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Citizenship, Participation and the Role of Funders
Good Conversation > Philia Dialogues > Citizenship, Participation and the Role of Funders

By Jack Styan, Dominique Collin, and Roger Jones

On December 2, 2021 a group of foundations and social entrepreneurs participated in a Philia Dialogue to explore the role of funders, and foundations in particular, in nurturing civic virtue and caring citizens. The dialogue, entitled "Citizenship, Participation and the Voluntary Sector," was chaired by Tim Brodhead of the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation and hosted by His Excellency John Ralston Saul.

Ted Kuntz, parent and president of PLAN, began by speaking to the connection between citizenship and disability - that is, the importance of contribution to the achievement of real citizenship by persons with disabilities. More specifically, he spoke about the role that his son has played in changing his life and bringing caring relationships to those around him.

His Excellency expanded on the idea of citizenship and what it entails. He stressed that citizenship includes both one's rights and one's obligations. The contributions made by persons with disabilities represent a path towards a more full citizenship - that is one that includes relationships with fellow citizens. The contributions made by persons with disabilities may or may fulfill their obligations or duties associated with citizenship, which His Excellency maintained are not optional. These obligations, such as the duty to help those who require assistance, are born by all citizens - including those with disabilities.

In addition, he argued that two trends continue to influence the relationship between funders, the civic sector and citizens: the trend toward a charity-based funding paradigm and the trend of utilitarianism.

The trend back towards a charity-based paradigm is a dangerous place for Canada to go back to. Why? Because within a charitable paradigm, donors have the right to choose how much they donate and to whom, and to direct the activities conducted with their donations. In other words, they determine "worthy" causes. "Worthy" issues are generally those that have presented themselves as the most "needy". As a result, solutions often fail to address the root cause of issues.

Moreover, charity is one-sided: the donor gives and the recipient receives. This eliminates any possibility for reciprocity in the relationship and thus robs the receiver of their dignity.

Finally, the charitable paradigm often leads to funding causes that governments have an obligation to fund, e.g. hospitals and large arts organizations, rather than supporting innovation and the piloting of new ideas.

The domination of our thinking by utilitarianism has also affected funding decisions. One effect is that everything must have measurable outputs. Private sector methodology has been adopted to measure success in the public sector. But, Saul argues, where "success" is equated with "growth," the idea will ultimately fail. We need to seek solutions that are sustainable over the long term.

The fact is, our metrics are determined by our belief systems which, in turn, are defined by the majority. For example, as a society we have come to believe that there is only one type of intelligence of any importance - "rational" intelligence - and we therefore understand and measure it accordingly. In fact, however, intelligence is a concept that has evolved over the course of history. Another example is that in the arena of public funding we are dominated by the idea that as a nation "we are broke." This assumption leads to a conclusion that governments are impotent and unable to assume obligations on behalf of Society. But the reality is that in Canada, we have a surplus of resources.

We also have a false impression of how the public good is funded. The public perceives foundations and corporations as picking up where governments withdraw. In fact, however, individual donations make up about $6.4 billion annually, corporations and foundations donate another $1.4 billion, for a total of about $8 billion. In other words, corporations & foundations don't contribute as much as we think they do. His excellency suggested, only partially tongue in cheek, that it would be in the public interest for foundations to declare their inability to sustain societal responses that Government withdraws from.

We have, however, a "lazy" majority that neither question the assumptions they make in understanding their world nor the conclusions they draw about it. Therefore, one of the key questions we must ask is: "How do we change the public perception?"

Two other challenges were identified:

  • How do we increase the ability of people in rural areas to participate?
  • How do we attract the bright young people who are gravitating to NGOs back into the public and private sectors?

When, however, we use our knowledge we can overcome the aforementioned shortcomings and do great work. One example is the Shaunessey Community Centre in Calgary. The building design brings high school students, seniors, people using the sports and recreation facilities, people learning English as a second language - people from all parts of society. The building design forces everybody together but separates them by function.

Another example is that of the "community freezer" used by the Inu in the Arctic. When hunters return successful to the community, they give some of the food they have returned with to the community freezer. The two staff process and package it and leave it in the freezer. When somebody is too busy or unable to hunt, they help themselves to an item from the freezer. Nobody monitors who contributes or withdraws from the freezer but it is inevitably full and nobody in the community is hungry. This is an example of reciprocity in action. People contribute according to their ability. People utilize according to their need. Nobody keeps track of who owes whom. Nobody is stripped of their dignity because of their need.

Following His Excellency's remarks, a wide-ranging dialogue ensued which raised many interesting points and questions. Nor surprisingly, given the theme of the dialogue, two key themes were citizenship and participation.

Polling suggests we are living in a time of "joyless prosperity." There is a deeply-rooted longing to "find meaning in our world" and to "reclaim our humanity." Inevitably, this leads to talk of relationships, community, participation and citizenship. But we need to delve deeper and ask ourselves what we mean by these terms and how we can achieve them.

For example, who defines citizenship, and how do we inspire the "obligations" of citizenship? What are the effects of space and time on the development of relationships? How do we build more inclusive communities, and what tools do we give people to create them? And what role does the social economy play in developing community and achieving citizenship?

These are not questions that can be answered in one session, and we must beware of our tendency to jump into action without sufficient reflection or discussion. That tendency leads to poor decisions and choices, which in turn leads to results that are less than they could have been. Dialogue can yield great insights, and is necessary to create the public will for political change. In particular, we can learn a great deal from dialogues with excluded groups such as the disability community, which provide enormous insights into inclusion.

