Stories in philanthropy

Innovation alone isn’t enough to achieve impact: The McConnell Foundation

Stephen Huddart, President and CEO of one of the world’s leading social innovation foundations, shares his thoughts on philanthropy’s role in protecting democratic discourse, the complexity and necessity of funding First Nations issues, and why the Foundation holds retreats for non-profit leaders.

Nicole Richards, Feb 2018

“We’ve learned a lot from organisations that have failed miserably with the grants we’ve given them,” Stephen Huddart says matter-of-factly. “When organisations are trusting enough of us to tell us that things aren’t going well, we know we’re on the right footing as a foundation.”

Huddart is President and CEO of one of Canada’s largest and most innovative private foundations, the McConnell Foundation. Established in 1937 and named after its founder, business leader J.W. McConnell, the foundation was Canada’s second family foundation.

By its own reckoning, ‘Funder’ is but one role the McConnell Foundation plays in Canada’s change-making ecosystem. It is also an Investor, Convener, Capacity Builder, Advocate and Strategic Learning Partner.

Guided by a framework that prioritises social innovation, systems change and social infrastructure, the Foundation has five focus areas: Environment; Healthy communities; Reconciliation; Social and economic inclusion; Youth and education. The McConnell Foundation’s “social R&D” funding commitments regularly span more than a decade and its 12 lessons unlearned (2017) is compelling reading for any philanthropic entity.

“We try to sustain a learning culture here at the Foundation,” Huddart says. “Fifteen years ago, we looked at the content of our grant notification letters and realised that there were really only two things we wanted to know from our partners:

  1. The problems and challenges they had encountered and how they worked to overcome them.
  2. What impact they’d had on the field they were working in.

“That paragraph hasn’t changed in over 15 years. It’s so important to make the process one of learning and adapting to what our partners are telling us.

“If we’re going to do this work in a way that’s truly transformational, we have to be prepared to transform the way we ourselves work and create the capacity and the space for our partners to do that as well.”

To help that process along, the McConnell Foundation convenes three and four-day country retreats for key grantees each year.

“To us, it’s important to take care of the people involved in this work and the leaders of these organisations are often stressed out,” Huddart explains. “The retreats follow a peer input process so that the social innovators are effectively healing each other. It creates a culture of adaptation and transparency and we put a really high premium on that.”


Sowing the seeds of change

Stephen Huddart’s own social change path has taken him through varied terrain, ranging from a stint in journalism in Colombia and Peru, through to working with a famous (and philanthropically-minded) children’s performer in Canada. He traces the early awakening of his social conscience, however, to a four-year stay in Melbourne between 1964-68.

A high school student at the time, Huddart’s activism began with the anti-Vietnam War movement which saw him involved in a televised debate with then Leader of the Opposition, Gough Whitlam. He was also one of three Junior Citizen of the Year winners, which landed him a trip to Canberra and a meeting with ill-fated Prime Minister, Harold Holt.

“I think that going from a comfortable middle-class, egalitarian society in Australia in 1968 to the poverty and injustice in South America in some ways changed my life,” Huddart reflects. “It was the turning point that set me on this course.”

It was also valuable lived experience that helped shaped Huddart’s respect for co-creation with grantees and partners.

“It’s important that philanthropy shares its resources and decision-making power with its stakeholders,” he says. “It’s not about parachuting in from somewhere else with solutions that were invented somewhere else.”

Huddart cites the Foundation’s work to support the complex Winnipeg Boldness Project as a case in point.

“It’s arguably Canada’s poorest urban neighbourhood with very negative statistics: 20 per cent of kids are in state care before they’re five years old; murder rates are high, drug use is rampant and more than 50 per cent of the population is Indigenous.  

“We were looking for a place to test a social impact bond to improve child and family outcomes. We showed up talked to people in the community and they told us in no uncertain terms to get lost. This was probably exactly what we needed to hear. Still, we didn’t give up, we hung around and eventually people said, ‘If you want to help our kids, go talk to the women over there.’ So, we did, but those women also told us where to go in no uncertain terms, and we really had to work at it.

“Finally, the women said they’d have a conversation with us on one condition: if we’d agree up front to put the money on the table and let them decide how to spend it. We said, ‘Okay, let’s talk’.”

The Project is now in its fourth year and continues to be successfully aligned with community values.

“They’ve set up five guide groups, developed 40 prototypes called proofs of possibility and are now on the cusp of transforming the entire system, not just in their neighbourhood but the entire province of Manitoba,” Huddart explains.

“We could never have achieved that with just a simple grant; it took investment in community-led work on social transformation.”

Huddart says the most valuable lesson he’s learned about the complexities of funding First Nations issues is simply to listen.

“We’ve taken that commitment to listening on board in our organisation at every level. Every one of our staff has participated in multiple learning workshops on Indigenous reconciliation. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 told the real story of what had happened in Canada over the last 150 years. It was cultural genocide.

“Canada was in fact the apartheid model that South Africa based its own system on. We like to think of ‘good old Canada’ as the good boy scout, offering good treatment to all, but we have such a dark chapter in our history.

“It was a gut-wrenching awakening for many Canadians, but once you know the truth you can start to behave and act differently. Indigenous people have a lot to teach us. As a foundation we’ve been deeply involved in this work with First Nations and it’s transformed us.

“Although it’s messy, I feel it’s the one thing, that if I died tomorrow and had to say what I’d accomplished, I could say that we advanced Indigenous-focused philanthropy.”


Speaking up

The McConnell Foundation, like many long-established philanthropies, was historically a ‘quiet’ giver that sought to avoid the spotlight. But times have changed.

“In the modern era, whether you’re collaborating on a charitable project or a civil society project; whether you’re working to transition to a low-carbon economy or building a more equitable society, the outcomes impact us all. We have to work on so many things if we’re going to make the transition from outdated nineteenth century industrial models to ones that suit us in the twenty-first century.

“We believe that it’s philanthropy’s responsibility to not only support charities’ work on these issues but to speak up ourselves.”

In Canada as in Australia, there are strict limits to philanthropy’s role in political advocacy. But Huddart is talking about ideas and policies, not politics.

“In Canada, charities can spend up to 10 per cent of their assets on policy advocacy in any given year,” he explains. “I think that needs to be turned around to a ‘must spend’ 10 per cent. The David Suzuki Foundation is the only charity in Canada that reports 10 per should turn it around to must spend 10% on advocacy. I think it’s extremely important that we stand up when the world is awash in populism and nationalism, to protect democratic discourse—it’s an essential role for philanthropy.”

“We’re so privileged as philanthropists to work the way we do and build relationships—it gives me great hope, especially now that the world is in such a precarious state. It’s important to make all the connections we can around the globe with people consciously, deliberately and constructively engaging in the transition to a more just world. I hope that together we can encourage more people to take the step and expand the space for philanthropy.”


Stephen Huddart is visiting Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney in March 2018, presented by Philanthropy Australia, TACSI and Perpetual. Dates and event details here.

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