Dr. Jacqueline Koerner



Dr. Jacqueline Koerner is a Fellow in the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue where she is exploring philanthropy, specifically issues of power, trust, community and transparency. She is excited about teaching in the Semester in Dialogue, drawing on her academic and work experience with undergraduate students at UBC and in the not-for-profit sector.

Dr. Koerner has an extensive background in the non-profit sector and in philanthropy, both professional and voluntary, public and private. She is passionate about learning and community engagement, directed at building dignity and justice broadly. Dr. Koerner is a founder, and current Co-Chair, of Ecotrust Canada, a Vancouver-based enterprising charity that works with rural, remote, and Indigenous communities. 

Dr. Koerner’s doctoral research was carried out in Bangladesh with the world’s largest, non-profit organization, BRAC. She investigated its integrated charitable and social enterprise approach to poverty alleviation, framed in theories of resilience and place in a globalized economy.

Dr. Koerner is a Director of Foundations for Social Change, a Vancouver-based charitable organization that led North America’s first cash transfer to recently homeless persons. She is Vice-Chair of CIFAR, a Canadian-based, global research organization. As well, she is a director/trustee of three private foundations.

Dr. Koerner's Background

Dr. Koerner has been engaged with philanthropy in various guises since the mid-1980s. Rooted in her childhood experiences in Peru and in learning about the arrival into BC of her paternal family as Jewish refugees in 1939, and of their legacy, she chose to pursue the field of international development in graduate school (Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University). Her first experiences in the field were as a microfinance professional, in the Global South, and, later, in Canada.

Since this initial professional chapter, she has been an employee in both public and private foundations; was the founding Chair of Ecotrust Canada; is a current director of several charitable organizations and private foundations, from a very small new charity, Foundations for Social Change, to three family foundations, and to a large research organization, CIFAR; an advisor to charitable entities; and completed her doctoral studies - her research carried out in Bangladesh with the world’s largest, and top-ranked, NGO, BRAC. These various perches have offered Dr. Koerner much grist in the complexities of asking for grants and operationalizing them on the ground, and, as well, of philanthropy, both in the decision-making processes and its effectiveness in serving public benefit.

The State of Philanthropy Today

Today, philanthropy finds itself challenged, and appropriately so. Social deficits and global problems continue to grow and philanthropy is being called upon to examine its practices and to raise its game – specifically, its attention to issues of inclusion and to those of power, its effectiveness in granting and its total amount of giving in the face of great short-term and long-term need in support of critical, inclusive, public benefit, solution-building.

Critiques of philanthropy often coalesce around the favourable tax treatment given to charitable donations, much of which ends up invested in foundation endowments, of which relatively few large foundations dominate the philanthropic power and financial landscape in Canada. The foregone tax revenue “privatizes” decision-making in the hands of the philanthropists, permitting them to choose what public benefit works are funded with those foregone tax dollars, rather than what society wants and needs them to fund through democratic processes. While this philanthropic landscape of institutionalized philanthropy is historic, the nature of the tensions has risen at new levels of interacting intensity.

In Canada, media attention is highlighting the need to raise the distribution quota (DQ). This is a very important issue and Canadian foundations need to be challenged to spend more of their growing asset base in service of charitable initiatives. However, raising the DQ will not address the underlying nature of who is at the philanthropic table and how decisions get made, and for whom. These are thorny questions, drawing attention to the white, male over-representation at philanthropic tables, the hierarchical nature of philanthropic organizations, the near-absence of community voices in decision-making, the short-term, project, nature of many grants, and the on-going funding of successes, and absence of learning from failures, in fact the near-avoidance of failure as a necessary part of learning and of sharing that learning in service of public benefit. New efforts are emergent, including those exploring trust-based philanthropy and community response grants, a positive step for philanthropy to adapt to changing demands and societal realities.

About Dr. Koerner's Fellowship

Dr. Koerner has been connected with philanthropy from her earliest memories, through her paternal grandparents and parents – through their volunteerism and their financial support for charitable causes. Her professional journeys have connected her further with philanthropy, both private and public. She continues to experience philanthropy as a complex nexus that includes well-intentioned people, strong public benefit successes, skilled professionals, tax and estate planning driven decisions, the power of money and networks, strong hierarchies, exclusion, and risk avoidance.

Dr. Koerner is interested in probing, through dialogue, notions of democratizing philanthropy, exploring what could be more inclusive and responsive philanthropy. By engaging hr network broadly, and others’ networks, she is curious to explore these three questions:

  • How can philanthropy democratize its institutions, approaches and practices? At the core here is power, how to share power with the recipients of philanthropic support? What examples already exist in trust-based and/or participatory philanthropy? What can we learn from them, what are ongoing concerns, where are the blind-spots? How would we know when we got there, what would it look like?
  • How can philanthropy direct more dollars at society’s most crucial needs, rather than those program areas defined by philanthropists? How might philanthropy be more innovative in service of public benefit, in particular through a justice and equity lens within a democratic society?
  • How can philanthropy be more open, transparent and collaborative, thereby bringing forward opportunities, learning, and decentralization of efforts more readily?

In conversation with philanthropists, grantees, intermediaries and academics, these themes emerge constantly. While the dialogues themselves will provide the exploration and learning, Dr. Koerner plans to ensure that learning is shared more broadly, beyond the dialogues. In partnerships with the Centre and its experience in amplifying its work, collaborative approaches will be taken to ensure that this work does not stay in a report, and that follow-on ideas and steps will be identified for action.