With My Hand On The Doorknob: In Search of Strategic Philanthropy

TheStar.com – Opinion
July 31, 2010.   Charles E. Pascal

Almost fifteen years ago I received “the job is yours” call and the chance to serve one of Canada’s most important and enduring legacies, Joseph E. Atkinson’s crusades for social and economic justice.

As I prepare to pass the torch as Executive Director of the Atkinson Foundation, the advantage of 20/20 hindsight has led me to reflect on lessons learned about how to change the world, particularly through strategic philanthropy. I joined the Foundation at the beginning of 1996, when the board was seeking a new approach to social change. The goal was to move from reacting to proposals for “good works” to becoming a proactive organization, working with partners to advance evidence and ideas about how the future could be more just. During its initial forty years, the Foundation had focused primarily on supporting the architecture of buildings.

By the nineties, a changing public discourse led the Foundation’s board to shift its focus to the architecture of ideas. In a time of public policy retrenchment, ideas were needed that might inspire the public and those who govern with a renewed impetus for shaping the kind of future that Mr. Atkinson relentlessly crusaded for in the first half of the last century: a more just, safer and healthier society for all, not just the few.

As the Foundation made the move from reactive charitable giving to seeking a strategic impact, we understood early on that being “focused” was imperative.

Faced with many choices to make and limited resources to invest, our own choice at the Foundation was between doing fewer things better and doing all things less well. We chose the former and decided to make clarity of purpose our mantra. As we sought our niche areas, we invested our time and resources in convening the best and brightest thinkers, practitioners, researchers, and policy people to help us make good decisions. It was this kind of honest, open-minded convening that led us down the pathways of early learning and care as a long-term mission; that inspired us to seek out the creation of the Canadian Index of Well-being; and more recently, to contribute to opening up space for new gains on poverty reduction policies. We have been fortunate to play the significant role of broker, connecting those who are high on the lived experience of extraordinary challenges with those who are high on good intentions, but down a quart or two regarding what to do regarding making meaningful policy.

In the work we have done with our partners, we have also learned that evidence is important, indeed a must. But reports alone are far from enough. Our pursuit of “architectures of ideas” has shown us that if you build it “they” will come to see the possibilities. This is why combining research with demonstration projects and aggressively communicating the results, has been so essential to impact. For example, in Ontario, we are witnessing evidence-based politics and policy-making on full day learning for four and five year olds. This breakthrough has happened thanks, in some measure, to a strong framework of ideas developed by innumerable partners, buttressed by facts and experiences emanating from real examples of what’s possible (the Toronto First Duty demonstration sites come easily to mind), along with compelling evidence and relentless communications about the social and economic results to be gained.

Strategic philanthropy, I have found, is often a very intuitive endeavour. Sometimes, it is about doing the very simple, the very obvious. We have found that one of the best ways of showing what’s best for our collective future is catching people and organizations doing things right today, tapping them on the shoulder, and providing them with unfettered resources to do their thing.

We have been fortunate to find our Atkinson Economic Justice Fellows through just this approach. The roster to date has included a remarkable cohort of iconic Canadians and passionate and effective grassroots change agents! Such a simple premise: “wow, look at them, let’s join their crusade,” and three years of substantial unconditional support for their work is provided.

The Ruth Atkinson Hindmarsh Award is built on a similar premise. In honour of Mr. Atkinson’s daughter, the iconic Mrs. Hindmarsh, a simple one or two page nomination of an initiative serving children can lead to a sizeable no-strings-attached cheque that essentially catches someone doing things right and encourages them to “carry on!”

Being able to stand on the shoulders of Joseph E. Atkinson has been a singularly special phase in my life. This past decade and a half has been a remarkable opportunity to learn, to form very special relationships and partnerships, and to be a more effective crusader for social and economic justice. It has been an amazing experience to sit around a board table with staff and colleagues who understand that foundation resources are risk capital that offer up the recurring mantra: “If we don’t fund it, who will?”

I am certain the residual effects of this experience will infuse every aspect of my continued journey.

The Atkinson Charitable Foundation has not yet named who will replace Charles Pascal as Executive Director.

–Charles E. Pascal

< http://www.thestar.com/atkinsonseries/article/842695–partnership-gives-hope-to-northern-reserves >

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