Northern Philanthropy: The Effectiveness of Community

In the United States, Canada is perhaps best known for being a source of cold weather and red-coated policemen. But in the foundation field, we can paint a picture that is a little more nuanced. The foundation sector in Canada is small (certainly compared to south of the border), at about 10,000 registered foundations and about CDN $45.5 billion in 2012 assets.

But size is no limitation either to our effectiveness or to our creativity. In fact, I would suggest that Canadian foundations are among the leaders in conceiving and implementing some of the most talked-about strategies for impact in American philanthropy. Whether the strategy is emergent, innovative or collective, Canadian foundations have been experimenting and sharing actively in the work of making social change.

Why is this so? Arguably, it is because Canadian philanthropy has all the advantages of a community in which we know each other. We regularly talk to each other across a geography that is every bit as large as that of the United States. In the digital age, our community can be Canada-wide.

We also benefit in Canada from a relatively shared agreement on values that transcends political polarization. Discussions of philanthropic strategy in Canada don’t usually begin with establishing where people in the room stand on the political spectrum; it’s assumed that, by and large, we don’t need to argue about roles and values so we can get on with talking about strategies.

We also have the advantage of lack of silos. Our small size means that family funders, community foundations, corporate funders, United Ways and government funders find themselves on the same team, particularly at the city or regional level. And, finally, we have the advantage of being neighbors to the idea factory of U.S. philanthropy, able to learn from the many social and philanthropic experiments going on next door.

How does this translate into effective philanthropy? Take the idea of emergent strategy in philanthropy, mooted this summer by Mark Kramer and his colleagues John Kania and Patty Russell in their article “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World.” The Canadian philanthropic community is increasingly interested in tackling complex social problems and is using emergent thinking to do it. It’s just not labeled that way.

In fact, Kramer, Kania and Russell recount the “intentional yet flexible approach” of a Canadian foundation, the J.W. McConnell Foundation and its initiative Sports for Development. This is an exploratory initiative to delve into the ways in which sports at the community level builds resilience and engagement among children and youth. Knowing that more could be done by linking together many voices, McConnell focused on the creation of relationships and took the emerging opportunity offered by Sport Matters, a national advocacy body for community sport, to leverage a much greater public investment in sports development. Innovative as it is, this is not a strategy unique to McConnell.

Many Canadian funders are open to connection with each other and with their community partners in ways that allow them to spot “emerging” possibilities and to act on them. So while Mark Kramer and his colleagues put a useful spotlight on the possibilities offered by a more fluid emergent strategy approach, it also has very familiar echoes to Canadian philanthropist community.

Another much discussed strategy is collective impact. This month, The Philanthropist, Canada’s online journal for the non-profit sector, devoted a whole issue, to the topic. And, indeed, collective impact, like emergent strategy, is not new to Canada either. Canadian funders have been working together in various ways for a number of years to tackle issues such as homelessness, poverty, or environmental degradation.

One of our community-based poverty reduction initiatives, Vibrant Communities has more than a decade of experience in building multi-sector, multi-partner collective impact initiatives to reduce poverty in Canadian cities. And, from the beginning, it has been supported by Canadian foundations. Canadian funders know, of course, that collective impact is an approach appropriate to complex issues which can be tackled most effectively with the alignment of many players, funders being only some and not the determining influencers. But we also recognize that because collective impact involves opportunities for many players across sectors to come together in a rigorous process to formulate and agree on objectives, it can help to spark more innovation.

We have a great appetite in Canadian philanthropy for talking about social innovation, because we are interested in learning about what works in addressing the many complex social issues that we face as a country. Many of those issues are similar to those you find in the United States: income inequality, climate change, mental health and addiction, the issues facing both the very young and the very old.

We are also just beginning to take on issues that Canadian philanthropy has to face much more directly, particularly issues facing our large and growing aboriginal population. So we are focusing in our national conversations on the theme of working together to make social change. Our annual conferences in 2012, 2013 and coming up in 2014 have been deliberately planned as a continuing community-wide conversation on this theme, permitting learning and growth from one gathering to the next.

We can’t award ourselves a gold star for effectiveness yet though. Canadian philanthropy still has its “areas for improvement.” We know that Canadian philanthropy is not as representative yet as it could be of the diversity and human richness of our population, which continues to be transformed by immigration. We are still only dipping our toes in the water of “impact investing.”

And it may be said that we run a risk of not aspiring high enough. We need to talk and do more about measuring performance, and about internal and external evaluation. While our culture of polite cooperation fosters community, we may also be too Canadian in not challenging ourselves, respectfully, to be better at what we do. Wouldn’t it be an interesting and productive exchange for Canadian and American philanthropy to compare and learn even more from our approaches to collaboration, competition and innovation?

This post is the first in an occasional series on the CEP Blog providing international perspectives on philanthropy and foundation effectiveness. Other posts in the series can be found here.

Hilary Pearson is the president and CEO of Philanthropic Foundations Canada, a member association of Canadian grantmakers, including private and public foundations, charities and corporations.

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