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Hilary Pearson

Foundations donate tens of millions of dollars every year, much of it to research
projects at Canada’s universities. Hilary Pearson, president of Philanthropic
Foundations Canada, asks whether this is a useful orientation for foundations, and
whether they know they're making a difference. “The answers to these questions,”
she writes, “depend largely on two factors: the mission or goals of the foundation,
and the engagement of the donors.” She provides timely insights into the culture of
giving in this country, and asks what defines success.

Les fondations versent en dons des dizaines de millions de dollars par année,
dont une bonne partie contribue au financement des projets de recherche des
universités canadiennes. Hilary Pearson, présidente de Fondations
philanthropiques Canada, s’interroge sur l’intérêt de cette orientation et la
validité de ses résultats. « La réponse, soutient-elle, dépend largement de deux
facteurs : la mission ou les objectifs d’une fondation, et l’engagement des
donateurs ». Une réflexion très à-propos sur la culture philanthropique de notre
pays et les critères de son efficacité.

             hile there are many definitions of philanthropy,       ties. Researchers at universities across Canada typically
             most agree that a philanthropic act is one that        count on annual foundation gifts ranging from $1,000 into
             links an individual (private) act of giving and a      the millions of dollars. Outside the walls of universities and
common (public) benefit. Every year, Canadian foundations           colleges, pure research and policy or applied researchers also
run by families or groups of private individuals choose to give     receive support. In 2003-04, for example, the Canadian
tens of millions of dollars to research, in the hope that it will   Institute for Advanced Research received over $2.5 million
bring about public “benefit,” whether short or long term.           from private sources. At least 15 private foundations were
Foundation grants are made to universities where research is        among the donors to CIAR, including several who each gave
a dominant activity, to independent institutions of research        over $100,000. Public policy institutes, hospitals and health
with a policy focus, and even to groups in the community            research institutes count on foundation dollars. And much
conducting “community-based” research on specific issues.           community-based research, or applied research focused on
Why do they choose to do so? And in so doing, how can they          understanding the root causes of the social challenges faced
know whether they are applying their charitable resources to        by communities, is also supported by foundation gifts.
greatest effect in support of the public interest?
     This article addresses three related questions: Should
private foundations be involved in funding research at all?
If yes, how should it be done, alone or in collaboration?
                                                                    B    ut typically, foundation board members and donors
                                                                         are not researchers themselves. How do they know
                                                                    what and why to fund? Should it be reactive funding, in
And finally, how do foundations know whether they’re                response to assiduous and well-presented proposals from
making a difference — realizing the changes they want to            advancement offices? It may indeed be “easier” to fund
see in their communities?                                           such research than to fund community projects, because
     Should foundations fund research? There would be few,          researchers, particularly university-based ones, have easi-
if any, non-profit research bodies in Canada who would say          ly recognized credentials. But does it make sense to apply
no. Both inside and outside the traditional university              foundation money to research, given the large sums and
research community, foundation donors are sought out to             long time horizons that arguably only public funders such
fund new research, whether in the sciences or the humani-           as the federal research granting councils can support?

                                                                                                                 POLICY OPTIONS       11
                                                                                                                      NOVEMBER 2005
     Hilary Pearson

