, gender inequality, and so on.

The kinds of funding organizations that make up organized philanthropy have, in my experience, high aspirations, and I think that’s a good thing. But I would suggest that laying at their feet the persistence of our most challenging problems is unrealistic. Taken together, organized philanthropy in Canada accounts for something like 2% to 3% of the total revenues of charities. At best, they are bit players. (Good data is difficult to find, but the largest sources of support are governments, earned income, and individual donations.)

Certainly, there is much that can be done with small resources, and civil society in Canada is filled with superb examples of highly strategic social and environmental innovation. But the work of social change by its nature is challenging, filled with uncertainty, characterized by inevitable setbacks, and difficult to measure. (Remarkably, we have a civil society that does it anyway.) I would argue that progress on the most intractable problems is a responsibility that must be shared across sectors, and across scales – from individual efforts to those undertaken and coordinated by very large institutions.

If anything, I would think at this moment in our collective history that organizations in civil society, of all kinds, should seek to understand and support each other, and seek to build meaningful, cooperative relationships with other sectors. So much is at stake.

In the last 30 years, I’ve been employed by several different registered charities in Canada and have contributed to the governance of several others. I’ve had the good luck to know and understand several different funding organizations. I’ve yet to meet a single individual in that work who isn’t committed to getting better at making a difference. An essential ingredient to getting better is critique. But it’s a useful ingredient only if the critique is informed, based on evidence, and takes context into account.


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