disrupting philanthropy with Yonis Hassan



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Fundraising and philanthropy make a lot of people very uncomfortable. A big part of that is our discomfort with money generally, but a lot of it is how our sector and philanthropy have been structured and the power systems it upholds.

Our sector faces challenges related to power, change, and resource redistribution for impact. In today's episode, Yonis Hassan, Co-Founder, and CEO of The Justice Fund discusses one of his biggest challenges with the philanthropic sector - the hoarding of money in foundations. According to the Justice Fund’s most recent campaign, Move The Money, charitable foundations in Canada are holding onto over $85 billion dollars in charitable assets. If distributed, this money would create transformative change in providing security and proper access to opportunities and long-term resources to underserved communities.

In the midst of a global pandemic, a climate crisis, and a violence crisis, our needs are increasing and neglected communities are having to overcome more obstacles than ever before. Nevertheless, Canadian philanthropic foundations are only giving away a minuscule amount of the money given to charities each year.

Join the conversation as Yonis shares why the time to use this money is now. It’s time to call for change.


Myths that Yonis wants us to walk away from:

  • Preserving a foundation’s capital over a long time is in the best interest of the public. It’s not. There's going to be more money coming into this sector. There’s going to be more innovation, more creativity, and more risk-taking. Yonis urges the charitable sector to use the abundance of taxpayer’s assets in a timely manner when we have a plethora of crises facing our communities.

  • Small nonprofits cannot make big changes in the philanthropy sector. Whether you are a grassroots organization, an unincorporated organization, a volunteer, a board member, someone who just donates to organizations, there will be an opportunity for you to speak up around these issues.

Yonis’ thoughts around reforming philanthropy.

  • Changing the status quo. The foundations and funds in our sector have amassed a total of $85 billion. Reforming philanthropy entails leveraging the abundance of these assets to have a greater impact and serve the most vulnerable communities, especially during times of crisis.

  • Stepping up as a collective sector. We must act collectively and have an open discussion about charitable laws and how they contribute to discrimination and continued oppression of indigenous communities in order to mobilize resources that will improve the situation of the vulnerable populations.

  • It’s time to speak up. Yonis encouraged the philanthropic community to speak up. Whether it's speaking with your municipal council or your MP or MPP, your donors, or your board members, stand up and urge them to take action and make these legislative reforms.

Favorite Quotes from Today’s Episode

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“So whether you are a grassroots organization, an unincorporated organization, a volunteer, a board member, someone who just donates to organizations, there will be an opportunity for you to speak up around these issues. So whether it's talking to your city council or your MP or MPP, mostly your MP, or, you know, those in the philanthropic space, your donors, your board members speak up, tell them that it's absolutely disgusting that you are doing your job while the philanthropic community has amassed over $85 billion in charitable assets, right, while you are living grant to grant, while you are dealing with wave after wave of new crises.”

“With over $85 billion of charitable assets in this country, we can be using that to invest in affordable housing, to invest in climate financing, to invest in transit, to invest in cooperatives, but we choose not to. So, expecting the federal government to implement some changes to hold us accountable, to hold the philanthropic sector accountable.”


Resources from this Episode

Transcript:

Cindy W.: Fundraising and philanthropy make a lot of people very uncomfortable. It's very common for me to meet people out in the real world, and when they hear that I'm a fundraiser they back away. And I think part of that, is our discomfort with money and talking about money, but a lot of it as well is how our sector and philanthropy has been structured does make people very uncomfortable. There are challenges around power, and change, and redistribution of resources to impact. And today's podcast episode is all about that, and how we can look at rebuilding the sector in a way that really, changes the world, I would say more meaningfully and recently around vulnerable populations that are seeking equity, and what we can do about that.


I'm Cindy Wagman, your host of the small non-profit podcast, where we bring you practical down to earth advice on how you can do more for your small nonprofit. You are going to change the world and we are here to help.


Today's guest is Yonis Hassan, who is the founder and CEO of the Justice Fund. And a big part of what he is working towards is reforming philanthropy and today's conversation, a lot of it is around a specific, it's not specific to the Canadian sector, but it certainly uses examples from it where we are talking about, donors advised funds and foundations and how there is this accumulation of wealth that's sitting fairly idle when the world is in crisis and how we might be able to mobilize those funds to do more good and achieve more justice. So with that, it is such a pleasure to introduce Yonis to the podcast. Yonis, welcome to the podcast.


Yonis H.: Hello, thank you for having me.


