The Donner Canadian Foundation gave $12 million to support foreign policy thinking over two decades. What can think tanks learn from that experience?

Canada’s foreign policy capability extends beyond government. Much of it exists in university centres and think tanks. Their leadership, starting from the time they are conceived, deserves more critical assessment than it normally gets. I argue that these institutions should be managed more strategically, which means that, at the right times and for the right purposes, they should tap private philanthropy.

Think tanks and university centres were in short supply in the early seventies, and it showed in the calibre of foreign policy commentary. The Symons Commission on Canadian Studies argued that Canada lacked an adequate infrastructure for research and analysis, as well as the expertise that would meet impending demands on policy-makers.

Riding to the rescue came the federal government, but its attempts to fill the infrastructure gap frequently foundered. The initial performance of some newly established policy institutes was distinctly groggy, and government proved to be a fickle funder. The 1992 federal budget closed down the Economic Council of Canada and the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security, among others. The withdrawal of government support amounted to a death sentence for a succession of private organizations, squandering the energy, funding and expertise that had been devoted to building them up.

The infrastructure gap was a primary concern of the Donner Canadian Foundation, which made Canadian foreign policy one of its four fields of activity in 1969. Over the next 20 years, the foundation dispensed seed funding (upward of $12 million, according to its archives) in this field. The same period witnessed an expansion of the nongovernmental community devoted to foreign affairs, an increase in its professionalism and a modest opening of the foreign policy process to outsiders.

Foundations have been defined by Waldemar Nielsen, a long-time student of American philanthropy, as institutions that “live on the edge of politics.” What does Donner’s experience of living on the edge tell us about the influence and impact of private money?

Private funders can be enablers of independent thinking

The North-South Institute (NSI), Canada’s first think tank focused on international development policy, was founded in 1976 with a Donner grant. Development is not all about aid, its founders proclaimed. The NSI embraced a much broader agenda including trade and industrial adjustment, debt, food and agricultural development — in fact, the full range of Canada’s relationships with the Third World. “The multidimensional approach [to developing countries] is at long last catching fire,” commented the retired Canadian diplomat Escott Reid in a letter to the foundation in March 1976.

Today it is hard to grasp how novel the idea of a policy institute seemed to those immersed in development issues. Donner money helped pierce a wall of apprehension, coming ahead of the government support that was needed to keep the enterprise alive. (It was the eventual withdrawal of that support that ended the NSI in 2014.)

Early on, NSI researchers plunged into controversy by proposing that some official development assistance funds should be spent not abroad but in Canada — for retraining, relocation and adaptation of workers, communities and firms harmed by import competition from developing countries. Could such muscular thinking have been forthcoming from an organization that had not, at the outset, established a degree of independence?

Private funders can build expertise in out-of-favour subjects

China’s recovery from Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution and Japan’s emergence as an economic force coincided with mounting concern at home about wasteful duplication in post-secondary education. In 1974, Donner responded by holding out the possibility of a major grant to the University of Toronto and York University if they would combine their Asian resources. The resulting Joint Centre on Modern East Asia took on regional security issues in the Asia-Pacific region as well as training of Chinese officials and parliamentarians and an Asian Business Studies Program, among many other activities. The interuniversity collaboration flourished for more than 25 years.

Donner and Pierre Trudeau’s government, which presciently insisted that the Pacific Rim deserved policy-makers’ attention, were ahead of the Canadian public and particularly an indifferent business community. The joint centre’s Japanese-language course was soon abandoned for want of students; the Chinese course survived only on account of Cantonese speakers wanting to learn Mandarin! Yet it was prudent to be building expertise in subjects that were out of fashion, looking to the day when Canada’s relations with Asia would become of national importance, as they since have.

Private funders can gamble on an enterprising long shot

Controversy over the testing of US cruise missiles in Canada pitted a burgeoning peace movement against a beleaguered defence community. To salvage a debate that was going nowhere, Donner took a gamble on some young researchers focused on maintaining the stability of nuclear deterrence. A 1984 grant bought time to get the Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament established and then triggered support from the Department of External Affairs (now Global Affairs Canada).

A policy entrepreneur had been born. A tiny team of researchers tackled nuclear testing and verification, arms control in outer space, renewal of the North American Air Defence Agreement and Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.

Their pronouncements were carefully timed and linked to impending events, forcing officials and parliamentarians to pay attention. The centre joined forces with the NSI to expose the foreign policy views of the political parties in the 1984 election campaign when the parties themselves were telling voters practically nothing about them. When the Mulroney government’s 1987 White Paper proposed the acquisition of 10 to 12 nuclear-powered attack submarines, the centre argued vehemently that the acquisition would undermine Canada’s nuclear nonproliferation diplomacy. The debate fed public skepticism of the submarine purchase and it was soon abandoned.

In later years, the Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament reinvented itself, contributing to Canada’s circumpolar engagement by proposing an ambassador for circumpolar affairs and working toward the establishment of the Arctic Council. It eventually succumbed to the lack of a permanent revenue stream. Nevertheless, it left behind a record of continually shaking up policy-makers and policy. In the funder’s mind, it was a gamble that paid off.

The bar to making effective use of private funding is attitudinal. Canadian diplomats’ accomplishments in the early postwar period have entrenched the notion that foreign policy is government’s exclusive bailiwick. This notion is reinforced by complaints that private funding just isn’t there and, even if it were there, hardly any private funders would be drawn to foreign affairs. Complainers ignore the fact that there are 10,808 Canadian foundations; over 1,900 of them have been established since 2005, and many of these may still be setting their priorities. A concerted effort to awaken their interest could add significantly to the handful of foundations that support foreign policy projects.

Leaders of think tanks and university centres have to do more than come alive to the potential of philanthropy. They must grasp that private money can do certain things that might not be done as well with public funds. Choices about how philanthropic funds are to be applied are strategic choices, influencing whether think tanks and centres generate ambitious ideas, influence public opinion and shape policy decisions. That, in turn, will be important to the way Canada acts in the world.

Photo: Shutterstock/By metamorworks


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