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Funder Focus: Bruce Lourie and the Richard Ivey Foundation

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This month in our Funder Focus, we feature the Richard Ivey Foundation, which was established by the Ivey family in 1947 to improve and enrich the well-being of Canadians. CharityVillage spoke with executive director Bruce Lourie about the evolution of the foundation, its current funding priorities, and its ongoing efforts to be an effective and accountable grantmaker.

CharityVillage: How has the foundation evolved over the years?

Bruce Lourie: Like a lot of traditional family foundations, initially it was operated by the founders, who made grant decisions based on the needs of the community. In this case they were based in London, Ontario so a considerable amount of the early funding by the foundation was rooted in the London community. Through the 1970s and 80s it became more formal, with a full-time administrator helping the foundation. In the 1990s they brought on professional staff to work more closely with grantees. Then, starting in 2002, they continued with that evolution to the point where staff are much more directly involved with making grant decisions than has ever been the case in the past.

CV: How have things changed since you came on board as executive director? Would you still consider it to be very much a family foundation?

BL: Absolutely. It's a very strong family foundation with strong family roots. The board continues to consist of four family members who are all very involved in the foundation. I guess the big difference now is that the foundation really sees itself as primarily an environmental funder. When I arrived there were two major funding programs, one in the health technology sector and one in the conservation field. Last year, the foundation decided to conclude the health technology program. It was set up as a five-year program and was in its fifth year. Essentially, all of the resources that were available for that program were put into the environment. At the same time, we redesigned the biodiversity program following a comprehensive program review. It is now called "Conserving Canada's Forests". It's a very focused program that looks at forest conservation and sustainable forest management across Canada. The new program provides grants to organizations working outside of Ontario; previously the focus was in Ontario.

One of the things that came out of the review the foundation conducted was that the area where it seemed to have the greatest influence was advancing policy. The new Conserving Canada's Forests program is very much policy-focused, whereas in the past the program included primary academic research, public awareness, and education. The new program is tightly focused on forest policy and sustainable forestry practices.

CV: Why did you decide to focus your funding in this area and what types of groups are you funding?

BL: There was an independent evaluation undertaken of the biodiversity funding. The result of that review was that the policy work had the greatest impact. It was as simple as that. I think the foundation could see itself playing a useful role in supporting policy work.

We are continuing to fund many of the same kinds of organizations. They include the major conservation organizations, groups like World Wildlife Fund, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and then some smaller regional groups. For example, we just funded the Yukon Conservation Society last year and the Alberta Wilderness Association. These are organizations that are really working to improve conservation policy and forest practices in Canada. A considerable investment has also been made in the Forest Stewardship Council, which is basically working to promote sustainable certification in Canada. The foundation has a strong interest in forest certification.

CV: What were some of the highlights from the health technology program that you wrapped up in 2003? What were you hoping to achieve?

BL: We just finished a review of that program. When the program was set up five years ago the foundation was under the impression that Ontario was falling behind in the use of information technology to improve healthcare services delivery. In particular, the one technology that was being looked at was teletriage. At the same time the province was just beginning to pilot a teletriage program that led to the creation of Telehealth Ontario, the provincial teletriage health phone-in line. There was a sense that there were many benefits in this kind of technology and at the time Ontario was experiencing a healthcare system crisis. So, the foundation ended up supporting some of the only independently funded evaluation and research around the implementation of teletriage.

The series of grants that the foundation was particularly proud of were those that supported the National Initiative for Telehealth Guidelines. Essentially, the foundation single-handedly supported the development of this multi-stakeholder national body that has established a framework for guidelines on the use of telehealth services in Canada. That is something that I think is quite important given that it was a very new and complicated field. By all accounts it has been a tremendously successful program with solid outcomes and one of the most impressive collaborations I have ever witnessed.

CV: Aside from the forest conservation program, the remainder of your grant budget each year is set aside for director-initiated grantmaking. Why did you decide to go this route rather than accepting grant applications?

BL: I think this decision was largely due to the fact that the foundation was receiving requests from hundreds and hundreds of organizations that were all doing very different things. It became difficult for the board to evaluate those projects, not being close enough to them. With the director-initiated program they are providing quite substantial grants to organizations that they have some direct familiarity with. This way, they can make a more confident assessment of the activities that are being funded.

Last year, the director-initiated grants included the Royal Ontario Museum, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, United Way, the Toronto General Hospital, the Ontario College of Art and Design, and Mount Sinai Hospital - mostly large health and culture institutions based in Toronto.

CV: What was your total grantmaking for 2003?

BL: The total grants approved in 2003 was about $2.1 million. Actual grants paid out were $2.5 million, since we made payments on grants approved earlier.

CV: In recent years the foundation has placed more of an emphasis on grant effectiveness and improved accountability. What does grant effectiveness mean to you?

BL: Part of that was the decision to move to a focus on policy in the forest program. Basically, the assessment was that grants related to forest policy and sustainable forest practices appeared to be more effective, from our perspective, than grants going to primary academic research or public education. The new Conserving Canada's Forests program has quite specific goals and activities and a well-thought-out approach in terms of what the foundation is trying to accomplish. All of the proposals are evaluated against the foundation's goals and objectives. We've recently introduced an evaluation structure that will help us evaluate the program. This will help us determine whether grants are effective and in that way be more accountable to ourselves and our grantees.

Our view is that we are not asking people to produce information that isn't ultimately going to benefit them and the foundation. It's not an exercise in reporting for the sake of reporting. I would say in the past that the foundation did not place much emphasis on the information grantees were providing. Like many foundations, the focus was on proposal review, not post-evaluation. We're basically introducing systems so thatwe have the information we need in order to determine whether our programs are effective and the funds that we are distributing are really making a difference.

CV: Do you work at all in partnership with government, corporations, or other funders?

BL: That is certainly something we are going to try and do more of in the future. We're very active in the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers' Network. I was one of the founders, and am on the board now. I'm also on the board of the Environmental Grantmakers Association in the US. The whole idea of working collaboratively with other funding partners is really important and something that I think we are going to be doing a lot more of.

There is a lot more collaboration now than there was ten years ago. I think people realize that if three people get together and contribute $50,000 each to a specific initiative they are going to make a much greater impact than if just one person decided to throw in $50,000 or three unrelated grants were made. There's a general recognition within the sector that working together is a useful thing. This may also include establishing partnerships with supportive businesses.

The idea that foundations see themselves as partners in the work that is being undertaken is a growing trend in the sector that nonprofit groups sometimes feel uncomfortable with. I think there needs to be recognition on the part of the nonprofit sectorthat it's not because foundations want to oversee how the money is spent or control the agenda. It's because they have a genuine interest in seeing that the greatest amount of progress is made. They want to feel that they are able to help in any way they can to make that happen. The only way a foundation can feel that way is to participate more fully in the activities. I know there is some tension around organizations just thinking that foundations write the cheque and then 'we'll go do the work'. As foundations become more experienced and bring in professional staff with expertise in the sector, their job is not managing money and writing cheques. They really see their job as working with the sector to ensure that things move forward in the best way possible.

CV: Where would you like to see the foundation in the next few years?

BL: Well, I think we've made a considerable amount of change in the past year. As we go forward, I'd like to see that we are able to implement the programs as we've designed them and continually adapt to the opportunities that are out there.

Bruce Lourie has been with the Richard Ivey Foundation for eighteen months. Prior to that, he was a consultant who worked with a variety of nonprofit and for-profit organizations. For more information about the foundation, visit www.ivey.org.

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