Cindy W.: All I feel like I should say to our listeners is buckle your seatbelts. We are going on a wild ride today. I'm so excited because we're just opening it up to some of the more difficult conversations that need to be having our had in our sector today and we're Yonis and I were talking before recording this is loving critique, right? This is, these are hard conversations because they need to be had, because we care so deeply about the work that our sector does. And we know how important it is that we have to fix some fundamental things in the way we work as a sector. So with that Yonis, I want like, where do you want to start with? There's a lot of things I know we want to cover, what is your most burning change that has to, that you think needs to happen right now in our sector?


Yonis H.: Ooh, where do I begin? There's so many. We're just coming off of a week where, the charitable sector submitted their feedback on the disbursement quota, to the federal government of Canada. And I think it was an interesting process last few months, I think. And I think in the last week or so the public communication of the disbursement quota wrapped up, which was fascinating.


Cindy W.: Let's talk about that. Especially some of our listeners are not Canadian, but obviously this is very relevant across the world. Currently for foundations and donor advised funds, there's a disbursement quota. You have your assets as an organization and you have to distribute a certain amount or a certain percentage every year to what is in Canada called a qualified donee, right? And so part of, and correct me if I'm wrong, but part of, what's the conversation has been that amount is not enough. Our sector, and in Canada, like these foundations and funds are sitting on a huge amount of wealth. So tell us about what set us up, set up the situation for us,


Yonis H.: I'm bad at setting things up, but, and some, for your international view or sometimes the disbursement quota is called the payout rate or, has different names, but, for us in Canada we, our requirements are the minimum requirement is three, four, 5%, which is one of the lowest in the world. Our neighbours now south, there are about 5%. Other nations around the world are at a higher rate or don't even have a disbursement quota to begin with. So the past, I would say month or so, a lot of folks in the sector have been submitting their, positions on whether or not to increase the disbursement quota to the federal government, some of those, feedback for submissions, were public. And it was very telling for me to see who or what organizations were recommending changes to disbursement quota and those that were, diplomatically, placating their responsibilities, in very nicely written words on why we should not increase the disbursement quota. It was all semantics.


I think, it's people that have power, privilege, and benefit from the current way that the system is designed. So family offices, those that manage philanthropic assets, private foundations, those with money, are the ones who are most likely to, not recommend to change versus, organizations like ourselves, that are on the front lines that are working with frontline, the communities that recognize that we need these assets in our communities, hands service, to accomplish the missions that we're trying to achieve.


We're trying to work ourselves out of a job and it's frustrating to see a philanthropic community justify, not increasing the disbursement quota as a way to preserve the capital, that you're preserving capital is us preserving violence, food insecurity, lack of affordable housing in our neighbourhoods.


Cindy W.: All right. So one of the things you said, I think really stood out to me. You said those of us in the front lines, we're trying to work ourselves out of a job, right? We're trying to enact meaningful and deep and swift change to help people to save lives, to change things, save, protect the environment, whatever we're working on. And to me, it's, it feels like a lot of the people who have those funds, and the nature of an endowment is that it is, it's everlasting. And I understand, and I'm going to play devil's advocate, which is new challenges are going to come up and, all of these things, but wealth is not going away. There is more and more people generating more and more money. But the issues that we need to solve for today are urgent. And so it's this really interesting tension between the idea of legacy longevity, ongoing impact versus the real needs. And, really the amount of wealth that is sitting there that could be deployed to the front lines. That's such an interesting conversation and again, yeah. Pipe in.


Yonis H.: Yeah, no, absolutely. Like this issue of perpetuity, and endowments drives me absolutely crazy. There's absolutely nothing about the natural order that is forever, right? I think it's absolutely huberous and self-serving for foundations to think that, them preserving their capital over a long period of time is, in the best interest of the public. It's not, get over yourselves ,there is going to be new money. There's going to be more money coming into this sector. There's gotta be, more innovation, more creativity, more risk-taking. But we need you to have these abundance of taxpayer assets because it is taxpayer assets. To use it in a timely manner when we have a plethora of crises facing our communities in this country and a philanthropic community sitting on the sidelines, trying to justify why it's hard to give away money. It's absolutely ridiculous. I have zero faith in their ability to self-regulate a reform.


So I expect the federal government of Canada to step in here, right. And again, it's not that we're questioning individual foundations or individual philanthropists because there's plenty of those folks in the sector that are doing such transformational work, but it's a disservice to that work that they're doing. If the collective sector is not stepping up.


Cindy W.: So this is now gone as part of this submission and the public, although it's interesting because I really don't think the public knew very much about these submissions until the very last minute, but now, submissions have gone through to the federal government here. But let's talk about that more broadly because this is just one sort of lever that I know that you're working on within this charitable sector to change the status quo and I want you to tell me a little bit about why changing the status quo is important. Who is this serving that hasn't been served before?


