Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research

Which Frameworks Are Appropriate to Study and Describe Philanthropic Foundations in Canada?

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research

Which Frameworks Are Appropriate to Study and Describe Philanthropic Foundations in Canada?

Article excerpt


The world of philanthropic foundations is very heterogeneous. Some operating and grantmaking foundations have dozens of employees, yet most have few or none. Some are intrinsically linked to a family, while others are fully institutionalized. Some view gifts primarily as charity, while others see them more as an investment. Some fund only one local structure, such as a hospital, while others maintain international networks and very diverse programs. How might one find the way out of this maze? To help clarify this portrait, the intent of this article is to present three approaches, or frameworks, to analyze the Canadian foundation sector: descriptive typologies, the plurality of the roles and modes of action of foundations, and theoretical perspectives.

However, before developing these three approaches, this article addresses an important normative issue. Indeed, the exercise of description is also an exercise of characterization. The term "qualification" integrates the component that is both descriptive-objective and normative-subjective of such an operation. Most of the work and existing data on the philanthropic foundation sector is based on American foundations. This is the case for three main reasons. One, foundations play a much greater role in the United States than in most other countries. Two, the major studies on the philanthropic sector were conducted in the United States. And three, the United States built and cultivated its foundations in a perspective derived from Tocqueville writings, and described as the "American model." A model in which a strong civil society is to compensate for a low degree of intervention by the state.


The descriptive and theoretical tools developed for observing U.S. foundations, shaped significantly by the industrial, religious, and political history of American society and its unique origins and genesis (Hammack & Anheier, 2013), have sometimes been used indiscriminately to characterize foundations in other countries. Diagnoses made in this way then tend to negatively perceive the "delay" in relation to the American model, or the imperfection of other situations in comparison with this benchmark. Efforts to overcome this alleged problem then include the use of tools (fiscal, economic, managerial) applied in the U.S. philanthropic sector to contexts that are generally very different from that of the United States.

Moreover, the normative component of the task of qualifying philanthropic sectors can be captured through terms such as "third sector," "nonprofit sector" or "independent sector." Far from being similar or interchangeable, these terms are social constructs with identifiable origins. According to research conducted by Peter D. Hall (1992), in the United States, the nonprofit sector took shape from the 1960s to the 1980s. A process during which three key players eventually emerged.

These key players were John D. Rockefeller III (he played a pivotal role in the industrial and philanthropic Rockefeller family empire), John William Gardner (a former president of the Carnegie Foundation and the United States secretary of health, education, and welfare under Lyndon Johnson), and Daniel P. Moynihan (a democratic senator of New York, member of several presidential administrations, and sociologist). These actors participated in the structuration of the non-profit sector (Hall, 1992). Subsequently, the organization the Independent Sector, founded in 1980, served as a common platform, as well as a tool for gaining tax adjustments, for defining who belongs to, or does not, the nonprofit sector (including debate around the inclusion or exclusion of churches), and for structuring specific knowledge of the nonprofit sector, "which could be shared among philanthropy professionals, volunteers, the IRS, the Census Bureau and the general public" (Zunz, 2012, p. 261).

In the United States, the philanthropic sector created the structures that studied its own activities, namely through learned societies, university programs, professorships, scholarships, and publishing houses. …

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