When Umbrella Organizations Really Matter

In my first gig as a grantmaker some years ago I spent a lot of time learning about and funding provincial and national organizations that exist to support a defined community of interest. I learned that no two umbrella organizations are the same but that there are some commonalities. For the most part they exist to:

  • Improve outcomes by highlighting best practices, streamlining work and reducing duplication (Maintaining a birds-eye view and acting as a knowledge broker);
  • Network member organizations for shared learning and professional development;
  • Collaborate for collective impact (joint fundraising and co-funding);
  • Advocate on their shared agenda.

The first three functions are table stakes. They’re the basic transactional workings that members expect. They are important but they’re rarely game-changing.

Advocacy is where the rubber hits the road. This is the stuff that people get excited about because it has the potential to get traction, to move an issue forward.

The role of advocacy at an umbrella organization was raised by Gabe Oatley’s recent article in the Future of Good. They ask the question: Should umbrella organizations only take a position with the consensus or the majority opinion of their membership? Or should the perspectives of members be inputs only into the argument the umbrella organization forms based on their own vantage point, experience and analysis?

I liken these circumstances to the way government works. We elect officials to represent us and then accept that it is their purview to make decisions on our behalf. Government does not issue a referendum every time it speaks – far from it. Sometimes we agree with a given decision; sometimes not. But the ideas and motivations behind the decisions are what’s most important and these are part of the public domain.

In the case of Community Foundations of Canada (CFC) there has been no shortage of transparency on where they stand. The board of directors (which includes member organizations) appointed two co-heads with a strong change agenda. A bold strategic plan was formed after significant consultation and it surfaced openly that reforming the movement, the very nature of community philanthropy, was going to be at the heart of CFC’s mandate. Some cheered; others were likely trepidatious. But no one can argue that CFC’s agenda wasn’t clear. The Calgary Foundation found that their views were not aligned with those of our national umbrella organization and opted to discontinue their membership. This is their prerogative of course. But other community foundations, including ours, remain confident in and inspired by the leadership at Community Foundations of Canada.

So much has changed in the past couple of years, not just in our little world of community foundations, but globally too – reckoning on social injustices, historical power abuses, our collective complicity in many of the world’s ills, and to my main point, the driving imperative to transform ourselves and our systems. Any umbrella organization that has been oblivious to or indifferent to the need for reform has no right to lead today. And those that step out and take chances are the ones we should all be championing.

It takes guts to tackle controversial issues. There’s a lot of risk attached to it. But if our leadership opts to align with the status quo at a time when change is the dominant rallying cry of the communities we serve, then we will sink into irrelevance. Umbrella organizations truly matter when they have the courage to take a stand. We may not always agree but nothing ever gets better by continuing to do the same thing.

Interested in learning about additional ways we can re-evaluate philanthropy?

Read Toronto Foundation President & CEO Sharon Avery’s reflections on resetting philanthropy (including a link to Toronto Foundation’s submission to the federal government on the disbursement quota.)