Redefining Philanthropy for Urban Resilience

by Aug 19, 2019Economy, Society

Sharon Avery

Sharon Avery is the President & CEO at the Toronto Foundation.

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Less than three years into my role leading one of Canada’s largest of its 191 community foundations, I read the book “Decolonizing Wealth” by Edgar Villanueva. In the opening chapter, Villanueva sets the stage for an uncomfortable conversation about the state of philanthropy. “The field of philanthropy is a living anachronism,” he writes. “It is adamant that it knows best, holding tight the purse strings. It is stubborn. It fails to get with the times… It does not care.”

A scathing critique? Yes. A surprise? No, not if we’re being honest.

The extent to which philanthropy is out-of-touch has been part of public discourse for some time. In the simplest of terms, who gives what to whom and how are keenly debated on the basis of the relevance, responsiveness, and equity. Perhaps even more disconcerting is why these gestures of goodwill are made, period.

Instead of putting Villanueva’s book down and thinking, what did I just walk into, I grew more determined in my resolve to disrupt the status quo within the sector. What I suspected all along was made clearer: we don’t need a new name – philanthropy’s inherent concern with the love of humanity is a good thing. But we do need to redefine how we show this love.

I got an opportunity to test my theory as the chair of Toronto’s first Resilience Steering Committee.

Established shortly after Toronto was identified by the Rockefeller Foundation as one of the world’s 100 Resilient Cites, the city’s ResilientTO office and Resilience Steering Committee were charged with creating a multi-sector strategy that considered the “impacts of climate change within the context of a growing city facing challenges related to housing, mobility, and equity.”

On a global scale, the initiative was meant to provide a springboard for the 80 member cities to benchmark and create strategies to strengthen urban resilience. The term is defined as “the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.”

Although the Rockefeller-sponsored network comes to an end in the summer of 2019, Toronto’s urban-resilience work must go on. The release of the city’s strategy in June of 2019 emphasized that equity is a key driver of resilience. Our ability to adapt to and manage change successfully in rapidly evolving circumstances hinges on the quality of life experienced by all residents in our city’s 140 neighbourhoods.

Canada’s fourth largest city has carved a path towards building physical, social, and economic well-being for all of its residents. From the strength of our economy, to our diverse neighbourhoods and connected communities, we have a lot to be proud of.

But the path is not without hurdles. In those very neighbourhoods where diversity is celebrated, divisiveness is still a threat. While Toronto has a wealth of opportunity, we are seeing a growing divide in terms of who has access to those opportunities. Enclaves are deepening, as is income inequality. Increasingly, neighbourhoods are divided into rich and poor, with fewer mixed communities. Though we are a wealthy city, we are also a city where too many are being left behind. And we have a long road ahead to meaningfully address the systemic biases in our society rooted in racism, colonization, and oppression. As we move forward in a world of change and uncertainty, we need to work together to build a city that not only celebrates, but also lives up to its commitment to fairness.

Building fairness and greater equity means ensuring all Torontonians have access to and can capitalize on the positive opportunities on offer in our city. To do so, we need to be thoughtful stewards of what makes our city an excellent place to live.

The “new” philanthropy, as I see it, needs to play a role in getting us there. The new philanthropy is participatory. It thinks about and changes the distribution of power. It amplifies the voices of those with “living experience” of the challenges it aims to alleviate. It sets the kind of table where all can have a seat and share, in spite of the different perspectives that are on the menu. It aims to move the money equitably and disrupt giving patterns. In Canada, this means turning a statistic such as this one on its head: 66% of all donation revenue in Canada goes to 1% of charities. This pervasive trend of inequitable giving leaves work on intractable problems at the grassroots level sorely underfunded.

The new philanthropy’s equity focus can anchor our city’s work towards urban resilience.

At Toronto Foundation, we have been taking a closer look at how we could become living proof of the new philanthropy. We believe philanthropy can play an important role in not only mitigating damaging effects but, strategic investment choices can be made to create a healthier, more prosperous city for all.

Here’s what we’ve learned so far.

Build “Bridging” Social Capital

Last November, we released the Toronto Social Capital Research Study. A new body of original research, co-led by Environics Institute for Survey Research and supported by partners such as United Way Greater Toronto and Wellesley Institute, the study aimed to benchmark the levels of social capital being experienced by Toronto’s residents.

What we knew before the research: social capital is an important measure of how well residents are doing, and how well they are able to recover from setbacks and crises, both individually and as a community.

The success of Toronto’s Resilience Strategy will hinge on the vibrancy of our social networks, the extent to which people trust and rely on each other, and their willingness to collaborate on developing solutions to complex issues. Indeed, early consultations identified guiding principles that rose to the top for the plan. Those included building social capital and community, enabling social inclusion and innovation, and building capacity for individuals and organizations to think ahead, and develop connections and practices to better face challenges now and in the future. This makes it essential to have the necessary metrics in place to assess the current state of social capital, guide community investments, and to chart improvements over time. 