          The answers to these questions        results of the research are disseminat-
                                                                                      applicants to propose projects for
     depend largely on two factors: the mis-    ed by the foundation itself through a funding. One such recent application
     sion or goals of the foundation, and       series of working papers.             that received funding from the foun-
     the engagement of the donors. These             Research outside a university    dation was from the Voluntary Sector
     two factors are often mutually related     context by researchers chosen by the  Evaluation Research Project, whose
     and reinforcing. Broadly or generically    foundation is another model. The      goal was to improve the capacity of
     defined goals, and donors who remain       Lotte and John Hecht Foundation of    voluntary organizations to assess
     less directly engaged in their founda-     Vancouver is a small, private founda- their performance and communicate
     tions’ grants, may find it appealing to    tion that supports medical research,  their effectiveness. The researchers in
     give unrestricted grants to universities   particularly in alternative medicine  this project were based at Carleton
     to support the costs of primary            treatments for cancer. It recently    University in Ottawa, but the project
                                                                                                  was co-directed by a uni-
     More narrowly or specifically defined foundation missions,                                   versity researcher and a
                                                                                                  researcher based at a com-
     and more hands-on donors or foundation directors, tend to                                    munity organization, the
     be proactive in defining the type of research they want to                                   Canadian Centre for Phil-
     support through their grants. However, engaged and                                           anthropy. And the other
     mission-driven foundations choose to support research in very principal funder of the
     different ways. The university-based and supported model is project Social Sciences fun-     der, the
                                                                                                           was a public
     probably still the most popular one in a Canadian context.                                   Humanities        Research
     research, for example. Such funders     funded a pilot study by a researcher          Another variation on a collabora-
     rarely get involved in defining the     at the BC Cancer Agency who want-        tive model is that of the Pierre Elliott
     goals of the research or in determining ed to investigate Chinese herbal         Trudeau Foundation of Montreal,
     the nature of the research team. Under  remedies for the treatment of lung       whose mission is to “promote out-
     these circumstances, they do not tend   cancer. The Hecht Foundation board       standing research in the social sci-
     to seek out collaborators, as they have agreed to fund this study based on its   ences and humanities, and to foster a
     no need to do so.                       knowledge of the researcher who had      fruitful dialogue between scholars
          More narrowly or specifically      made the proposal, not on the basis      and policymakers.” Through an inno-
     defined foundation missions, and        of a peer review. As the foundation      vative program of grants to Trudeau
     more hands-on donors or foundation      and the researcher both acknowl-         Fellows, Scholars and Mentors, the
     directors, tend to be proactive in      edged, there are few peers available     foundation is building a collaborative
     defining the type of research they      who are familiar with herbal medi-       network in Canada of thinkers and
     want to support through their grants.   cines. But, in many cases, the will-     innovators in a range of disciplines in
     However, engaged and mission-driv-      ingness of a foundation board to take    the humanities and social sciences.
     en foundations choose to support        risks that cannot be taken by a pub-     The goal of the foundation is to
     research in very different ways. The    lic funder is a significant benefit to   “support work of academic excel-
     university-based and supported          researchers. In this case, the risk paid lence that helps to promote public
     model is probably still the most pop-   off, at least initially, as the pilot    discussion on matters of major socie-
     ular one in the Canadian context.       study has been successful enough to      tal importance.” This goal, like those
     The Lupina Foundation of Toronto,       attract millions of dollars of addi-     of the Lupina and Max Bell founda-
     for example, has a specified objective  tional research funding from the US      tions, makes reference to the applica-
     “to promote and provide funds for       National Cancer Institute.               tion of research conducted in an
     research into the cause, control and                                             academic context to issues “of impor-
     cure of health anxiety, social factors
     in health risk and access to health
     services, especially by women.” It
                                                A  third model is the collaborative
                                                   one, where the private founda-
                                             tion funds research projects that
                                                                                      tance to society,” an attempt to
                                                                                      bridge the perceived research/real
                                                                                      world divide.
     chooses to do so by funding research    involve     several    funders      and       In all three models (and illustra-
     fellowships with research themes        researchers from different institu-      tive cases), the goal of most private
     quite specifically defined by the       tions. The Max Bell Foundation of        funders or foundations is to support
     foundation. The fellowships are held    Calgary has a mission “to encourage      research that will have an impact on
     at the University of Toronto, which     the development of innovative ideas      public policy. Many engaged and
     provides an academic peer review        that impact public policies and prac-    mission-focused foundations that
     process to select the applicants. The   tices.” Within this mission, it invites  choose to fund research rather than

     NOVEMBRE 2005
                                                                   Foundations funding research: what defines success?

directly    supporting     community     oration between funders, and                       making a difference, or succeeding in
organizations and services, are doing    Canadian foundations are paying                    bringing about positive change. This
so in the belief that research will lead attention to it. Formal collaborative              is the most difficult question to
to a greater understanding of the fun-   funder networks are really only begin-             answer: how to define success? What
damental causes of social problems       ning to develop in Canada (as com-                 are positive or “best” research out-
and will contribute to their lasting     pared to the United States), and                   comes? What makes it worthwhile to
resolution. This can sometimes cause     experience suggests how difficult it is            fund research?
tension between foun-
dations and researchers, Should foundations work in collaboration with others to
because the gap between maximize their chances of getting better policy outcomes? If
their respective time so, how can they make that work? Foundations choose to
horizons can be very
wide. Partly for this rea-
                             collaborate with other funders often because it enhances the
son, in spite of their credibility and legitimacy of the research. Collaborations stretch
interest in searching for dollars and make research projects possible.
“root causes,” the ten-
dency of many foundations engaged        to collaborate, particularly in fund-                   Success is easier to define for foun-
in research funding is to steer away     ing, not just sharing information. But             dations that choose to make their
from primary research, toward            private funders can see that many of               grants to research organizations with
applied research.                        the issues they want to tackle cannot              good track records and impressive
                                         be addressed in isolation. Canadian                research credentials. The institution

T    his leads to the second question
     that frames this article: should
foundations work in collaboration
                                         foundations, even in combination,
                                         are not large enough to supply the
                                         enormous resources for research pro-
                                                                                            itself will define success. But for foun-
                                                                                            dations that want to be involved in the
                                                                                            outcomes, this is not satisfying enough.
with others to maximize their            vided by many US foundations. In a                 One answer is to manage and define the
chances of getting better policy out-    relatively small country such as                   expectations of research outcomes. A
comes? If so, how can they make that     Canada, where personal links are                   good outcome may be as simple as rais-
work? Foundations often choose to        tighter and communities are closer,                ing public awareness of an issue. If the
collaborate with other funders           collaboration makes sense.                         research leads to greater awareness (and
because it enhances the credibility                                                         this can be measured), the project has
and legitimacy of the research.
Collaborations stretch dollars and
make research projects possible. The
                                              U ltimately, what foundations
                                                want to know is that they are
                                                                                            been successful. If the outcome is
                                                                                            defined more concretely as something

