Canadian Community Foundations Conference Leaves Valuable Lessons

In early May, my colleague Jen Bokoff and I had the pleasure of attending Community Foundations of Canada’s Belong Conference in Ottawa, Ontario. In addition to forging new friendships and sharing updates about our own work with our colleagues up north, we gained insights about the community foundation field in Canada that I know will inform my work and future conversations with community foundations back in the States.

With the privilege of attending dynamic conversations comes the responsibility to share. With such an energizing exchange of ideas and provocative conversation, it’s challenging to distill in just a few short words. Still, I would be remiss not to share my five key takeaways about the Canadian community foundation field, learned at a conference:

  1. The theme of the conference was “Belong,” and much of the dialogue was about inclusivity generally, and reconciliation specifically. There was a general sense of cohesion among the community foundations in attendance, who refer to their collective work as a “movement,” willing to engage in a deep dive on a singular topic. With deep focus on a single issue, there was an overwhelming sense that attendees would return home with learnings that might have a positive impact of their own work with the First Nations, or a new lens through which to view seemingly-disconnected work.
  2. Ninety percent of all communities in Canada have access to a community foundation, with a strategy in place to reach the other ten percent. Of the 191 community foundations across Canada, I was surprised to learn that half of them are non-staffed, fully led by volunteers hungry to make an impact in their communities. They’ve demonstrated just as deep a commitment to their work, and their connection to the community provides unique insight to local needs.
  3. In keeping with the “Belong” theme, facilitators at the conference honored the time we all shared, allowed multiple voices to be heard, and were generally action-oriented. Clear and targeted comments and dialogue were encouraged in an interactive setting that welcomed all. For Francophones in attendance, all plenaries were translated to French, or were in French and translated for English-speakers. In respecting the different learning styles of those in attendance, some sessions had tactile tools like exercise balls for participants to interact with to encourage creative thinking.
  4. Though community foundations in Canada often work together with their local (and Federal) government, there was an interesting willingness to talk about how those governments fall short, even as representatives from those very same governments were in the room or even sitting on the same panel.
  5. You may have heard of Vital Signs, the community indicators project spearheaded in Canada by Community Foundations of Canada. In short, Vital Signs allows community foundations to publish social and economic trends from their local communities.  One might naturally think that properly executing the initiative in one’s own community requires significant time and resources, but as was shared by participants’ staffers in attendance, there are ways for even the smallest or most remote community foundations to still affect the conversation without the need to make a significant investment. The emphasis was there throughout the conference – small community foundations had a seat at the table and were encouraged to share their knowledge with their more resource-rich counterparts.
  6. And how about a quick bonus takeaway? They are the absolute nicest people. Seriously.

If you were there, what were your takeaways? And if you weren’t, how might these nuggets help inspire your own thinking at your own foundation?

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