Developing the Fund’s Strategy in Canada: What We’ve Learned and What’s Ahead 

Monday November 9, 2020

The WES Mariam Assefa Fund launched in the U.S. in 2019 as the only philanthropic initiative focused exclusively on economic inclusion and mobility for immigrants and refugees in North America. Our intent was always to extend our work beyond the U.S. and into Canada. But we knew that being effective in the Canadian context would require a nuanced understanding of the landscape needs, the ecosystem of stakeholders and services already serving immigrant and refugee populations, and how philanthropic capital could most powerfully work in an already well-funded immigrant-serving sector.

We are excited that we’re almost ready to announce our first round of Canadian grants. Join us live on November 23 to meet our new grantee partners. In preparing for these grants, we developed a Canadian strategy that addresses the distinct ways that the country’s policies, institutions, and systems shape economic outcomes for immigrants and refugees.

To arrive at this strategy and identify where philanthropic capital can strategically fill gaps and catalyze impact in Canada, our team listened to and learned from various leaders from the immigrant-serving and philanthropic space in Canada, such as service provider organizations, other funders, and government representatives.

Below we outline the results of this listening tour: our key considerations informing our grantmaking in Canada, as well as our plans and priorities going forward.

Defining the Problem 

Immigration is projected to account for 100% of labour force growth in Canada by the year 2040, but deep disparities persist between immigrants and refugees in the labour market and the Canadian-born. It can take many years for immigrants to achieve employment and earnings outcomes on par with individuals of equal skill and experience born in Canada, a result of factors such as a lack of a professional network and unfamiliarity with the Canadian job market. For individuals who also face discrimination because of their race or ethnicity, official language proficiency, or immigration status, it can take even longer.

From a social justice perspective, it is imperative to close these gaps and condense these timelines. Addressing immigrant labour market exclusion also has the potential to add as much as $50 billion to the national GDP.

A Look at the Sector 

The systems supporting settlement and integration in Canada are complex and layered, and they vary considerably across provinces and jurisdictions. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has planned for more than $2 billion in annual spending over the next two years, and immigrant-serving agencies (including non-profits, community-based organizations, and ethnocultural associations) rely on government funding for roughly 85 percent of their budgets. According to Philanthropic Foundations Canada, only 10 percent of the country’s philanthropic foundations provide dedicated funding toward initiatives supporting immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers.

As service providers navigate this system of funding streams to access often inflexible and limited resources, competition rather than collaboration can become the norm. This results in duplicative, fragmented services across an elaborate, evolving maze of settlement and employment supports.

Plans and Priorities for the Fund in Canada 

In developing its grantmaking and investment strategy, the Fund team has carefully considered these gaps to build on existing trends and momentum surrounding immigrant and refugee integration in Canada. Finding ways to improve employment outcomes and the economic mobility of immigrants and refugees using catalytic capital to support new, innovative solutions is a clear priority. Building on the dynamism of existing initiatives and emerging opportunities, such as demand-driven training and employment programs, and the use of social finance models within the settlement sector, is also key.

WES Canada has sought for decades to promote improved outcomes for immigrants by working directly with stakeholders to influence employer practices, advocate systems change, and drive the adoption of impactful solutions to underemployment and labour market exclusion. The Fund seeks to complement and build on this work by bringing more resources to innovative, catalytic organizations and leaders, while continuing to develop a national network of collaborators.

When the Fund began work in Canada last year, it’s fair to say that the world looked a bit different. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered the global economic landscape. New immigrants, racialized workers, and women, who are overrepresented in low-wage sectors and occupations, have borne the brunt of job losses in Canada. Disruptions to labour mobility, rapid shifts toward the digitization of workforce processes, and higher rates of unemployment for already disadvantaged populations have brought the mission of the Fund into sharp relief.

While this is clearly a moment of crisis, it is also a moment of opportunity. New conversations have emerged about what the future of immigration, integration, racial justice, and inclusive workforce development can and should look like.

What’s Ahead 

To meet this moment, the Fund solicited ideas from 67 organizations in 8 provinces in its inaugural call for proposals in Canada. These organizations include non-profits, community-labour partnerships, grassroots organizations, research institutions, and social innovation labs all focused on driving improved economic outcomes for immigrants and refugees.

This year, the Fund will support grantee partners and their impactful initiatives to:

  • Develop career pathways for immigrants and refugees in high growth sectors and occupations, particularly those at low risk of disruption from automation
  • Center worker voice and worker power to support leadership capacity and job quality in low-wage, precarious occupations that have been hard-hit by the first wave of COVID-19
  • Foster innovation and collaboration in the Canadian immigration, settlement, and workforce development sectors

The Fund looks forward to announcing its inaugural grantee partners in Canada in late November. We have been deeply inspired by the depth of insight and innovative thinking that have surfaced from collaborating with organizations and leaders across the country.

As we approach the launch of our inaugural grants in Canada, we are eager to continue learning from our partners and amplifying their voices, as well as the voices of those they serve.

Register for the live announcement event on November 23.

Stay in Touch

Thank you for your interest in the WES Mariam Assefa Fund. We’ll share updates on the Fund’s efforts, what we’re learning, and opportunities through our email list.