Community Foundations of Canada: Its Journey in Social Justice Philanthropy

Canada: Some Context

Canada is a welcoming country. It is one of the most diverse and multi-cultural countries in the world. It is a large land mass with a small population (31 million people); most residents are concentrated along the border with the United States.

The country, under its current administration, is undergoing major social and economic restructuring. The government is increasingly stepping back from its historical role as a welfare provider, leaving a lot up to communities, citizens, and philanthropy to make up for that.

Among the most pressing issues are the urban living conditions of aboriginal groups many of whom face abject poverty, and the relative poverty of new immigrants. Canada is a wealthy country, but with deep systemic problems. Communities are asked to take on more without benefit of any real public discourse about what is appropriate. We asked ourselves what philanthropy's role is in meeting needs, and how we can work together as a movement to address growing issues?

The Role of Community Foundations in Canada

We recently brought businesses and government together with community foundations (CFs) using the dialogue modality to discus our roles in bringing about social/systemic change. The biggest thrust is how to mobilize the large resources in our network toward social justice. The focus of Community Foundations of Canada (CFC) is thus on nurturing/supporting the CFs and their impact on social justice issues..

CFC is 15 years old ("It is an adolescent, with raging hormones") and it has spent much time building the network and fostering trust among the members. The network was running on two parallel tracks: members recently experienced tremendous growth, but their communities were not doing well (in light of economic and social restructuring). So community foundation leaders, as well as community leaders, started to ask about their impact.

Global networks such as Synergos and the Transatlantic Community Foundation Network ( made an impression on CFC leaders regarding the risks it needed to take, and we were inspired by the network's leaders from Africa, Northern Ireland, etc, who were doing so much with so little.

The Journey Begins

At the national level, we have worked hard to build CFC's relationship with the Ford Foundation and other donors and are appreciative of the support they have offered as we build. Five years ago, we found a lot of interest within our network, but not much experience. And we discovered the contradictions in peoples' minds surrounding "social justice" work and the fear of alienating individual donors.

The journey of CFC's membership network of the last five years involved the following:

  1. We raised the question and brought people together from other places. We took advantage of the power of convening.
  2. We were willing to raise the issue of uncomfortable language. Monica consistently argued to keep the term "social justice" and to reclaim it, and now (though not related to CFC's use of the term) it is incorporated in the regular discourse of the Canadian political parties. However, within philanthropy, it is not always used as some donors fear it's too political or associated with the left wing, Canadians remain aware that some of our US colleagues are uncomfortable with the language.
  3. We brought in those from the outside with experience, e.g. Avila Kilmurray of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (and Synergos Senior Fellow), and tried to match them with our CFs to share experience and find local equivalents (i.e. Canada's experience with poverty is a different than, say, Kenya's).
  4. Making the case: we did research, and continue to tell the story of doing social justice philanthropy, such as looking at the challenges of regulatory and legislative environments, compiling evidence, conducting case studies.
  5. We build on the work of leading edge CFs by supporting them. Here are two stories of member CFs who've become leading social justice activists.

Winnipeg Foundation (
Located in Manitoba province, Winnipeg is a prairie urban center with a large aboriginal population. The Winnipeg Foundation made an investment in one school whose surrounding community has the highest with highest poverty rate. With the belief that education is a ticket out of poverty, the Foundation made a multi-million dollar commitment to provide the school with all the necessary support to make a difference: training for aboriginal adults to become teachers, after-school programs, etc.

Hamilton Community Foundation (
Located in Ontario, Hamilton is in center of the steel industry, with many immigrant workers and residents. It has the highest poverty rate in the province. All the money in the Hamilton Community Foundation's fund is allocated toward poverty alleviation. This is new and unusual for a CF in Canada. One initiative is the convening of a community roundtable on poverty with the city government to develop a long-term plan, including a campaign to make Hamilton the best place to raise a child.