combined forces of several funders       FIGURE 1. PHILANTHROPIC FOUNDATIONS CANADA MEMBER GRANTS 2003
can also help to disseminate results     ($177 MILLION)
and to accelerate their application to
policy decisions. Foundations can                                                  Other
attempt to structure collaborations                                                (7%)
either with each other or directly with                           Arts/culture
the research organizations.                                                                              Education
      But in any collaboration that is
more than simply the simultaneous
provision of grant dollars by two or
more separate funders, difficult ques-
tions become immediately obvious.
                                                  Social services                                                Community benefit
How are the research goals decided?                    (24%)                                                            (5%)
How are checks and balances, report-                                                                           International activities
ing requirements and other account-
abilities determined? And who
determines next steps? Having raised                                                                      Environment
these questions, I do not propose to
answer them here, as there is no
“right” answer. But a good deal of                                                   (19%)
thinking, and yes, research, has gone
into what makes for successful collab-   Source: Philanthropic Foundations Canada.

                                                                                                                     POLICY OPTIONS       13
                                                                                                                          NOVEMBER 2005
     Hilary Pearson

     that will lead to a specific policy         ity of each to play their part: it builds        Some of these foundations
     change, the expectation of this out-        community capacity to assess emerging       describe themselves as “entrepre-
     come may be more difficult to meet.         needs and research questions; it fosters    neurial.” Others simply want to know
     Policy change, of course, is not always     collaborative research teams with com-      in more direct ways that they are
     or mainly driven by research results,       munity and academic partners; and it        making a difference. These founda-
     even though they can make a huge dif-       attempts to situate itself as the “go-to”   tions do believe that research itself is
     ference. Perhaps for many foundations,      organization for collaborative urban        critical to the development of solu-
     success lies in whether a community         health research. This is an unusual man-    tions to community needs, and
     need has been met. For this to happen,      date and role, but since the creation of    accept and endorse the view that pri-
                                                                                                         vate funders should pro-
     Policy change, of course, is not always or mainly driven by                                         vide resources for it as an
     research results, even though they can make a huge                                                  activity that will con-
     difference. Perhaps for many foundations, success lies in                                           tribute to the public good.
                                                                                                         Their definition of success-
     whether a community need has been met. For this to                                                  ful research will be decided
     happen, communities need to voice their needs and link                                              by the way in which
     them to research goals.                                                                             research outcomes lead to
                                                                                                         change in the quality of
     communities need to voice their needs         Wellesley Central in its current form in  the lives of people and communities.
     and link them to research goals. In this      1998, it has been able to build on local,      Whether funding basic research
     view, community needs, indeed, must           national and international connections,   or research that focuses on identify-
     be taken into account by funders in           building working partnerships with        ing and addressing particular com-
     deciding what research to fund.               every university in Toronto and with      munity needs, foundations must
            An example of a private funder         many partners in the US and in the UK.    take the long view. But the long
     that links community voices and deci-                                                   view is precisely what independent
     sions about what to research (and what
     research to fund) is Wellesley Central
     Health Corporation in Toronto. This is
                                                 W         hile the focus of Wellesley
                                                           Central is unusual, it is a model
                                                   that intrigues a number of private fun-
                                                                                             foundations have; it is one of the
                                                                                             comparative advantages of this sec-
                                                                                             tor, distinguishing it from corporate
     an independent, self-financing non-           ders, who want to learn more about        funders and government, both of
     profit that defines itself as “a catalyst for how to fund research that generates       which must be more responsive to
     change through supporting communi-            “real results for real people in real     immediate public pressures. The
     ty-based research, building alliances and     time.” While universities and research    research advantage of foundations is
     organizational capacity, informing pub-       make a strong argument for the fund-      the ability to stay the course. Both
     lic policy and champi-
     oning supportive housing
                                      Whether funding basic research or research that focuses on
     options.” Wellesley Cen-
     tral funds and occasional- identifying and addressing particular community needs,
     ly commissions academic foundations must take the long view. But the long view is
     and community- based precisely what independent foundations have; it is one of the
     research to support its
                                      comparative advantages of this sector, distinguishing it from
     vision     for    effecting
     change in urban health corporate funders and government, both of which must be
     public policy. It makes more responsive to immediate public pressures. The research
     research grants “to sup- advantage of foundations is the ability to stay the course.
     port      action-oriented,
                                      Both research and public policy will be the better for it.
     community-based, policy
     relevant, urban health research that will
     make a real difference in the lives and       ing of “frontiers of research,” and       research and public policy will be
     the health of local people.” The empha-       many, if not most, foundations do sup-    the better for it.
     sis is very much on making linkages           port this argument with grants, a signif-
     between the community’s health needs,         icant number of Canadian foundations      Hilary Pearson is president of
     the researchers examining potential           are increasingly involved in determina-   Philanthopic Foundations Canada,
     solutions, and the policy-makers with         tion of research goals, partners and out- which is organizing a national conference
     power to apply solutions. Wellesley           comes, and doing so in conjunction        on philanthropy in Toronto on November
     Central focuses on enhancing the capac-       with community representatives.           14-15.

     NOVEMBRE 2005

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