by Andrew Chunilall, CEO, Community Foundations of Canada
Community foundations have long played a central role in responding to local issues that affect local communities. But as our world becomes increasingly globalized, philanthropy is facing a new and perhaps more difficult challenge: How do we respond to the impact of global issues on local communities?
We know that we are living in a rapidly changing world, one in which the impacts of large scale global challenges are being felt closer and closer to home.
Responding to a conflict in Syria
Consider what has played out over the past few years with respect to the conflict in Syria. A war in one part of the world has led to one of the largest refugee and human migration crises since World War II.
Last year, the United Nations identified 13.5 million Syrians requiring humanitarian assistance, which included more than 6 million who are internally displaced and another nearly 5 million who are refugees outside the country.
In the latter part of 2015, as news about the conflict in Syria continued to break and images of Alan Kurdi made media headlines, the moment became one of deep reflection for many Canadians, and indeed many philanthropic organizations.
Behind a newly elected federal government with a campaign promise to welcome and settle 25,000 refugees from Syria, suddenly a refugee crisis in a place where most Canadians have never visited was having an impact in communities across the country.
How would Canadians and Canadian institutions respond? And how would we balance the tension of addressing the challenges in our own neighborhoods with the seemingly overwhelming resettlement challenges related to a refugee crisis on the other side of the world?
Two oceans and a vast north have often acted as buffers to Canada’s engagement with issues abroad. But this situation was different. Digital and social media brought the Syrian conflict to the attention of many across the country. Canadians felt a deep desire to respond, and Canadian institutions stepped forward to rally alongside individual support at an unprecedented scale.
Today, less than two years later, more than 40,000 Syrian refugees have now been welcomed into communities across the country. It’s a success story that has been a point of pride for many and one that has helped cement the notion that our communities are places where everyone can feel a strong sense of belonging. The moment has also caused many to reflect on what role Canada should be playing in an increasingly interconnected global environment.
Though largely successful, it’s worth mentioning that the refugee resettlement process exposed a few cracks in the system. Many institutions openly struggled to act in a way that was nimble, collaborative, and data-driven when faced with a pressing need to do so. As the exponential challenges posed by globalization, climate change, human migration and demographic shifts continue to impact our communities, it’s clear our institutions don’t have time to rest on their laurels.
Connecting local and global philanthropy
Over the past year, the team at Community Foundations of Canada has been thinking about how our communities, our sector, and our institutions are changing. We’ve been considering how philanthropic organizations are increasingly being asked to be both locally rooted and globally focused – how we can stay relevant and at the same time strengthen our impact within this new context.
To answer these questions, we’ve been engaging our Board, partners and leadership from across our network of 191 community foundations in a program of experiential learning to connect with those working in philanthropy globally. This includes the social entrepreneurs, government leaders, and bold foundations calling attention to the often unequal power dynamics that exist within the philanthropic sector, and challenging the values, norms and mechanisms that underpin our collective work.
In October 2016, a delegation of community foundation leaders travelled to San Francisco, California to attend the Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Innovation Conference. While there we met with technology leaders, social finance firms and social enterprise startups to better understand how emerging technologies affect our communities, both positively and negatively. We also explored how emerging technologies will enable increasingly democratized and participatory forms of giving, and how increased automation of core philanthropic functions will allow foundations to deploy their resources in new and different ways.
A second delegation attended the Global Summit on Community Philanthropy in Johannesburg, South Africa, hosted by the Global Fund for Community Foundations, a network helping to connect 1,863 place based foundations around the world. The summit reflected an increasingly young and diverse movement of community philanthropy – one unwilling to accept the power dynamics and inequity that has long been pervasive in the connected worlds of philanthropy and international development.
In February 2017, another delegation of community foundation leaders visited Mexico City for WINGSForum 2017. The forum built upon our experiences in San Francisco and Johannesburg by highlighting the need for global philanthropy to work together and take up strategies to adapt to changing political and social contexts at the local level. During the forum, participants from 41 countries adopted the Mexico City Declaration that outlined a shared commitment to ‘respect for cultural diversity and global collaboration, reducing human inequality, protecting the natural environment and promoting development.’
Together these experiences have begun to have their own ripple effect within Canada’s community foundation movement. These delegations were designed to expand our thinking about the interconnection between local and global philanthropy, and different models available to affect change. But they have also helped unearth a wealth of new opportunities to connect local community knowledge, leadership, resources and data with others globally, and begin to unlock the reciprocity we’ve long experienced among Canada’s 191 community foundations within a global context.
The recent international Belong 2017: Community Foundations Conference hosted by Community Foundations of Canada this past May in Ottawa-Gatineau was another example of this reciprocity in action. Over four days we welcomed 750 community philanthropy leaders from 34 countries, as well as a broad range of participants from the non-profit, public and private sectors to share best practices, emerging models and transformative technologies helping to shape the future of philanthropy. The group grappled together with the themes of belonging, pluralism and Reconciliation, and the importance of having people who are reflective of the diverse, changing demographics of our communities be part of those conversations.
The Governor General of Canada, His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, has often reflected on Canada as a great experiment in pluralism. While we’ve had some signals that the outcome of this experiment will be a positive one, like the recent effort to welcome those joining Canadian communities from Syria, in truth we are still a long way away from declaring any sort of victory. We know that prejudice and inequality are still present in our communities and our institutions.
By working toward a new philanthropy that is both local and global by nature, and by meaningfully engaging with the diversity of leadership and experience that exist across this expanded network, we have a unique opportunity to continue to play a central role alongside many others in addressing the complex challenges our communities will face in the future, and in strengthening the social fabric of belonging and inclusion for all.