Foundations as Changemakers: Interview with Hilary Pearson

What role do foundations play in shaping social change? Are they drivers of change? How do they contribute to the development of social innovations and their diffusion? Philanthropy expert and author Hilary Pearson shares her observations on the foundation sector in Canada and globally.

Hilary Pearson is a philanthropy expert and author of the 2022 book, „From Charity to Change: Inside the World of Canadian Foundations.“ In her book, she delves into the unknown world of foundations in Canada, shedding light on their often understated yet pivotal role within the country’s civil society. On the 27th of September Hilary Pearson shared her observations on the foundation sector in Canada and Germany at a panel session hosted by the Embassy of Canada, in cooperation with the Berliner Stiftungswoche and moderated by the Maecenata Foundation and Wider Sense. In our preliminary conversation with her, we explored the significance of foundations in Canada’s civil society, her nuanced perspective on foundations as „changemakers,“ and the evolving nature of these institutions as they transition from more traditional approaches toward sustainable, structural change.

Lukas Kolig: Your book is about foundations in Canada. Can you sketch for us briefly the importance of foundations in Canada’s civil society?

Hilary Pearson: My book focuses on the role of private philanthropy within the wider ecosystem of philanthropic giving in Canada. There are many elements in this ecosystem, including giving by individuals, giving by corporations, volunteering of time and, increasingly, social impact investing. The niche occupied by foundation giving is a relatively small one in dollar terms, but I argue that it is essential, particularly if endowed foundations play to their strengths, and fund riskier or more innovative social projects over longer periods of time.

As in any ecosystem, each element is important to the overall balance and to the functioning of all the rest. Foundations are a less well-known part of this system in Canada, and my book tries to shed light on their importance.

Why do you describe foundations as “changemakers”?

I would modify this description to a role which is more complex: creator and supporter of conditions that favor social change. Foundations on their own are not changemakers except in rare cases. They tend to work through and with partners, social benefit organizations, charities and nonprofits who are working to change social conditions that limit opportunity, wellbeing and human flourishing.

Foundations are not changemakers by themselves. I would say that most in Canada are conscious of the arrogance hidden in assuming that description. But they can be oriented towards social change, and towards systemic change which goes to attacking the roots rather than the symptoms of social problems. In that sense they are less about charity and more about change.

More on the book „From Charity to Change: Inside the World of Canadian Foundations“ from Hilary Pearson.

You describe an evolution of numerous Canadian foundations shifting away from paternalism toward ‘sustainable, structural change’. What does this change look like and in what way does it impact the way Canadian foundations will operate in the future?

I have written the stories of twenty Canadian foundations. While they share the description “foundation”, these organizations are very different in character, history and mission so I have been careful not to generalize much about foundations as a class. But I believe that certain foundations in Canada, and in other parts of the world, can be leaders in telling their stories about how to have more impact over time. I chose to group the work of these foundations under certain thematic areas to illustrate their evolution. These themes include building fields, strengthening communities, advancing public policy, confronting climate change and reconciliation with Indigenous communities through relationship.

I also describe the work of these foundations through their approaches of shifting power or partnering for impact. The combination of mission, philosophy, approach and leadership differentiates one foundation from another but also separates all of them from the larger group of traditional foundations. Much of this work and approach would be familiar to foundations outside of Canada. I think that as younger generations of families and staff join these foundations we will see more, not less of these approaches. Another aspect of Canadian philanthropic work that might be more specific to Canada is the work that foundations are doing to reconsider and repair our relationship with Indigenous peoples.  This is an area that may prove to be much more important to the development of Canadian philanthropy in the future.

What foundation change story did you come across that we all should know about?

There are so many great stories! I find it hard to pick one. As I studied and wrote the stories of the foundations in my book, I realized that there are specific characteristics that recur and that separate these foundations from the rest in terms of having more impact. These characteristics are similar to those found in companies that endure over time and succeed in their mission. In his book “Good To Great”, the American author Jim Collins talks about companies who have humble leaders, deep values, a passionate commitment to mission and discipline around people and processes. This applies just as much to foundations as it does to companies. So the foundations that I think we need to know more about are the ones that exhibit these characteristics. Most of the ones I describe in my book have these elements.

“The great advantage of foundations is that they can invest with a patience and a risk tolerance that many companies cannot.“

What do you think that German and Canadian philanthropic colleagues can share with each other?

I think that we in Canada can learn more about the philanthropic ecosystem in Germany and reflect on how our own must change as we face increasingly urgent and complex social problems. In Canada and in Europe we have been through a summer that brings home the consequences of climate change very dramatically. In Canada and in Germany people are worried about how to cope with the mounting costs and disruptions to their lives and their societies. What is philanthropy’s role in this? How do we maintain a longer-term vision in the face of urgent near-term need? We all face the same questions about how to justify the role of foundations in a world in which wealth is distributed so unequally. So how do we continue to make a compelling case for the foundation model? We and our German colleagues could benefit from a discussion on the directions in which we must take our field.

Hilary Pearson
Hilary Pearson has a twenty-year career in the field of foundation philanthropy in Canada. As the founding President of Philanthropic Foundations Canada for almost eighteen years, she worked with many of the largest private charitable foundations in the country. Additionally, she is the author of numerous articles and reviews on foundation philanthropy and also speaks frequently at conferences and workshops in Canada and globally.