On January 15, 2024, a small group of philanthropic leaders convened to discuss a collaborative strategy for the transformation of philanthropy in Canada, with an eye toward global integration. This discussion was one of many focused on the transformation taking place within the philanthropic community.

In recent years, the philanthropic landscape has undergone a significant transformation, prompting deep reflections within the community on leadership, accountability, and collaboration. Gone are the days when philanthropy was solely about spreading joy and hope. Leaders in the field now face new risks and complexities, underscoring the need for authenticity and the courage to speak up, particularly amid the intertwining and compounding issues that make up today’s polycrisis. Philanthropic leaders who fail to vocalize their support for solidarity movements rooted in the liberation of marginalized groups risk becoming detached and alienated from the very communities they aim to serve. More than ever, philanthropic leaders are challenged to reshape their identities and business models, calling for introspection as they strive to remain relevant in a rapidly changing and demanding world. Yet on a granular level, it is important to recognize that tackling complex systems and striving for meaningful change can be tiring and exhausting for many in the sector, particularly for racialized or historically underrepresented leaders. During these trying times, true leadership requires building community through allyship and reciprocity, thus seizing the opportunity for transformation and systems change. This can take the shape of shared peer learning in trusted circles and experimenting collaboratively in bold new ways that include shifting mindsets and power structures. This requires detachment from previously held roles, resources and mental models.

Reimagining Influence and Accountability

During the meeting, leaders agreed that philanthropy’s influence is not measured solely by financial contributions. There is also a growing emphasis on social, cultural and technological capital and philanthropy’s core responsibility to advance the public good. Although philanthropic decision-making has traditionally revolved around donors and constituencies, the sector is shifting towards prioritizing the needs of impacted communities over the interests of donors. In response to some of the challenges posed by donor-advised funds, leaders proposed a wide range of structural changes, including governance reforms that prioritize diverse board representation and stakeholder engagement, coalitions with donors and boards to advance philanthropic agendas, and pathways for organizational accountability. When implementing such changes, one might ask, “Who bears the responsibility of holding philanthropic organizations accountable for failing to generate value in communities?” Trying to find the right answer to this demands disruptions to existing power structures and hierarchies within philanthropic organizations, including conversations about privilege and historical injustices as new voices and perspectives are introduced.

Additionally, organizations could enhance accountability by centering their business models on the Seventh Generation Principle, a widely used teaching in Indigenous governance. This principle advocates for decision-making that takes into account the social implications seven generations into the future, offering a guiding framework for philanthropy’s transformation efforts. By prioritizing long-term impact, philanthropic entities are well-equipped to build a more equitable and sustainable future. This requires intergenerational accountability and a renewed commitment to values-driven action, similar to the Declaration of Action for Truth and Reconciliation.


On the Power of Cross-sector Collaboration

Leaders also emphasized the need for philanthropy to leverage relational infrastructure to mobilize capital and resources across the spectrum from diverse stakeholders. Cross-sector convenings, bridging government, private sector, and communities, offer a promising avenue for collective action and innovation. At the same time, entrenched silos and a desire for ownership over projects or strategies present significant barriers to effective horizontal collaboration. Philanthropic leaders must be willing to embrace experimentation and play while relinquishing the need for individual recognition. These are key steps toward fostering meaningful partnerships in which philanthropy can maximize its impact and address complex social challenges.

Navigating Societal Politics of Change

As the global political landscape undergoes seismic shifts, characterized by the rise of anti-rights movements, and the proliferation of complex world issues such as the conflicts in Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine, philanthropy faces the challenge of navigating societal politics of change. This prompts a redefinition of its role in advancing democracy, with a critical aspect of this transformation journey being the support for independent journalism. Investments in initiatives and policies that uphold editorial independence, promote media pluralism, and safeguard press freedom are essential in fostering informed civic engagement and countering mis/disinformation. Philanthropic organizations must transcend political boundaries, curating leadership journeys that fearlessly explore historical legacies, contemporary crises, and future scenarios to build a more resilient society. Nowadays, it is not possible to be in a leadership role in the sector without recognizing the intersection and influence in the realm of democracy…likewise, without being able to hold space for multiple truths.

A recent exemplary demonstration of philanthropic leadership is the CEO of Inspirit Foundation, Sadia Zaman’s November 2023 letter, which sheds light on the foundation’s response to the unfolding genocide in Gaza. From convening emergency board meetings to fostering inclusive dialogues “that refused the binary of a Jewish-Muslim conflict, that referenced Indigenous experiences, that saw connections to how African-American men were routinely dehumanized through slavery,” the foundation continues its work in shifting narrative power. Additionally, in support of fair journalism, Inspirit Foundation is actively establishing an emergency fund for journalists working in hostile environments, and has released the groundbreaking Funding Journalism: A Guide for Canadian Philanthropy. I highly recommend reading Sadia Zaman’s full letter for valuable insights on authentic leadership during trying times.

Looking Ahead

As the philanthropic sector continues to grapple with complex systems and even tensions in a shifting political landscape, I hope these shared insights serve as a catalyst for charting a course towards a more just, equitable, and sustainable future. The ‘reawakening’ and consequently the need for transformation that many leaders are currently experiencing may feel new to some, but for underrepresented communities who have long been advocating for their own needs, it’s merely a continuation of the ‘same old’ cycle. Their tireless efforts have long sought recognition and change, even when the broader discourse was not attuned to their voices. Perhaps leaders are the ones who need to catch up as we strive to systematically and diligently integrate principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion into philanthropic models. As a young changemaker and founder of a community arts non-profit, I wholeheartedly recognize the vital significance of co-creating space for renewal and regrowth alongside the communities we serve. Philanthropic organizations seeking collective transformation must implement such collaborative processes as they meaningfully unlock new pathways in building a brighter, more equitable world.