An important aspect of social capital is the extent to which people form social connections with people who are different from themselves, referred to as “bridging” capital. This is especially relevant in Toronto given the diversity of the population – to what extent are residents “sticking with their own” versus making connections across ethnic and other boundaries?

Imagine what is possible when social networks are expanded to bring unusual actors together in a shared purpose. Imagine what could happen if relationships are formed that extend beyond the limitations of geography, experience, or income.

Engage Next Generation Philanthropists

Any gains realized as we strive towards urban resilience will impact future generations. Failing now means failing forward. Therefore, it is prudent that the next generation has an active role in this work.

Inspired by the research outlined above, we “bridged” our next generation philanthropists with resident leaders from nine neighbourhoods and issue area experts to discuss issues, share knowledge, and shape innovative solutions towards building stronger, more equitable, and resilient neighbourhoods.

We provided the right conditions for next generation philanthropists to participate in reciprocal partnerships with community leaders and those with lived experiences of the causes they care about.

A better future for Toronto is one that embraces the power of philanthropy to strengthen social capital – the underpinnings of a city’s economic and social wellbeing – and the social infrastructure which creates a resilient place to live and work.

Support the Work of Neighbourhood Champions

The financial support that the philanthropic sector can provide is a privilege. But this privilege does not mean that only the philanthropy sector knows best how money should be used to solve problems. See my introduction for a reminder on Villanueva’s point about this. Sometimes we simply need to get out of the way and take the lead from the community. And that’s just what we did.

The Toronto Neighbourhood Resilience Project is a partnership between Toronto Foundation and the City of Toronto Chief Resilience Officer. We connected our next generation philanthropists to this Project to support the ongoing work of residents in making their neighbourhoods more resilient. We invested in flagship, localized and linked up initiatives that will equip vulnerable neighbourhoods to thrive in the face of the chronic stresses and acute shocks that define today’s urban context. Our joint project was about creating bridges to lessen the divide between the haves and the have nots; those with the power, and those often not given the power to reimagine philanthropy and our future together.

Working together to remove barriers will in time produce new social networks, innovative local responses, and through these relationships, a potentially more sustainable flow of philanthropic dollars for investment.

What will inspire you to act? What will you redefine? I started with a love of my city and good read gave me a nudge. We all have to start somewhere.


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  1. It seems that philanthropy is practiced by the supposed beneficiaries who, by way of nothing or just carrying out their undertaking with minimal costs, deduct expenses of large fortunes hidden in the founding figure, where the usufruct of their capitals after supposed philanthropy works are dedicated to redirect the destinations of the city (in this case) after their active capitals in little or no philanthropy.
    Current times say that as we grow in the unconsciousness of products, invasive technologies such as the car with shadows and footprints as large as pollution and billions of cubic meters of asphalt on roads, in cities with quality of life contrary to the purposes that They are persecuted, this clearly says that we are heading for a short-term exodus where unsustainable mass of consumers goes for more of the same, garbage. When they react, security will be a joke in bad taste and the rest can be deduced if the ethical sense of the meaning of philanthropy and capital does not change.
    I think it is time to act and it is impossible to agree more with these words written in such a good way, as all the articles in this edition, with support and well informed first line, thank you.
    Many of those affected by this world have already realized this simple act, what I can contribute philanthropically now is much more or perhaps everything, in contrast to being a spectator or unaware of what I manufacture and exploit of consumerism to satisfy me to myself.
    The car is no longer a benefit, the roads must disappear along with consumerism, self-generation of energy and food must be implemented, go to self-consumption with a means of transport that levitates.
    If there is a philanthropist aware of the destiny of everyone who wants to act, look for how to grow and develop without limits, this philanthropist can spend all his own and several others more than the same convinces to achieve this, design and manufacture a vehicle that levitates NOW. Then its existence will have meaning.

  2. I and some like minded folks have made some social art-design proposal for several communities in Trinidad and Tobago, The Caribbean. The intention, build resilliance, expand on sustainable living.

    A living, that deconstruct the colonial past and neo-colonial present. Communities are struggling to come to terms with this modernity. I/we have found that in building a strong aesthetics, its necessary to build strong humans. This means the task of building resilliance, takes time, patience as well as rethinking how funding is applied. Both from the state or private sector.

    They; the state, private sector need to clearly appreciate the work to be done, embracing the process, rather than dogging for results.

    Working Class communities, have historical issues, anger, pain, mistrust, etc. If not treated fairly, passionately, honestly, directly, without middle-class imposing and posturing. Interventions usually Fails!

    Spaces remain where they are, monies is spent and everyone goes home, leaving community in the rear view mirror. We must be aware of class privileges, racism, stereotypes when entering conversation.

    There needs to be a level of honesty, first on the person/person’s initiating the act. Also getting confirmation of an honest act from community.


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