In March 2023 The Philanthropist published Toronto Foundation’s Nicola Hives' reflection on our organization’s three-year learning journey via the Trust Collective, a group of women philanthropists and community organizations serving women and girls. “We made a lot of mistakes,” she says, but we also learned some important lessons. First and foremost: “We can’t let our ambition to make a difference get the better of us. Thoughtfulness and partnering with community are everything.”
In 2018, Toronto Foundation witnessed a seismic shift in the public spotlight on the #MeToo movement and rallying cries for gender equality. That same year, we were floored by the overwhelming appetite for Vision 2020, our first donor learning journey rooted in equity and diversity. As the city’s community foundation, our vision is to disrupt traditional philanthropic practices by fostering a community of informed and engaged philanthropists who are accelerating meaningful change for all.
Buoyed by the momentum around feminism, we swiftly launched the Trust Collective in spring 2019 at Women Deliver, the global gathering of women leaders, held that year in Vancouver. We were filled with hope, excitement, and trust that together we could cultivate change by organizing a three-year learning journey for close to 50 women philanthropists and community organizations serving women and girls.
As we mark International Women’s Day, we’re reflecting on our journey of gender-based philanthropy. Full disclosure: we made a lot of mistakes.
It had always been our intention to commission a research report on the lives of women and girls … and determine how women philanthropists could be a force for change.
We did not launch the Trust Collective with great fanfare. It had always been our intention to commission a research report on the lives of women and girls that first spring and determine how women philanthropists could be a force for change.
We knew our timing was gold. To engage donors, you have to find that emotional connection and make the urgency palpable. We had found that sweet spot and knew we could make a difference.
To engage donors, you have to find that emotional connection and make the urgency palpable.
Philanthropist Susan Atkinson was excited to participate in a program where the traditional notion of charitable giving would be challenged. “Historically, philanthropy was viewed as charitable giving to alleviate people’s needs, without addressing the root causes of those inequities. Today, we expect more of philanthropy. We expect clear strategies to produce real change, achieved by recognizing that those who are living the effects of inequity, and their advocates, must be involved in defining and reaching the solutions.”
But six months after first convening the whole group, we had to quickly reimagine the format of the program and move online with the rest of the world. We shelved our research report. Then George Floyd’s murder ignited a racial and social-justice reckoning. We all wanted to do something, and it seemed natural to leverage the group to contribute together, but the financial model we had built couldn’t accommodate changes. The swiftness that enabled the program’s launch also became its downfall.
Lesson #1: Pause
We overlooked several of our own best practices around who we invited in to this circle. Initially, we recruited community organizations on the basis of existing relationships. We were very intentional about our recruitment of Indigenous-serving organizations but were not consistent in seeking out organizations serving other communities – particularly Black and other racialized folks. Not surprisingly, what resulted was a less diverse group than ideal. Members rightly called us to account, and we responded by inviting staff from our anchor organizations to also join, who brought a broad and deep range of knowledge and expertise to the Trust Collective.
In retrospect, we rushed to execute what we believed was a solution to a timely problem without consulting community.
That said, not everyone felt welcome. Maria Rio, a refugee from Mexico and then director of development and communications at The Stop Community Food Centre, says, “I was hesitant to step into such a white space and know others were too.” As philanthropy is rooted in whiteness, so too was this program.
In retrospect, we rushed to execute what we believed was a solution to a timely problem without consulting community. Speed is a hallmark of white supremacy; as a primarily white-led organization, we’ve had to learn this lesson more than once.
Lesson #2: Walk the talk
While the Trust Collective set out to disrupt power imbalances, we struggled with the historic tendency to serve donors and centre whiteness until things went off course. We were at very different stages of our personal social-justice journeys. Some women clung to the notions of women-led philanthropy that might include networking and wine, while others were exasperated that the foundation could not respond quickly enough to the social-justice zeitgeist.
We struggled with the historic tendency to serve donors and centre whiteness until things went off course.
“White fragility is another way to say that you’re coddling white people – or upholding the status quo,” says Rio. “But donors are not that fragile and often are more progressive. Non-profits are the ones doing the coddling or avoiding the tough conversations.”
Our intentions were good and we tried to adapt but could not please everyone. The fallout caused harm, and for that we are sorry and humbled.
Lesson #3: Accept failure and learn from mistakes
Mid-way through the journey we hired change consultant Ayana Webb to reimagine a notion of collective impact. Webb says, “Some women needed to leave the program. Toronto Foundation respects all of those decisions, and so do I. Those who stayed took on the difficult but meaningful work of scrutinizing their own philanthropic practices to meet the needs of a changing city.”
Ultimately, the values that informed the initiative shone through and will serve as core principles for the foundation’s donor-education program moving forward.
“I’ll be honest,” says Maureen Bell, another philanthropist. “I spent most of my career in banking, where measures of impact are in direct conflict with trust-based philanthropy. I’ve learned to let go of my personal conditioning with reporting and instead embraced giving with no strings attached.”
Despite years of giving, I now know it’s a lifelong journey to be a better philanthropic partner and deepen relationships with community. Maureen Bell
“My motivation to give has always been to help – not to have my name on a building,” Bell says. “Despite years of giving, I now know it’s a lifelong journey to be a better philanthropic partner and deepen relationships with community. One clear takeaway is that I’m making a bigger impact giving larger sums to fewer, yet smaller organizations.”
Atkinson had been drawn to learning and giving with like-minded individuals. “Giving with and to women was always a motivator, but more importantly, it’s about giving in community and ensuring we’re using an intersectional lens,” she says. “Anything other than an intersectional approach is just a Band-Aid solution.”
Together we learned about diversity, equity, and inclusion. It became clear that the gender lens is secondary to appreciating how the intersections of socio-economic status and disability are bigger barriers and why equity needs to be at the core of everything we do.
Giving with and to women was always a motivator, but more importantly, it’s about giving in community and ensuring we’re using an intersectional lens. Susan Atkinson
By the time the program wrapped up, we had vowed to be consistent with our donor education and not convene in silos. While we deeply appreciate this journey, we see the pitfalls in anchoring a donor education program around like fundholders, such as women.
The issues concerning women and girls affect everyone. They directly affect more than half the population that identifies as female, and indirectly, all of us.
With those far-reaching implications, the future of women and girls depends on all of us. But we’ll change systems only if we’re zeroed in on the inequities among women.
We learned many lessons throughout this journey. First and foremost, though: we can’t let our ambition to make a difference get the better of us. Thoughtfulness and partnering with community are everything. Just because we think we’re doing good doesn’t mean we are.
Originally published in The Philanthropist in March 2023. View the article here.