Stepping Up by Stepping Back

“No ego, no logo.” This early statement by Imagine Canada’s Bruce MacDonald sums up one of the rare positive outcomes to emerge from the pandemic. Donors of all kinds came together, putting aside their individual interests, to mobilize money for the crisis. It signaled a fundamental shift that de-centred the agendas of traditional, white-led organizations, making way for new voices and new leadership.

We got a call in the first week of lockdown last March from Vancity Community Investment Bank’s Catherine Creager, with the offer of a major gift that would flow in its entirety to where the need was greatest. The best part was the spirit of partnership behind it. Together we created the Better Toronto Coalition – a three-part program that quickly raised close to $4M to tackle the inequitable impacts of COVID-19, produced a round of emerging research briefs, and delivered a 10-part series of conversations featuring more than 40 Indigenous, Black and other racialized leaders sharing their experience on the ground, their solutions, their hopes and dreams for a better future. For us, this has been a game-changer. By the time the year rolled up we had granted 15x our usual level and virtually all to small and mid-sized organizations working in the neighbourhoods most ravaged by the virus and its fallout. Donors big and small, from among our fundholder community and beyond, joined us in a shared commitment to change the way philanthropy does business.

We’ve learned a lot through COVID and much of it will stick: prioritizing organizations new to philanthropic support; an emphasis on unrestricted grants; simplified applications; minimal reporting; multi-year commitments. We’ve learned that who leads and who decides are key determinants of good granting. We’re testing ways to earmark funds to informal groups that have been shut out of the traditional charitable system but that are fundamental to getting us to equality. But enough about Toronto Foundation.

Traditional, institutional philanthropy is ready for a reset. It isn’t about us anymore. And while we’re best served to practice humility, we would be wrong to expect that of others. This is a time for boldness and pride too. It’s a time for those whose voices have been secondary or even absent to rise up and be counted. This is easy. The work speaks for itself.

The Indigenous People’s Resilience Fund is the first of its kind in Canada. Designed and led by Indigenous leaders the Fund is meeting community where it lives, testing processes like oral applications. It’s enabled by traditional philanthropy and housed at Community Foundations of Canada, but operating autonomously. They’re bringing Indigenous worldview and teachings to the work and have thrown their doors wide open to traditional groups like ours to learn along with them.

Within Toronto Foundation’s platform of donor advised funds is one of the most exciting ventures in Black leadership in Canada – The Black Opportunity Fund. Their goal is to become the largest Black-led and serving fund in the world. With a powerhouse team of talent from corporate Canada, access to significant capital, an innovation mindset, and an unstoppable commitment to economic empowerment for Black communities, the BOF is poised to put Canadian philanthropy on the world map.

Another promising start-up is the Foundation for Black Communities. Driven by a small group of young, Black professionals they’re operating within traditional philanthropic systems by building from a base of private and public foundation support.

And just last week we saw the launch of the Indigenous Spirit Fund (ISF). The passion project of Kenn Richard, ISF heralds a new era in philanthropy in our post-reconciliation context. Housed at Native Child and Family Services in Toronto, the ISF paves the way for other urban Indigenous organizations to take ownership of their financial resource development. This is self-determination in action and hope too for a new relationship with money, a resource that can heal, rather than divide, if we use it fairly.

It is heartening to see the emergence of new organizations led by and for the communities they serve, and re-inventing philanthropic systems. For the gatekeepers in philanthropy, the only step required now is to make way for their inevitable success.

This post was authored by Julia Howell, VP of Community Engagement at Toronto Foundation. Find her on Twitter @JuliaHowell.