A Bold Act of Canadian Philanthropy

All innovations, whether they are scientific, technological, or social follow a similar path. Often you must develop a new vocabulary to articulate your hard-to-grasp insight. Then you must prove your idea works. Finally, you must amass the resources to escort your solution from the margins to the mainstream.

A Bold Act of Canadian Philanthropy

"Ah ha” moments that lead to a breakthrough never arrive fully formed. After the apple dropped on Isaac Newton’s head his theory of gravity only emerged after years of trial and error. All innovations, whether they are scientific, technological, or social follow a similar path. Often you must develop a new vocabulary to articulate your hard-to-grasp insight. Then you must prove your idea works. Finally, you must amass the resources to escort your solution from the margins to the mainstream. This is usually done off the corner of your desk, bootstrapping with little outside support while continuing your daily responsibilities. All the while accompanied by self-doubts, skepticism from colleagues and resistance from those in authority.

This was the situation Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (“PLAN”) found itself in, in 2006. Our mission was the lifelong security of disabled people particularly after their parents died. We had proposed a national disability savings plan. Governments and service providers weren’t interested. They believed disabled people didn’t need money, they needed services. By contrast disabled people and their families were tired of being program rich and cash poor. They wanted control over their money and to end the welfare mindset which keeps them poor, dependent and which penalizes them for trying to get ahead.

PLAN’s proposal had very little traction until the Law Foundation issued a one-time call for “thinking outside the box” social policy ideas. They granted us $480,000 over four years. This enabled us to retain researchers, build a grass roots coalition of disabled people, their families and allies and to secure the support of Bar Associations banks, credit unions and trust companies. We lobbied three different PMO’s (Chretien, Martin and Harper.) We eventually found a political champion in the late Jim Flaherty who was Finance Minister. In 2008, the Registered Disability Savings Plan (“RDSP”), the world’s first and still the only savings plan for disabled people was officially launched.

The Law Foundation helped us do in two years what we had been unable to do in the previous ten years. The combined RDSP deposits of two hundred thousand disabled Canadians now total more than $4 billion. A sizeable return on the Law Foundation’s initial investment.

RDSP contributions by disabled people or their families are matched by grants from the federal government. There is also a $1000 annual bond for those who live in poverty. I now meet disabled people who have more than $80,000 in their RDSP account. They can keep their provincial government benefits. There is no claw back, asset limit or reporting requirements. Their savings grow tax free until they make a withdrawal. The intangible benefit is the pride I see in the people I meet. There is nothing like a little money in the bank to help you realize your dreams and to give you a sense of agency. Thanks to the RDSP the close association between disability and poverty in Canada is now widely understood. Which is why a national coalition has emerged to secure a Guaranteed Income Supplement for disabled Canadians, similar to the one available for low-income seniors.

To my knowledge, the Law Foundation was the first Canadian foundation to step outside the philanthropy box and invest in big ideas like the RDSP. Few have done so since. Which is too bad because there are no shortage of legitimate grass roots groups with workable solutions to our toughest social challenges. What’s missing are more bold funders like the Law Foundation willing to invest in the competency and ingenuity of people closest to the problem to pursue their ah ha moments.

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