In the midst of pandemic upheaval, philanthropy became the story in 2020. For the first time in my 20+-year career, private philanthropy rose up as the central figure in a narrative about change. Many spoke up to call traditional philanthropy to account. Endowments were under the microscope for leaving too much money “on the table.” The energy around this topic was hot at times with suggestions that the charitable foundations of wealthy Canadians were “hoarding” capital through what was seen as tax avoidance schemes rather than efforts to serve and support. Of course there’s a much more nuanced story here but in my opinion the call for change is welcome.
Over our 40-year history we’ve learned a lot. Mostly we’ve come to understand how much more we have to learn if we want our work to be relevant and impactful. We’ve tried to approach the task with humility and an open mind. And we know that we can only be effective if we work alongside others – from people with the lived experience of the issues we’re working to address, to diverse leaders across the sector, to philanthropists and philanthropic organizations that reflect our city in all its parts.
Learning with our Donors
The Class of 2021 offered close to a dozen virtual events. At workshops and panel presentations we evolved our collective thinking about the “new philanthropy,” a concept we’ve been working on that positions philanthropy as an agent for fairness and social justice. With our Vital Signs research as the backdrop we continue to learn about the ways in which inequality is at the core of so many of the big issues we want to tackle.
Advocating for Change
This past year we stepped up in a way we hadn’t before. Toronto Foundation made our first public submission to the federal government. With government in the throes of studying reform in the charitable sector, we felt that our voice could be helpful. You can read our submission on the disbursement quota (the % of our assets we are required to grant) below. A key consideration for us is to not let the focus on the disbursement quota derail the need for more sweeping reform. The very definition of charity is in need of an overhaul as the flow of funding is not fairly or adequately distributed to meet the needs of the day.
There’s the nuts and bolts of our business model and then there’s the essence of the work which is all about relationships. For too long we’ve perpetuated an imbalance where the giver holds all the cards and the recipient must then be grateful for what they get. Through our Black & Indigenous Futures Fund we saw dozens of fundholders join us in an innovative program designed to shift these patterns. Fundholders contributed to a pooled fund that delegated program design and decision-making to the community. We were also able to pilot funding to “non-qualified donees,” often unincorporated, informal groups led by the communities they serve. We introduced things like oral applications to increase accessibility, and grants made are unrestricted to allow recipient organizations the flexibility and autonomy to determine what’s needed how and when.
Investing for a “double bottom line”
Perhaps the biggest reset for us this year was the engagement of RockCreek as our new Outsourced Chief Investment Officer (OCIO). In our first year of this new arrangement, we now have a socially responsible investment framework including setting a goal that 70% of our assets are responsibly invested by 2031. That means that our capital is working for us in two ways: 1. to deliver the financial returns we need to provide the capacity to grant today and tomorrow; and 2. to deliver measurable social and environmental impact too.
Change from the inside out
In year two of the pandemic we committed to turn some of our attention inward and focus on our own diversity, equity and inclusion. After a very full year of record-high granting in support of the crisis response, we knew we had to slow down and think hard about our respective roles in keeping change at bay. With the guidance of Mending the Chasm we approach the year ahead with renewed commitment and enthusiasm.
I have to admit that the last two years have been my most challenging to date. I’ve been tested in ways I couldn’t have predicted. But I am also so immensely proud to be part of an organization in its 40th year that is still growing and changing every day.
Thanks to all of you who support us, work alongside us, and give our work meaning.