What Does It Take for Government to Reform Philanthropy? Yonis Hassan Found Out

Justice Fund Toronto pushed a law that's forcing Canadian millionaires to give away more of their money

June 2024
March 2024
June 17, 2024
Supported By :
Magic Cabinet

Three years ago, the Canadian foundation Justice Fund Toronto took a break from their grantmaking work to rent an 18-wheeler truck and park it outside of Toronto City Hall as government leaders gathered for a conference. The truck bore a message reading: "Charitable Institutions in Canada are Hoarding $85 million. Time to Move the Money".

The stunt worked. In 2022, the Canadian government released new rules increasing the minimum disbursement quota for Canadian foundations from 3.5% to 5%, unlocking millions of dollars each year in philanthropic dollars.

It was a rare win in the realm of philanthropic policy reform. From the fight over DAF reform in the United States, to debates about the what counts as a foundation in Austria, the next few years will decide the future of global philanthropic policy. We spoke with Justice Fund co-founder and CEO Yonis Hassan about what he's learned from his work on policy reform.

Proximate

Back in 2021, Justice Funds parked an 18-wheeler outside of Toronto City Hall as part of your MoveTheMoney campaign, which helped push awareness of how Canadian foundations are hoarding wealth. What impact has that change had?

Yonis Hassan

The changes to the disbursement quota were, for us, part of six philanthropic pillars that we are calling for to fundamentally reimagine and reform the charitable sector. It was exciting to see a government take those bold steps, despite the fact that they have never really prioritized the charitable sector, regardless of who is in office. The increase from 3.5% to 5% was short of what we were calling for, which was a 10% minimum disbursement each year. But I'm happy with the progress we made.

Now, the big issue here, with all of our six pillars, is people being satisfied with the bare minimum — with the mediocrity that we need this incremental change to bring us up to the global standards. Even though the global international community, like places in the United States, is trying to exceed that 5% threshold.

Proximate

How do you feel about having to use such provocative approaches to make change? That you have to do something as extreme as putting an 18-wheeler in front of city hall? 

Hassan

It feels at times very performative. I don't want to be doing these stunts. I don't want to be framed as an agitator. I don't want to be framed as a radical. I do these things to leverage the creative sector, the creative community, because I know they have the most impactful capacity for long-lasting systemic change.

I use the creative community to ensure that I don't feel like I am doing poverty porn, that I am not tap dancing. I could have conversations, and I do, with senior executives of the philanthropic community, but this cycle of consultations, conversations, discussions, panels, talks, and webinars is not going to advance the change that I would like to see.

So yeah, I have to do stunts. I have to be provocative on stage when I speak. Because that's the only way that, not those in the philanthropic community, but those outside of the philanthropic community can understand the stupidity that the charitable sector is stuck in. It shouldn’t be that way. 

Why do I need to scream for us to do better in a sector that is purposely designed to do good? 

Proximate

Are there other reforms that you would like to see from the Canadian government?

Hassan

I want to see ethically made investments. Before all these philanthropic resources are invested in the stock market, I would like to see us ask, “Are we invest in ESG?” Philanthropic resources – taxpayer assets – should be used to support ethical community development and investments, as opposed to being used to fund the extraction sector.

I also want to ensure that taxpayer assets are used on time. That means foundations should not exist in perpetuity. We should be spending these assets within a lifetime. At Justice Fund, we're calling for a 35-year timeline on some of these philanthropic assets. 

I think that governments, whether in the US or Canada or elsewhere, should be creating incentives to leverage existing philanthropic assets – in terms of matching contributions and other incentives – to ensure that we are not only thinking big but also maximizing the financial resources that already exist, to address housing, climate change, food insecurity, and gender inequality. 

Philanthropy should exist to transform society and take risks. We should be thinking big; we should be thinking differently. Governments should make a significant priority to engage this hidden sector that is contributing billions of dollars to our domestic economies.

Proximate

Speaking of the government, you recently met with members of the Canadian government in person – tell us about your recent the cabin retreat at Harrington Lake.

Hassan

I've had the pleasure of engaging in meaningful, rational, and purposeful conversations with our government from a federal perspective. And I've had the privilege this year of speaking at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet retreat to advocate for more of a strategic engagement with both the philanthropic community and the charitable sector. The ideas and the recommendations that I suggested to the government were, I think, very well received. 

The recommendations included ensuring that our government — not only our government but all governments around the world, but we can be a remarkable case study of precedent-setting — has a dedicated home for the Canadian charitable sector. That means establishing a position equivalent to an ambassadorship for the philanthropic sector. This position would engage domestically, to mobilize philanthropists to ensure that assets are spent promptly, but also to encourage international nonprofit organizations to invest in Canada.

It’s not often that a young Black man, let alone a CEO of a philanthropic organization, gets invited to backdoor meetings, special events, and private engagements. I recognize the responsibility I have to ensure that whatever I’m advocating for is strategic, innovative, and achievable. That’s the approach that I bring to this work. 

Proximate

Is there a way you can see other philanthropic leaders adapting the same approaches you’ve taken? For example, if we wanted to repeat this in the United States, do you think you’ve defined a blueprint to follow? 

Hassan

Absolutely. For me, there are three main pillars to think about.

The first pillar is ensuring that whatever initiatives we are funding, launching, or collaborating on, that we are creating pathways to economic mobility. I want us to end a dependency on the charitable sector for our communities, in terms of Black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities.

The second pillar – I often ask myself, or the community organizations I'm working with: Is this program or initiative going to work me out of a job? Is this program with the NBA Foundation, for instance, going to ensure that we are getting youth in conflict to have a lot of paid opportunities within the creative industry, so they are not going back into the criminal justice system? Are the legislative changes I am advocating for going to reduce the dependency on philanthropy?

The third pillar is about how we can we use the philanthropic resources we have to maximize their leverage. How are we engaging government, on the federal, state, or municipal levels, on their own initiatives and programs? How are we engaging with other philanthropists, in terms of funder collaboratives and implementing trust-based philanthropy to reduce the burden on grantees? How are we collaborating with academia to ensure that the future of work for Black, Indigenous, and racialized communities is reflected in their socio-economic status today, not tomorrow? How can we think strategically with these multiple levels and partners? 

The reality is that post-pandemic, foundation assets have tremendously increased in Canada and in the US. At the same time, charitable demand has fundamentally, significantly increased across the board, from food security to housing, to mental health issues, to domestic violence and gender-based violence. It has all increased. 

I think what's happened is a significant level of philanthropic fatigue, compassion fatigue, and social justice fatigue from the philanthropic sector. I've built this little ecosystem of, I'd say philanthropic innovators, and amongst that ecosystem is a significant amount of burnout. Due to the level of apathy from those in power in the philanthropic sector and government. They’ve told me that, yes, that campaign and activation were good to get a whole new group of people who were never engaged in the philanthropic sector aware; from government to community organizations that we’re serving, to random individuals who were walking down the street. Which is cool and all, but we’re significantly short of the necessary philanthropic change that is required to build a just and equitable society.

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