CFC promotes, supports, builds on the work of these leading organizations. CFC convenes, facilitates, knowledge cultivator (it created a "reading' group" to encourage discussion on the issues), advocate (it has met with federal government officials to raise poverty issues and put it high on the agenda.

Bumps in the Road

As a network of membership organizations, it is often a balancing act between leading and supporting the social justice efforts. But on certain issues, some member organizations do see themselves as leaders (e.g. environmental justice). Not coincidentally, work on environmental justice is contentious because many some industries' feathers are ruffled. But many members are now comfortable with their role as social justice leaders.

To help foster that comfort level, CFC created a discussion guide on social justice challenges for CFs and a discussion guide for boards.


Q: What do you see as the top social justice issues in Canada?

A: Poverty in aboriginal communities, especially of children, and poverty of Canadians of colour, including new immigrants. Issues of race are different than in the US because Canada does not have a history of slavery. The new government reduced the budget for aboriginal communities.

Q: How does the Canadian press deal with issue of justice?

A: The momentum and consistency of attention comes and goes in waves. An issue may be big news for a moment, then goes away. In Hamilton, the local newspaper has taken on poverty as a reportable issue, thereby keeping it on the public agenda and maintaining public attention. Reports -- such as Vital Signs (, which tracks and monitors progress in communities -- are useful in keeping up the momentum. It's important to have communications writers and to actually meet members of the press.

Q: Regarding "ruffling feathers": what are the assets or tools that foundations can pull out to keep the dialogue on social justice productive and alive, versus being shut down?

A: Clarity around what the foundation is investing in; courage from a deep belief in the organization's mission; Board support and the courage of their convictions. CFC is still searching for more community conflict resolution processes and for ways to broaden our community facilitation skills: how to use non-financial assets -- relationships, networks, credibility, reputation, the community itself, etc. -- for the good of community. We are open to models from around the world.

Q: Synergos considers itself a convener of inclusive partnerships around justice issues. In CFC, where does partnership fit in? What is CFC's experience in finding roots for partnerships?

A: Partnership is central. When we asked ourselves what it meant to do SJP, we originally believed there was a social justice "spectrum," that there was a continuum of first making "risky" grants and so forth, and then you would have arrived at social justice philanthropy. Indeed, this was simplistic thinking. We understand that it's a range of activities, and we have no ability working alone. The inclusive approach still remains a challenge, especially if donors and boards are comprised of people of means or have access to means. We are still working on diversity, inclusivity, and what that means. We ask, what will Canada look like 10 years from now, and what will we need to look like to be reflective of that? Currently, we are not as representative of our communities a we should be (e.g. there are few aboriginals working as staff in CFs). We have a long way to go.

We are also currently struggling with ensuring that we have a common thread weaving our projects horizontally together (such as immigration, poverty, aboriginal communities, etc.) to avoid becoming too vertical or creating the silo effect.

Q: How is CFC engaging with members to place aboriginal issues higher on the agenda?

A: We try to involve our aboriginal colleagues, but we need to go beyond this. Much depends on the data we have: we look at who's the poorest, for example, and let that define where we need to go forward.

Q: Do you think that the move toward social justice is a sign of change in donors' attitudes, or of financial independence, or is it from the view that foundations look to themselves to fill gaps that the government has created?

A: For example, at the Winnipeg Foundation, social justice was strongly encouraged by an individual donor. He was a successful businessman, and his experience with risks conditioned him not to be scared off easily. Plus he wanted to make big impact. Another component is that more foundations now have enough resources themselves to be able to ask the tough questions. As well, the courage of board members to speak out is important.

Q: Is there a risk of "social justice" -- as it slowly enters the mainstream discourse -- of becoming jargon?

A: No. But we are concerned that it will be hijacked. So we place emphasis on not the words but the action.

Q: The participation of the "community" in a community foundation's social justice philanthropy is an important element for success. Do you believe there is applicability to non-community-connected foundations?

A: Yes. We learned from many private foundations. But we have yet to see whole movements forming and working together.