An introduction to this
year’s lessons
How can we be our best for the 2020s?

What is the right balance between urgent issues and a long view?

The way most foundations operate is by investing an endowment of capital and disbursing a percentage of their return on investment (at least 3.5% from a legal standpoint) to social and environmental organizations. For McConnell, this approach has made capital available over a number of years while retaining plenty for the problems of the future. Considering the challenges of our current era, we’re grateful that J.W. McConnell had the foresight to create the Foundation in 1937, rather than commit all of his philanthropic capital on an annual basis.

However, in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world had just 12 years left to address the climate crisis. There are only nine years left today, as emissions continue to rise in Canada.

In 2020, we faced additional emergencies — a global pandemic, the associated social effects, particularly among marginalized communities, and a crisis of credibility among many mainstream institutions because of systemic racism.

As we grapple with the urgency of the current moment and what it implies for our work, questions arise for all foundations: should we spend a greater percentage of our endowments? How much? Are there better ways to leverage our current spending? If we spend more today, how do we provide for the increasingly complex problems of 2050 or 2100?

How do we share power and influence?

There is a current critique of philanthropy’s tendency to decide what is best for others, and to undervalue community organizations’ local knowledge and relationships. While some argue that the answer lies in foundations relinquishing their power and influence, another option is to share them.

When the McConnell Foundation became involved with the Winnipeg Boldness Project, to improve outcomes for children and families in the city’s largely Indigenous North End, local leaders insisted that key decisions be made by the community. By agreeing, the Foundation enabled Boldness to apply polycentric governance, whereby social agencies, parents, Elders, researchers and funders are consulted on an ongoing basis.

While successful at the local level, Boldness has sometimes asked for help in influencing governments, securing other funders and connecting with similar work in other parts of Canada.

Can foundations evolve their role to more openly share influence with community partners? Is this an effective way for foundations to support Indigenous-led groups, as well as racialized communities? And can it serve as a model for trust-based philanthropy that helps repair the damage of colonization?

How do you balance conflicting viewpoints within a clear mission?

The complexities of social change require that organizations have a clear strategic vision. However, efficient organizations must also remain open to the critical perspectives of diverse partners and stakeholders, and must respond rapidly to changes of context — such as a worldwide pandemic. This combination can create difficult and dynamic tensions.

In 2019, McConnell developed a five-year strategy to accelerate the inclusive transition to an equitable net-zero carbon economy and reached out for input from a diverse cohort of stakeholders. While opinions about the strategy did not all converge, the process improved our approach and strengthened relationships among diversity of actors. This experience prompts us to ask how can foundations best set up open partnerships and ongoing consultations to make room for constructive disagreement, shared learning and a better alignment across different sectors of society, as well as the necessary reflexes to pivot to new strategies when circumstances demand it.

How do we use “small change” to generate big changes?

Although McConnell’s endowment makes us one of the largest private foundations in Canada, we are a relatively small player in most sectors where we hope to catalyze systemic change.

Our endowment enables us to make grants and responsible investments, but progress is often more far-reaching and enduring when we take the time to work through coalitions, partnerships and policy awareness activities designed to influence larger systems. For example, in response to COVID-19, we joined 70 foundations in the Give5 Campaign, all of whom increased their disbursement quotas to meet urgent needs.

From an independent survey of the organizations we support, we know many appreciate an ‘ecosystem’ or coalition approach that links the efforts of many to achieve outcomes beyond the reach of any one organization or sector. But some find building larger initiatives cumbersome and confusing and just want to be left alone to do what they do best.

How do we strike an optimal balance between the two?

How do we design supportive relationships that don’t last?

McConnell funds social innovation with the intention of contributing to systemic change. While philanthropic grants can help innovative projects get off the ground and achieve scale, overreliance on a sole funder can sometimes impede progress. An initiative will only endure if it can establish self-sufficiency through revenue diversification, or sustained policy change.

We encourage partners to work this way but sunsetting funding for individual projects can still be disruptive for both them and us. How do we better manage expectations, communications and timelines so that partners envision and attain better outcomes while reducing dependency? And in response to COVID-19, how do we know, collectively, which partners we will need to support so that they can make it to the other side of the crisis?

How invested should we be in systems we want to transform or replace?

Given our commitment to supporting the transition to an equitable, net zero carbon economy, we are often asked whether we will divest from fossil fuel companies. It comes down to whether to engage with them in order to influence their management and governance, or direct those investments to renewable energy providers instead. Is it possible to find a balance between the two approaches?

At what point does the primacy of the climate crisis compel us to prioritize divestment over continuing to press for an industry-wide phase out that provides workers and communities with time and resources for transition? And what about the financial risk in holding assets when future value and demand are in doubt? Such questions, which do not have simple answers, are shaping our discussions about investing for impact.

Can we “scale up” without losing touch with the ground?

McConnell’s theory of change involves collaboratively scaling up social innovations via sustained engagement with charities, non-profits, the private sector, public institutions and governments. Our efforts are increasingly coordinated through philanthropic collaborations aimed at achieving sustainable impacts in the face of major challenges.