Yonis H.: For us, at our core, our organization, our mandate is to support communities in conflict with the law in essence to our antivirus organization. And for me, our communities are suffering, we've faced a tremendous amount of violence over the last few years. I think it's over 170% gun violence in the city of Toronto has increased. And that's because our neighbourhoods and our communities are socially, politically, and economically segregated.


Toronto is the fourth largest city in north America. It's the second largest financial hub. And yet, we have pockets in this city that have, decaying, housing, lack of that, our food apartheid neighbourhoods that have lack of transit, and for me, these little one-off interventions, I'm not going to do anything $25,000 for community programs, nothing. I don't want your, your gifts that say that they're only for programming.


I don't want your restricted, photo ops and I want the philanthropic community that has all these resources to tackle the problems that exist in these neighbourhoods with the same type of due diligence and veracity that they tackle, the multiple capital campaigns that universities have, or the multiple capital campaigns that, hospitals have, right. It should be the responsibility of the federal provincial government of Canada and ensure that we have a good education system, that we have a great healthcare system. It's not the philanthropic communities.


Philanthropic community's job is to, you know, fill the gaps that exist in these neighbourhoods, that government is not filling and do it with transformational gifts or even major gifts, I don't care for your, GoFundMe campaigns that you support, I want a philanthropist to commit $50 million to that tackling kind of violence in this one particular neighbourhood. I want someone to put that same commitment, and validate the work that these frontline organizations and these community organizations are doing.


Majority of the organizations in this sector that are hurting right now are those frontline organizations.

They're the ones that are being forced to close. They're the ones that are working on, volunteer. Their executives are working on volunteer hours. They're the ones that, are we going to be forced to close or merge? It's not united way. It's not YMCA, it's not these big national, it's not Boys and Girls Club of Canada. It's not these big national organizations that are going to be the ones suffering. It's those community organizations, the ones that you restrict, and make you know, jumped through hoops for these taxpayer assets that you've been given the privilege of deciding when and where to allocate. Might've gone on a little rant there.


Cindy W.: And that's, those are the organizations that are listening, and so I'd love. I wanted to go in a different direction, but I actually really feel like, okay, I wanted to make a point and then I'll ask this. So the first point is the day we're recording this is October 1st is not airing obviously today, but we are coming off of our first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. And, just case in point the amount of philanthropic funding that goes to indigenous communities and indigenous led organizations is minuscule. We sit in shock and in the horror of it's still, a lot of, we can't talk about this as a historical time in Canada. This is currently what we are living through and what indigenous communities are living through, and what they experience, and again, there's all of this wealth that is sitting there, locked away, that could be redistributed and, in, in, hopefully, solve for some of the problems that communities are experiencing.


So I just wanted to point that out because I think that, social media turning orange and all that kind of stuff is just one little, little thing. And I, don't want to minimize it because it's important to have that sort of public presence, but there's so much more we can be doing so much more.


Yonis H.: Absolutely. And I think it's time that we in this sector, there's the sector represents 10% of Canada's working population. There are over 86,000 charities in this country. There are over 10,000 foundations in this country. I think it's time to step back and have an open and honest conversation about the role that the charitable sector slash philanthropy has played, in harming indigenous communities. We allow our skills to be governed by laws that are built on exploitation extraction. And the genocide of indigenous communities, particularly in the philanthropic space, Chris Archer from The Circle on Philanthropy, talks about settler philanthropy a lot. And that's exactly what this is.


Those in this sector, particularly a lot of these older foundations are the ones that have either funded or sustained the existence of residential schools. The last residential school closed in 1997. A lot of these foundations existed before that funded those schools, yeah. They can go on their own journey to, acknowledge what their ancestors have done or what their foundation has done. But collectively as a sector, we need to step up and have an open and honest conversation about the charitable laws and how they contribute towards, discrimination and the continued, oppression of indigenous communities across this country.


I find it ridiculous that more money goes to BYU university, in the United States than all indigenous organizations in this country receive from the philanthropic community. I think it's very telling about, who, and, where are these philanthropics go to and who is allocating these philanthropic assets, we've given private foundations in this country, private and public foundations in this country, the privilege of deciding when and where to allocate these assets, that they have clearly done it, do a disservice to communities in need, including indigenous communities that have had, decades intergenerational, boil water advisories. And I think it's time for the philanthropic community to, move beyond virtue signalling.