What are the implications of all this for funders? One observation was that there is too great a distance between funders and life "on the margins", as well as between the public and the margins. To build community, funders need to go out to the margins rather than trying to bring them into the centre. Another observation was that causes are seen as being either "sexy" or "not sexy" and favoured or overlooked accordingly. This leads to misguided investments in community.

Another issue that provoked much discussion was accountability and the accompanying question of measurement. Foundations need an "accountability regime" when providing funds to individual organizations. They need to know what the organization will do in the community, and that it will be accountable - though they don't necessarily need to know in advance just what the results will be. But how do we best measure social outcomes? In particular, how do we measure "the infusion of the value of citizenship in society?"

The private sector has used measurement to affect public opinion - thus the public thinks that there is a crisis of public finances and a lack of accountability. Furthermore, the media have inculcated the public with fear, which is an additional driver of public policy. As a result, public services are faced with the ongoing task of proving their worthiness, which eats up resources that could better be expended elsewhere.

It is hard to break free from our society's reliance on quantitative measures. Although some of the dialogue participants were open to the idea of less stringent reporting requirements, others made it clear that they believed in the necessity of strict reporting procedures and documentation.

But while performance or output measures are necessary, they carry their own risks. For one thing, the emphasis on performance measurement inhibits innovation and creativity. With no allowance made for failure, organizations become risk-averse, and imaginative initiatives are nipped in the bud. Moreover, such measurements flow from the same logic as abstract objectives that seek to replicate projects that meet established norms. As a result, funding criteria sometimes prescribe unneeded, even undesirable, outcomes, weeding out initiatives that are relevant, rooted in community, built around place-sensitive combinations of opportunities and talents, and address persons rather than problems. And, participants were reminded, measurements tend to be dictated by funders rather than stakeholders and only address a part of reality.

One participant highlighted the downside of stringent guidelines for funding ideas and measuring success with an example. The project to create the community freezers in northern communities - the successful innovation described by His Excellency - was evaluated on the basis of its targeted outcomes. It was created through a project, the goal of which was to create employment. As the amount of employment created by the project was minimal compared to initial capital expenditures, the project was considered a failure.

Another participant spoke about his organization's reasons for funding a major project. He indicated that it was neither the proposed outcomes nor a fit with funding criteria that motivated the decision to fund the project. Instead, he stated that it was based on confidence in the organization and its proponents.

There is little question that we need some kind of measures - but we can use measurement more effectively and for our own gain: i.e. to bring attention to issues that are important to us. Possible alternatives to the standard "bookkeeping" approach include social audits; measuring policy outcomes; using a "balanced scorecard" that measures both fiscal and social good.

In any event, it was suggested, measures should come after a reconceptualization of social good and citizenship, and we need to develop a language to describe results that is not reducible to measurable outcomes as an alternative to private sector-inspired accountability measures.

So what role can foundations play? Should foundations fund services? Should funds be used primarily to promote innovation? How should foundations deal with risk? And does the public know the limitations of charity (i.e. contributions from individuals, corporations, foundations)? In some instances, His Excellency noted, foundations may be the only groups that are in a position to fund initiatives that are seen as 'risky'.

It was generally agreed that foundations should take more risks in funding social innovations. The need for foundations to sustain their efforts over a long time period, however, affects both thinking and spending in foundations. While foundations often see themselves as funders of pilot projects, governments have also increasingly moved into this territory thus leaving a gap in long term sustained funding.

It was also agreed that the impacts of foundations can go well beyond simply giving money. They can help build social capital and strengthen communities, initiate projects that mobilize citizens, stimulate participation, raise awareness, and create deeper understanding of issues. Foundations should also invest in developing an intellectual framework around evaluation.

In the United States, foundations play a significant role in shaping public policy. In Canada, however, the Charity Law substantially eliminates effective participation in this work. Greater participation by foundations in shaping public policy would result in more realistic consideration during the development phase.

Finally, foundations need language and mechanisms to empower the public to participate in public policy discussions. Only when the public is aware of the facts, the issues and the significance of proposed public policy can they effectively participate. Storytelling is one powerful tool that is generally underutilized.

Consideration of the role foundations can play in nurturing civic virtue and caring citizens necessarily entails consideration of the role governments must play. How do we get governments to reassert themselves as leaders and long term funders? And just how much of a role should they play? Perhaps, as some argued, citizen mobilization is needed more than state intervention and the professionalization of services that comes with the latter.

Much debate revolved around the role of gaming as a source of charitable revenue. Gaming provides as much funding to NGOs in Canada as foundations do - but it is a questionable activity for governments to be engaging in. As some participants pointed out, gaming is tantamount to a "stealth tax" on the poor, as marketing is aimed at poor and middle class people (there are no VLTs in affluent West Montreal, for example). Is it a coincidence that a portion of the proceeds is given to the NGO sector, which is the group mostly likely to advocate against gaming and draw attention to its negative outcomes.

The dialogue closed with some thoughts about where we should go from here. Participants indicated a strong desire for more dialogues of this kind, in multiple jurisdictions. One suggestion was to use the "Funders Matter" report as a starting point for further dialogue. Another suggestion was to invite foundation Boards of Directors to future dialogues. Treasury Board was another entity people felt should be introduced to Philia concepts, and it was proposed that Privy Council Office and other central agency representatives be brought into the discussion to put forward arguments for supporting social economy and values-based approaches.

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