While we have strong relationships with many stakeholders and partners and our charitable mission gives us a moral as well as a legal accountability to the broader sector, as a private foundation our only legal accountability mechanism is to the Canada Revenue Agency and our Board of Trustees.
As we seek to create deeper change through the “scale up” strategy of policy advocacy conducted with funder collaboratives, how can we continue to act responsibly towards communities and be guided by their knowledge and their interests? How do we continue to maintain healthy and vital relationships when in-person gatherings are foreclosed indefinitely?

How can philanthropy enhance the public sector rather than erode it?

As social and environmental problems proliferate, the public sector is experiencing pressure to adapt. With COVID-19, the role of government has become even more critical. But government processes and accountability structures can stand in the way of agile social R&D. Meanwhile, with the lifting of restrictions on civil society participation in policy advocacy, and journalism becoming a charitable activity, there is growing government interest in collaboration with civil society and philanthropy around what economist Mariana Mazzucato calls “mission-based innovation”. This can include joint convening; participation in “solutions labs”; granting for social R&D; making matching grants to extend government funding; and structuring outcomes funds to co-finance systemic change.

However, history warns that private philanthropy has the potential to erode the public obligations of the state, by occupying roles that are most appropriately held by democratically elected, tax-funded governments. As foundations engage around issues facing public institutions, how do we ensure that our efforts contribute to public sector capacity and accountability, and not diminish them?

How can we make use of evaluation without limiting imagination?

Evaluation helps foundations understand program impact and inform decision-making. However it has a tendency to promote strategies that are easily measured. This ignores systems change approaches which are too complex and interdependent to capture with tools that measure cause and effect.

This paradox emerged in the WellAhead initiative, which began with a change model based on solid evidence. While the initial approach focused on creating incremental change on a school-by-school basis, the problem of school wellness required system-wide intervention. After deliberation, McConnell pursued a strategy that would be more difficult to measure, focused on a larger systemic transformation.

Given the tension between the need to measure results and the emergent character of systemic transformation, how do we use impact measurement without letting it stifle innovation?

When should settler institutions step in and when should they step out of the way?

With the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action in 2015, Canadians have a blueprint for addressing past harms caused to Indigenous peoples. It is also true that there is a risk of perpetuating old mistakes if we do not engage in this work in the right manner.

So far, most of McConnell’s reconciliation work has taken place in close relationship among Indigenous and non-Indigenous innovators. In addition to giving fledgling projects the benefit of being associated with a well-established organization, we have gained from Indigenous wisdom generously shared with us.

As we look ahead to deepening our commitment to reconciliation, a question we are asking with Indigenous advisors, colleagues and partners is: what portion of our resources should be devoted to initiatives run by and for Indigenous people themselves as opposed to McConnell programs and partnerships?

What does a better “No” look like?

With so many innovative civil society organizations requesting funding, McConnell is obliged to say “No” more frequently than “Yes” to proposals – in 2019, we received 685 applications and made 192 grants. We know that people put considerable time and thought into their submissions, and we endeavour to review them all carefully. Yet we understand that a declination can feel dispiriting and arbitrary.

A “No” from a foundation doesn’t mean that a particular project or issue is not worthy of support. We therefore ask, “how can we conduct the proposal review process so that even a refusal will be seen as worth the applicant’s time?” What measures of transparency about our decision-making processes can build their confidence and insight into how to move their projects forward? What is the appropriate amount of time for us to spend on this?

How should our history influence economic reconciliation?

The McConnell Foundation’s endowment is built upon wealth that J.W. McConnell amassed over the course of his lifetime (1877-1963). A man of vision, intelligence, industry and generosity, he also lived during a period when Canada was expanding its colonial power at the expense of Indigenous peoples.

The Foundation made its first grant to an Indigenous organization in 2003, and today has an extensive portfolio of contributions and investments focussed on Indigenous issues and partnerships. In 2015, at the concluding event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we joined with other foundations in signing the Philanthropic Community’s Declaration of Action. We now ask ourselves and our peers, “How can foundations advance economic reconciliation in the decade ahead?”

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An introduction to this
year’s lessons

This year’s 12 Lessons is different from our past series. It focuses on the future rather than reflecting on what we have learned over the past year. This is why we have called it 12 Lessons To Learn.

Just as we had finalized the text and imagery for the lessons, COVID-19 struck Canada and forever changed the context for our work. Over the course of 2020, we witnessed other historical events, notably, a widespread movement to end systemic racism across society and our institutions. Our initial “lessons to learn” no longer seemed quite so sharp or pertinent. We took them offline for a while, and in that time, our own Foundation underwent a major transition — the retirement of Stephen Huddart, and the appointment of Lili-Anna Pereša to replace him as President and CEO.

We have now given our lessons a second, critical look and tried our best to bring them up to date in this rapidly changing world. We hope some of them resonate with you. If you have any questions or comments about this project, email us at


12 Lessons is a summary of lessons learned, old practices and beliefs to be unlearned, or things to learn in the future — typically expressed by staff of the McConnell Foundation, but also sometimes by others in our networks. Each year the theme and look of 12 Lessons varies. The project has been conducted annually from 2016 to 2020. The goal is to be transparent about the work of philanthropy, and to share what we’re learning about what is going well and what needs to be improved.

Why is it 12 Lessons? Initially we wanted to collect a lesson for each month. We retained the number 12, even though the lessons are no longer associated with any particular month of the year. 12 is manageable. We can hold ourselves accountable to 12 lessons annually!

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