Turning a New Chapter in Philanthropy: Empowering the community leads to more informed granting

Photo: Indigenous Land Stewardship Circle organized a Silent Action and Ceremony held at Grenadier Pond in High Park.

Authors: Phylicia Davis-Wesseling is the Community Relations Officer at Toronto Foundation. Sara Krynitzki is the outgoing Manager of Community Initiatives at Toronto Foundation and incoming Director of Policy and Communications at Philanthropic Foundations of Canada.

These last 16 months have been a pivotal time for Toronto Foundation and the Canadian philanthropic sector as a whole, as the systemic and pervasive inequities that exist in our country have been laid bare. In just the last year we have witnessed a flood of atrocity, including increasing and widespread anti-Asian violence, the murder of George Floyd, the revelation of mass unmarked graves of 215 Indigenous children at a former BC residential school, and the terrorist attack that killed four of five Muslim family members in London, Ontario, who were just out for a walk. These are all stark examples of the violence perpetuated by racism, colonialism and white supremacy that are very much alive today, and that are built deeply into the foundations of all of our systems and in turn continue to be propelled by them.

As individuals who have worked for years in grassroots spaces and the nonprofit sector, who now have the privilege to work in philanthropy, we know it is our responsibility to both call out the violence and harm of institutions embedded with norms of oppression and to challenge these systems at every level in our professional and personal capacities.

It is well documented that philanthropy has historically benefited from and contributes to social and economic inequities, both in how financial capital is amassed in our society, and how its dissemination is designed and controlled. Systems of oppression continue to influence the norms of the entire sector, from who leads philanthropic and nonprofit institutions, to who gets to make the decisions, to who receives the funding, and what those relationships look like.

At the same time, philanthropy can in fact play a meaningful role in providing opportunities for real change. One way we have been involved in advancing such a goal is through the development of the Black and Indigenous Futures Fund, an ambitious new funding opportunity at the Toronto Foundation that took some big steps to reduce barriers and increase access for those usually left out of philanthropy.


A new way to do philanthropy

In the summer of 2020, the murder of George Floyd in the US catalyzed leaders in every industry around the globe to reflect on their own complicity in perpetuating anti-Black racism and other forms of racial oppression. While equity has been at the forefront of what Toronto Foundation has been overtly working to advance for the last several years, we too knew that we were not exempt, despite our intentions.

As one means to address systemic and institutional racism, we worked with Black, Indigenous and other racialized nonprofit and grassroots leaders to craft a new grant opportunity. This group determined that this fund should be specifically for Black and Indigenous communities, as racial injustice has especially affected Black and Indigenous communities in Canada. They also recognized that the pandemic has disproportionately affected Black and Indigenous communities in particular, and the initiatives that serve them are dealing with increased demands and less stable funding while facing greater risk of closing. The leadership table then participated in or recommended community members for the two selection committees. Members were from Black and Indigenous communities in Toronto, and worked for local nonprofits or volunteered in their communities.

We offered organizations the option to apply beyond the traditional route of written applications; organizations could submit oral and video applications. Sector leaders could choose to tell their story directly over Zoom, levelling the playing field for those who are stronger presenters and/or may not have the time or expertise to write applications. Imaginative leaders also submitted video applications to share their work and plans more creatively.

In addition, we designed the opportunity to open the door for non-qualified donee grassroots groups to apply and will fund them via service contracts to deliver charitable activities. For years Toronto Foundation has been supporting non-qualified donees through trusteeship agreements with charitable partners, but this was the first time we offered direct financial support to initiatives without charitable status. It takes time, resources, and money to get charitable status or to work with charitable trusteeship partners – investments and tradeoffs that some community groups do not want to or are not able to make. Some of these groups may be poised for growth whereas some are dedicated to their work in their community and don’t need more than modest financial support to make a difference. Supporting non-qualified donees is imperative to advancing equity and racial justice as on-the-ground initiatives are often the most nimble and best equipped to identify and advance solutions for their own communities, and key resources available in historically excluded communities are often provided by local grassroots leadership. Such initiatives are overwhelmingly led by those who are racialized and other groups that are underserved, underrepresented and underfunded in philanthropy.

The response to this new funding program has been overwhelmingly positive. Applicants, including many who did not ultimately receive funding, have repeatedly shared how much they welcomed the process and how much they felt respected and appreciated by it. Many funders have also reached out to learn more about the initiative and how we did it.

Staff supported the process administratively and facilitated the discussions, but the selection committees read the record-breaking 200+ applications that came in and decided on funding recipients amongst themselves, without the typical gatekeeping interference of grant staff. It involved an incredible amount of work and many challenging, difficult decisions on the part of the volunteers. The committee awarded the $400,000 of unrestricted funding to 16 qualified donees and eight non-qualified donees.

To encourage further unrestricted funding over a longer term to groups identified by the selection committees, several lead donors from Toronto Foundation’s network of philanthropists have contributed over $1.1M for a matching pool of $375,000 a year for three years. In 2021, Toronto Foundation fundholders who commit to up to three years of funding will see their grants matched.


Shifting and sharing power

Shifting power. Trust-based philanthropy. Participatory grantmaking. These are all buzzwords and phrases in the sector at the moment. But these things can lead to tangible action and when done right, can have a genuine impact. At their core, they point to a new philanthropy that is about engaging those who are meant to benefit from philanthropy to involve them beyond the transactional and in genuine, substantive and transformative ways. It requires listening, building relationships, and understanding and respecting the work, expertise and lived realities that exist on the ground. It requires supporting and empowering community members to be involved in all the processes from start to finish.

However, it’s one thing to commit in principle to such actions, and it’s quite another to dedicate the time and resources to make it happen. Dollar for dollar, the Black and Indigenous Futures Fund has been a resource intensive grant program for Toronto Foundation. Listening, supporting, focusing and acting take time and energy. And Toronto Foundation is not finished. It has a program to administer over the next year, and relationships to cultivate and foster, especially with the grassroots groups, as those contracts require “care and control” as per the current regulations of the Canada Revenue Agency.

Toronto Foundation will also be considering ways to improve its grant programs in the future, building off the learnings here. One element we are grappling with is how to better ensure the selection committees have the agency to select the recipients, while being mindful of the immense workload and time commitment involved. While all the volunteers in the process were provided with honoraria, community members engaged in the process often have less time and energy to dedicate than traditional selection committee members with professional and financial privilege.



Though more needs to be done, we feel this pilot program represents a significant step forward and hope it inspires other funders. But as a sector, let’s not wait for a crisis for us to act before we take the next step. Let’s ask ourselves - do we want to maintain the norms of the status quo or do we actually want to make real change?

At Community Foundations of Canada’s recent summit, Elder Peter Schuler reminded us that we create what we think. So as a sector and individually, let’s push ourselves to be more creative, and start putting in more of the needed reflection, time and resources to use philanthropy toward building a world that authentically advances justice, reparations and systemic change.