Study Tour to Canada with Philanthropy Australia

Study Tour to Canada with Philanthropy Australia
By Robyn Scott, Executive Director, J R McKenzie Trust


In October 2019, I joined a group of 15 CEOs/Trustees from Philanthropy Australia on a philanthropy-focused tour across Canada. We visited 14 organisations including family foundations, community foundations and private foundations, and two social impact hubs. We also attended the Philanthropic Foundations Canada Symposium and a day-long Truth and Reconciliation workshop. This was followed by a day spent on a First Nations Reservation located between Banff and Calgary.

The study tour presented an outstanding opportunity to network with Australian and Canadian colleagues and to explore philanthropy practices in another Commonwealth country. We felt lucky to also be able to spend some time with the Philanthropic Foundations Canada team.

Focus areas of the organisations visited

The work programmes of the foundations the group visited, focused on the following areas Social Enterprise, Family Wellbeing, Community Economic Development, Islamophobia, Arts and Media, Environment, Performing Arts, Impact Investing, Early Child Development, Youth and the Environment, Health Active Children and Youth, Housing, Inclusive Local Economies, Community Wellbeing, Ecological Justice, Poverty and Climate Change.
During the visits to various foundations, there were many references to the fact we are operating in times of rapid and constant change, with global disruption, political instability and the urgency of climate change presenting imminent challenges. As sectors and boundaries change, we need to embrace and support adaptable and agile organisational models to respond to change.

Top takeaways

Much of what I saw or heard in our visits was reflected in the J R McKenzie Trust’s recent publication commissioned from the Centre for Social Impact: ‘The Philanthropic Landscape; a review of contemporary trends and practices’. I have referenced relevant diagrams and pages from the publication in this report.
The overarching themes from Canadian practice that both echo and challenge models of practice in Aotearoa New Zealand are:

  • Colonisation Impact – Acknowledgement of the long and deep impacts of colonisation or ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ in Canadian terms. There is a need to decolonise systems, including philanthropy. The work is grounded in the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the philanthropic community’s Declaration of Action that followed the report. Significant systems change work is needed to advance the prosperity (in all its guises) of indigenous/First Nations Canadians.
  • Equity as a lens – For many, equity was a lens through which community investment was made with an increasing focus post-2015 on Truth and Reconciliation and working to support indigenous aspirations.
  • Adaptive grantmaking including funder collaboration – The importance of adaptive grantmaking (described as foundations that were able to be less transactional and more nimble in their approach) was highlighted. It’s about seeing ngā kaikōkiri as true partners, and foundations acting in a more reflexive and responsive way by leveraging off strong relationships.
  • Collaboration – Collaborative funding models, or funders recognising that the big issues of today can’t be solved by any one entity acting on its own, make better sense. Collaboration is about combining everyone’s strengths, working together in an atmosphere of trust, and nourishing relationships based on mutual respect.
  • Size – It doesn’t matter! We saw impactful and innovative work from both very small and very large foundations.
  • Achieving Transformative Impact – Reinforcement that achieving transformative impact involves:
  • Range of tools in the toolkit – The importance of using the range of tools in the philanthropic toolkit (from grants to social investment) to support long-term societal/social impact and change was reinforced. This included a significant focus on Impact Investing – invest in convening and acknowledge that bringing cohorts of communities of interest together can be a powerful force for change.
  • Flexibility/nimbleness/cluster or cohort funding – Responsive and proactive grantmaking models are in use and an ability to work with ngā kaikōkiri to iterate and ‘grow on’ work and funding was evident. Some foundations are looking to the far horizon with regards to their grantmaking – there are some ‘deep dives’ happening in terms of funding which demonstrates an appreciation of the time scales needed for social change. A ‘call for ideas’ as opposed to the standard application process is becoming more common. There was consensus around the need to be agile while still seeking out solutions based on what has been learned.
  • Foundations as ‘agents of change’ – Either on their own (working with grantees) or working collaboratively with other funders.
  • Systems change – This is crucial from the grassroots, community level right through to public policy advocacy and work to influence/change how systems operate. This also includes the need to build capacity for systems change which means acknowledging that systems change isn’t necessarily well understood by foundations or community organisations.

    Diagram: Systems change (RPA, 2018, p.6)1

  • Professionalism of the sector/staff – There is evidence of increased delegated authority being given to staff, leaving the trustees with more time to focus on effective governance. This is seen as essential to success. Subject matter expertise is becoming increasingly common for staff as the sector has professionalised significantly in the last 10–20 years. There is a push toward trustees empowering staff with greater delegated authority for grant decisions once the foundation’s strategy is agreed.
  • Support for ‘champions of change’ – The importance of intentionally investing in leaders and leadership in a range of ways including supporting sabbaticals, leadership investment, fellowships, and exchanges with other funders was highlighted. This was recognised as funding potential in people as well as organisations.
  • Climate change/environment/ people and planet (newer focus area) – This was framed as ‘ecological justice’. The urgency of climate change is demanding a response which is via related areas such as youth leadership in environmental issues, and environmental and indigenous investment.

1P16 CSI ‘The Philanthropic Landscape: a review of contemporary trends and practices’.