Disruption, discomfort, and dialogue

publication date: Apr 4, 2019
author/source: Jessica Wroblewski

The world around us is changing fast and the charity sector is part of that change. Disruption, discomfort, and dialogue were key themes at the Philanthropic Foundations Canada (PFC) conference. 

Philanthropy is in a State of Disruption

Philanthropy is not immune to the constant state of disruption we live in. Just as the corporate and public sectors are struggling with disruption, so too is the charitable sector. Grantmaking organizations and charitable organizations are facing multiple sources of disruption all at the same time: economic, social, political, environmental, digital, generational, and so forth. How can grantmaking organizations respond to societal challenges caused by disruptive forces when they themselves are facing many of the same challenges?

Philanthropy is also getting ahead of regulation, as newer forms of giving such as crowdfunding and donor advised funds are becoming increasingly popular, and new forms of charitable and grantmaking organizations are popping up that do not look or act like traditional charities and foundations. Philanthropy is being disrupted from all angles and no one, not even the largest grantmaking organizations in Canada, is confident about what the philanthropic landscape will look like in 20 years.

Get Comfortable with the Uncomfortable

Reconciliation. Gender equity. Diversity and inclusion. These were just three of the uncomfortable topics that repeatedly surfaced throughout the conference. At times, the tension was quite palpable in the room as speakers freely acknowledged the widely understood but generally unchallenged power dynamic that exists between grantmaking organizations, charitable organizations, and beneficiaries to an audience comprised mainly of staff and board members from grantmaking organizations.

In a particularly controversial plenary session entitled What’s Next for Philanthropy in Canada? An Intergenerational Conversation, it was proposed that philanthropy can’t address inequality in society if it doesn’t first address it in philanthropy. If grantmakers want to make a real difference, it’s time for them to cultivate discomfort and be open to hearing critical feedback from charitable partners and beneficiaries.

Grantmakers Cannot Save the World

Charitable organizations have a tendency to treat grantmaking organizations as if they are going to save the world simply because they hand out millions, if not billions, of dollars every year. For the most part, grantmaking organizations are happy to have charitable organizations put them on a pedestal and treat them as saviours.

As Gerry Salole, Chief Executive at the European Foundation Centre wisely observed, “The money of all the foundations in all the world can fill a swimming pool but we need sea money” to address the complex challenges philanthropy is being asked to solve. Yes, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation may grant over $4.7B every year, but they’re still no match for any federal government budget.

With a growing reliance on the welfare state, especially in Europe, some governments are turning to foundations to fill in the gaps. Grantmakers have to be honest with themselves and honest with charitable organizations (and governments) about what role they can reasonably play and what’s simply unrealistic. Grantmakers cannot save the world but they do have an important part to play.

Philanthropic Foundations Canada (PFC) is a member association of Canadian grantmakers, including private and public foundations, charities, and corporations. PFC hosts an annual conference for members and other grantmakers in Canada and across the world to exchange ideas, learn from each other, and discuss important issues. The 2018 PFC conference was held in Toronto on October 16-18, and focused on the themes of connection, creativity, and social change. For more information, visit the PFC website or PFC conference website. Thank you to PFC for providing Hilborn Charity eNews with a media pass to attend the 2018 PFC conference.

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