On Parliament Hill, among hundreds of pairs of children’s shoes surrounding the eternal flame, another reminder of the more than 1,200 unmarked graves uncovered on the grounds of former Indian residential schools over the course of the summer. Photo by Michael Swan

This campaign will have to be different

By 
  • October 9, 2021

If Catholics really are going to raise $30 million to fund Indigenous-led reconciliation projects across the country, they’re going to have to run a very different campaign than the $25-million “best efforts” campaign that raised just $3.7 million between 2008 and 2014, say Catholic philanthropists and fundraisers.

There can be no high-priced consultants setting up and running the campaign, said Catholic fundraising consultant Eleanor McGrath, who sits on a number of volunteer boards.

“I would be sad to hear that they hired a professional fundraiser…. This now rides on our shoulders, as Christians, to correct that blunder,” she said. “Just make it right.”

McGrath believes the five-year time table of the Canadian bishops’ Sept. 24 commitment is too long.

“If we don’t do this and do it darn fast we are possibly exposing ourselves as Catholics to something worse,” she said. “The sincerity of being a Christian and a Catholic is at stake. That’s too high a price.”

The 2008 to 2014 “best efforts” campaign to raise $25 million was one of three streams of financial compensation Catholic organizations covered by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement were ordered to pay. The other two streams were $29 million in cash, paid largely out of the reserves of the religious orders and dioceses that ran the schools, and $25 million worth of in-kind services, approved by local band leadership and then assigned a dollar value by a committee in Ottawa with representatives from the Assembly of First Nations, the federal government and the Catholic organizations.

The large, capital-campaign-style fundraising effort was the idea of retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Frank Iacobucci, who arbitrated the settlement agreement on behalf of the government in 2006. The Catholic organizations covered by the agreement then hired KCI Philanthropy to set up and run the campaign.

Today, KCI admits its campaign didn’t work.

“Unfortunately, despite the significant effort of many, the fundraising results were ultimately disappointing,” said KCI chief operating officer Paul Koreen.

KCI was on the job from 2008 to 2012, helping a volunteer board that included now Governor General Mary Simon to develop messaging, identify projects, train volunteers, identify potential large donors and structure the campaign as a separate legal entity.

“Individual, corporate and other prospective donors did not choose to make lead gifts at the levels required for the campaign to succeed in reaching its goal,” Koreen said.

On the KCI side, the campaign was led by then senior vice president Joanne Villemaire. In 2016 Villemaire told The Catholic Register the campaign faced multiple obstacles, including a very low level of knowledge among potential donors about the history of residential schools and corporate reluctance to be seen giving money to the Church.While it failed, the campaign was anything but haphazard or half-hearted, she said.

“They did best efforts. They really tried. They were well-intentioned and really wanted to see if this could be done,” said Villemaire.

Catholics for Truth and Reconciliation spokesperson Leah Perrault doesn’t think anybody gains by blaming consultants.

“I don’t want to make excuses. We failed,” she said. “The failure of the Church to articulate a compelling vision for why this matters is the question.”

Catholics for Truth and Reconciliation, which began as a Facebook discussion group following the discovery of 215 unmarked graves next to the Kamloops Indian Residential School, raised over $27,000 online without official Church backing — $2,000 more than its $25,000 target. The campaign also directed donors to three different bishop-led reconciliation funds and encouraged direct donations to three Indigenous organizations working on reconciliation.

The success of the now-closed Catholics4TR campaign shows grassroots appeals to church-goers can work, Perrault said.

“I don’t think a traditional (corporate) fundraising campaign is the way to go,” she said. “Getting those dollars really matters, but the way that we do it — engaging as many people in the process as possible — is at least as critical as the amount.”

Six years after the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 and after a summer of discoveries of unmarked graves, there are big differences this time around, said Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ spokesperson Lisa Gall.

“Catholics, and all Canadians, have been painfully exposed to the uncovering of unmarked burial sites this year, sparking an overdue but necessary conversation on the lasting legacy of this colonialist system,” said Gall.

“In working with diocesan and Indigenous partners across the country on local initiatives, bishops have an opportunity to not only provide support to deserving local programs, but to engage, educate and inspire Catholics and members of the general public on ways everyone can play a meaningful role in the healing journey.”

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