Cindy W.: I think that's such an important, first of all, I had no idea that was the case with the university in Utah. And that's just wild, but I think, part of, part of what we're talking about as I think the role that philanthropy has played as a system in upholding power structures. Very often we're taught that fun philanthropy is about, redistribution of wealth and of power, for quote unquote, good social good. But that isn't actually how the systems have worked. Can you talk a little bit about that?


Yonis H.: Yeah, like I would, a lot of the harm caused by the philanthropic community is self-imposed, there's absolutely no reason why we grant the way that we grant. There's absolutely no reason why we ask organizations to report the way that they report. We as a philanthropic sector or a charitable sector, impose these barriers on community organizations that are trying to do their job, and over the last, five to 10 years, we've seen this new, pseudo intellectualization of the sector, where we're putting all these, key performance indicators and, ridiculous measurements, to community organizations that are just trying to do their jobs, I think, and just beyond the way that we grant are managing relationships with community organizations, we have to step back and think about how these assets are actually invested in the stock market, right. If these assets, as according to the federal government income tax act are designated to serve a charitable purpose, I have a very hard time justifying how using those assets to invest in the stock market, to invest in fossil fuels, or the extraction sector is justifying a charitable purpose. It's not, right. I think, and the counter argument would be well money's increasing well, just because the money is increasing, your base is increasing, your interest is increasing, doesn't mean that increased, to the betterment of our society. Absolutely not.


Cindy W.: Yeah.


Yonis H.: With over $85 billion of charitable assets in this country, we can be using that to invest in affordable housing, to invest in climate financing, to invest in transit, to invest in cooperatives, but we choose not to. Expecting the federal government to implement some changes to hold us accountable, to hold the philanthropic sector accountable.


Cindy W.: To your point though. Yeah, and hopefully the pink government does, but, and again, like I'm not trying to hide my bias and perspective here. I fully support all the things that we're talking about. And we talk about a broken system, but individually I think a lot of people still have, power and decision to make personal changes, towards the, to do it better, even without that regulation. And of course, we all want to believe that we're all capable of doing better without being forced to do better. Do you have any organizations that you've seen who are, going above and beyond again, what's regulated, or who have, started, I've heard terms like trust-based philanthropy, or, organizations who are actually, doing this without, having their hand for us to do


Yonis H.: Yeah. I think there's a lot of, and less in Canada, more and more in the United States and Europe, because our country is a country of mediocrity, even within the charitable space. I think there's a lot of interesting conversations going on.


Trust-based philanthropy is an interesting one, we're, we practice trust-based philanthropy, we're big proponents of trust-based philanthropy. And for those that don't know, trust-based philanthropy, our six principles of, rethinking how we work with community organizations as funders, some multi-year agreements, unrestricted granting, simplifying the application process, simplifying the reporting process. I'm pretty sure I'm forgetting one or two. But you get the geist.


I, my biggest concern with these, approaches or discussions or even terminologies or the new lexicon that's being added to the sector, that is that they become buzzwords and I've already seen that started happening. I've already seen, foundations doing these webinars, talking about how they're investing in communities and how they're using trust-based philanthropy when I know, and they know that they don't do multi-year agreements, so they don't do unrestricted granting, that they have ridiculous applications and reporting processes.


We are a sector of monkey, see, monkey, do we tend to copy now what we do or what we each other do, but what other countries do first? So we'll see, I think some of the stuff that's happening in the UK around impact investing, a lot of that will be adopted in Canada, 5, 6, 10 years from now. Again, cause we're mediocre. A lot of the stuff that's happening in the United States in California around, full cost funding or, impact or trust-based philanthropy there'd be, or other forms of, abolition work within this philanthropic space. Best stuff will never happen here, we don't have the appetite, we don't have the desire, and frankly, I think the sector does not have the courage. Particularly with those that have power and leadership, to do this, right? It's very like this whole conversation about the disbursement quota over the last six months, it was very interesting because it seems like it started a mini civil war amongst certain sex of the philanthropic space and of that little disbursement quota, is causing a kerfuffle, right?


Cindy W.: Don't introduce multi-year funding because dammit, like that's going to just create the,


Yonis H.: It's going to break some people's hearts, right? Like and like it's frustrating, cause those philanthropists or those in the philanthropic space, no, we're at post pandemic, not even post pandemic, we're still in a pandemic. They know what tremendous trauma, harm has been caused. Not only domestically, but globally, we have a responsibility as Canadians to do our part. To help solve the, the many crises that we are actually responsible for particularly around climate change, these climate crises that are happening right now, we're just seeing the first few waves. If you look at, countries in the global south, particularly in, Southeast Asia and Africa, they are suffering from, droughts and floods and, famines that they've never experienced historically. And that's because of climate change and that's because of our indifference. And that's because of the apathy that the philanthropic community of Canada has shown.


