The Future of Philanthropy - Reflections on National Philanthropy Day

This week are celebrating National Philanthropy Week across North America.  It is a time to reflect and celebrate those who have positively impacted our communities and is the lead-up to #GivingTuesday events around the world.

As such, I thought it worthwhile sharing some thoughts on a recent event hosted by Imagine Canada on the future state of the Social Sector.  I attended the one in Calgary. It was a panel discussion moderated by Allan Northcott (Max Bell Foundation) and the panelists included Sharon McIntyer (Chaordix), Tracey Vavrek (Community Foundation of Northwest Alberta) and Dan Overall (Trico Foundation).

There were some common thoughts shared across the panel and a few other observations that came from the discussion following the panelists’ remarks. Please note, I have paraphrased the questions and answers.

Question: What is starting to influence, and will continue to influence our charitable sector in the years to come?

  • Reconciliation with our First Nation’s community
  • Climate Change
  • Demographic shifts (aging population, women’s access to wealth)
  • Slow economic growth
  • Technology
  • Inter-generational wealth transfer
  • Transition of approximately 1Million family owned businesses to the rising generation or being sold outside of the family enterprise

Question: How we manage these influencers will require charities to?

  • Think exponentially,
  • Focus on Lean Thinking (maximizing assets, people and creativity),
  • Integrate approaches to problem solving (multi-stakeholder solutions that will include strange bed-fellows, and
  • An ongoing call for collaboration – not just between charities, but also between funders

These answers aren’t new.  The sector for over a decade has been talking about these issues in various frames:

  • Leadership conundrum,
  • The business model of charity and impact investing,
  • Challenges with technology (either not understanding its power, or the inability to harness some of the disruptions that have occurred in other markets), and
  • The ongoing demand from funds to collaborate, but the lack of resources to finance the long-term requirements for building trusting relationships between agencies for effective collaboration and taking a “start-up” or lean business approach.  

It was my observation that of the three panelists, Sharon was the only one who addressed the role of the funder as an investor in social change with an expectation of some sort of ROI (return on investment).  She argued that by looking at the complex problem, rapid prototyping a solution and seeking funding for the prototype instead of the whole program, organizations will be able to build trust between agencies, engage funders in an investment process that can be scaled as milestones are achieved, and success or failure can be documented so that others can learn and integrate learnings in their solutions.  The ROI in this approach can be measured in realistic terms instead of in hopeful potential and unattainable results.

Where do I see the future of philanthropy?

The way that people are organizing themselves within our social systems is dramatically shifting the way we tackle complex problems. From crowdsourcing solutions and financing of those solutions to new corporate and legal structures for governing relationships and operating entities – the charitable sector cannot continue to operate in the same fashion and funders cannot finance the sector in the same way.  I believe that we have incentivized giving so much (tax credits, marketing opportunities, investment strategies) that the sector as a whole needs to move beyond the image of the "poor step-sister" and into the role of an equal contributor to the GDP, the business community, the legislative process and the social space.  This system shift can happen by looking at what is coming out of other industries that are pushing into the social solutions space and have the charitable sector, as a whole, make some strategic pivots at an organizational level, a sector level and at an industrial level.  Philanthropy for the pure altruistic will always be there; but for the Rising Generation and impact investors, philanthropy has to start showing results otherwise there will be new, better, faster, cheaper, ways for coming up with solutions.