As you likely heard, Marcel Lauzière recently stepped down as the President and CEO of Imagine Canada. Next week, he’ll began his new role as the Executive Director of the Lawson Foundation. During his five and half years at Imagine Canada, Marcel was at the forefront of significant evolutions in Canada’s charitable sector.
Shortly before saying goodbye, I had the opportunity to sit down with Marcel for a wide ranging interview, which focused on how philanthropy has changed in the past five years and the challenges facing grantmaking foundations. Here are the highlights of our discussion.
You have spent the past five and a half years with Imagine Canada. Have you seen any major changes in the philanthropic landscape during this time?
No doubt that if you look at philanthropy — individual donors, foundations, government funders — they are all in one way or another placing importance on measuring impact. Not everyone really knows what that means. I would say that is the biggest shift [in the past five years] and one of the things that keeps a lot of Executive Directors and CEOs awake at night.
Another change is the sense that donors and funders want to be more strategic in how they give. I would say that a number of foundations are also going through that exercise of saying, “Maybe we were too broad and we need to focus more on one or two areas.”
There is a sense that by focusing more you are going to get more bang for the buck. That may be true, but of course one of the unanticipated consequences is that a number of organizations who may not fit into that strategic lens, who are maybe not as sexy at that particular time, may lose out.
For example, rural organizations that may not be connected in the same way may lose out. It’s hard to argue against being strategic, but there is a real consequence, in that it is increasingly difficult for some organizations to find funding, and I think that is problematic.
I think it is interesting what you are saying about being strategic. I also see this in corporate philanthropy. Rather than doing charity on the side, corporations are trying to be more strategic and incorporate philanthropy into their core business.
One trend that we’ve seen in the past two or three years is an increasing focus on what some corporate funders would call community engagement. Going towards identifying projects where Canadians, individuals, vote in favour of this and that. And I think that is all part of building the brand, building the marketing. There are also some consequences that we need to be careful about, such as when decisions are made sometimes based less on real evidence and more on how people care about things.
A lot of these changes show that philanthropy in Canada is becoming much more “out there” or visible. People are much more engaged than they were 10 or 15 years ago. We know that philanthropy has always been a big thing in the US, but less so in Canada. And that change is not a bad thing, it’s a good thing.
What do you see as the major challenges facing grantmaking foundations?
I think foundations are increasingly realizing that they can do a lot more than simply use their assets. They can do more than simply provide grants.
Now a lot of the thinking is about how we go beyond that. How can we use our ability to connect people, our ability to convene and bring people to the table around big issues? How can we use our voice, which has not been done much in the past by foundations, to promote good public policy? That’s relatively new, because foundations typically in Canada have been very much behind the curtain — doing good work, but leaving it to others to actually mobilize and bring people to the table and push the public policy envelope.
I think there is a real need for foundations to do this. But that also means a different skill set; it’s a different way of looking at the world. Foundations can’t simply say, “We’re now going to become conveners, we are now going to become involved in public policy,” if they have no experience doing that. They have to think about the skill sets they need to do it.
The whole issue of impact and measuring impact. Foundations need to have a better understanding themselves, of what they are looking for and how to measure that impact. They need to recognize the fact that it costs money; you need resources to be able to do it. You can’t simply tell organizations, measure your impact, without recognizing that support is going to need to come.
That’s something I wanted to touch on as well, in terms of how you see the relationship between a funder and a fundee on the issue of measuring impact. What kind of role can a foundation play in helping a grantee measure impact?
I think one thing that holds us back a lot around impact measurement is that we have this sense that we need to find this perfect methodology that is going to allow us to measure things perfectly. Well that’s not going to happen. We have to stop using that as a pretext not to move further. We’re going to find proxies, different ways of looking at things, but we are going to have to move foundations and organizations hand in hand, and figure out how to measure that impact.
Another challenge for foundations is re-thinking their relationships with organizations. In other words, if you’re in a world where essentially what you are doing is providing grants to organizations, then there is a particular type of relationship, funder and fundee. But as foundations want to do more and want to work in partnership, then there has to be a change in the relationship.
You can’t hide the fact that there will always will be a power differential. One of the challenges is how do you move away from that if you become a convener and want to work with organizations on the ground with public policy issues, you can’t have that same relationship and that’s not going to be easy.
You have been talking about foundations acting as conveners. I am wondering how you see foundations cooperating or partnering in their role as conveners?
Partnership can’t be imposed, it has to come from a realization that partnership, not in every case, but in many cases will push you further and allow you to do more, either because you will have more resources to do it, or perhaps because you will avoid duplication and different messages. I would think generally, looking back, the world of foundations has not been known for its spirit of collaboration. Again, there are always exceptions of foundations that have been collaborative, and I would say that the Lawson Foundation is one of them, but others McConnell, Metcalf, Muttart, etc. have done a lot of that.
I am not saying either that everything needs to be done in collaboration; sometimes collaboration doesn’t work or will inhibit innovation because it becomes too complex. But it many cases collaboration is a very good way to go. For example, how do we make sure that foundations are not making it difficult for organizations to report back to them or measure their impact? We know these stories of organizations that get funding from a multiplicity of sources, and all these foundations are asking the organizations to report differently. How do we minimize that, streamline that? It is actually quite difficult.
How do foundations fit into the charitable sector’s increased focus on transparency?
Foundations can’t on the one hand say, “We want to work differently, we want to work in partnership, we want to collaborate,” but not realize this will probably have some influence on how transparent they are, in terms of where their dollars are going and how they undertake their decision making process etc. I think that is a good thing. It’s not transparency for transparency’s sake, it’s part of the new narrative that’s necessary for foundations. As they talk to Canadians, they need to be more forceful about the role they play and the role of philanthropy. With that comes transparency, there’s no question about that. But that’s going to be a challenge also. That’s a new way of thinking.