Cindy W.: So want to ask, we're running out of time, but one thing I want to ask is, so you mentioned, we need courage and we need our sector leaders and those empowered to show courage. But, I know that our listeners they're working in and running small non-profits and very often don't think of themselves as being in a position to have influence as being in a position to affect these changes. And I'd love for you to I'd love to wrap up the conversation, talking a little bit about, outside of this consultative process, which is pretty much over, around the disbursement quota, but obviously, it's so much more than just the disbursement quota. What can little old me do? How can we work together as a sector to start to change things?


Yonis H.: My favorite question. There are over 86,000 charities in this country, 10% of our working population in this country works in the charitable sector. 70% of which are women. We have a tremendous opportunity in the next, I would say eight to 18 months, to do some comprehensive philanthropic sector reform. And like big changes.


So whether you are a grassroots organization, an unincorporated organization, a volunteer, a board member, someone who just donates to organizations, there will be an opportunity for you to speak up around these issues. So whether it's talking to your city council or your MP or MPP, mostly your MP, or, those in the philanthropic space, your donors, your board members speak up, tell them that it's absolutely disgusting that you are doing your job while the philanthropic community has amassed over $85 billion dollars in charitable assets, while you are living grant to grant, while you are dealing with wave after wave of new crises.


Speak to your donors, tell them to step up or get out of the way, speak to your MP, tell them to make these legislative changes. Find a home for the charitable sector and the federal government of Canada. Implement Justice Fund's six pillars of philanthropic reform, which you can find on our website. I think, we have an opportunity right now to re-imagine how we want our next 50 years of Canadian philanthropy to be. So speak up or get left behind.


Cindy W.: So important. And again, I think to your point, we have a very strong collective presence. It's so easy to feel. To not feel that, to feel stuck in the day-to-day. And I really don't want to, minimize that experience of being, an executive director or a programming staff in a smaller organization where there's three people and it can feel really hard and it can feel like we know that there's power dynamics in philanthropy, and it feels like we're on the powerless side. And so that's when we need to start to come together and reach out, connect with other organizations, connect with the onus and the Justice Fund.


Are there any other resources, so you're doing this work, have you found any partners, have you found anyone else? Let's talk about in Canada and in the states where, so I obviously go to The Justice Fund justicefund.ca, right? And check out what they're doing, but Yonis, where else can we start to equip ourselves with more information, and even find virtual gathering spaces for us to connect with other organizations? Because I do know that experience is often very lonely and, it feels very isolated.


Yonis H.: Absolutely. There's I mentioned them before, The Circle on Philanthropy, they're doing such brilliant work, I would recommend that you folks check them out. Our friends at MakeWay are doing some interesting work with shared platforms and working with non-qualified donees which is very interesting and exciting. I think, our friends at, New Power Labs, they're doing some interesting work around impact investing that I would recommend folks check out. Our friends at Sassy are doing some bold, innovative workaround, inclusion, diversity, and equity within the financial space as well.


There, there are organizations that are doing very fascinating work. There are organizations that are trying to build the future that we want to see and, mobilize the rest of Canadians to help build that future. So I would recommend everybody to check them out. Obviously keep checking us out on our website. We'll have more information in the next little while and, there will be a significant campaign to reform philanthropy. So I call on all your readers and viewers to join us because when that moment comes, we better hit them like a wave.


Cindy W.: Well, you can count on us to spread that information when it's available. Yonis thank you so much for having this important conversation, obviously with us, but, within the sector, I think it's long overdue and. Hopefully, as you said, we're at this sort of pivotal point where we can actually all speak up together and see some, hopefully, see some good changes. Just, one last reminder, where can our listeners connect with you and learn more about this work?


Yonis H.: Absolutely. First and foremost, thank you for having me and letting me rant. Check us out on justicefund.ca you can follow us on justicefundto on social media, whether it's Instagram or Twitter, and keep out for our campaigns.


Cindy W.: Thank Yonis and thank you to you, our listeners, we will see you again next week and, keep up the amazing work you do have a good one. Well folks, that's it for today's episode of the small nonprofit. I'm your host, Cindy Wagman, and this show is brought to you by The Good Partnership. As a reminder, if you want more resources around raising more money for your small nonprofit, visit thegoodpartnership.com and download our free fundraising strategy guide. I'll see you next week.