By Ethan Kay (Sauvé Scholar 2011-12)

We had the distinct pleasure and honor of welcoming Mr. Tim Brodhead, who, as part of a long and distinguished career, served the last 15 years as President and CEO of The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, Canada’s largest private foundation. 

As part of my welcome remarks, I shared a passage from Mr. Brodhead’s University of New Brunswick convocation speech 2011. In his speech, Mr. Brodhead explained the precarious future of our world:

We consume too much too inefficiently, too wastefully. Our ability to design new technologies vastly outstrips our capacity to use them, for our betterment, and for that of the planet. Our investment in war still vastly outstrips what we commit to improving peoples lives. People will say we must save the planet, but I think they’re wrong. The planet will save itself. It’s we who need saving.

With this framing, Mr. Brodhead began his remarks by asking each of us what we thought was the biggest challenge facing our generation. Our answers included: HIV-AIDS, extreme poverty, climate change, genocide, lack of empathy, and ‘passive activism’. 

Mr. Brodhead impressed upon us the urgency to make our societies more resilient, by which he meant more inclusive to its most marginalized elements, and using social innovation as a way of tackling critical challenges.

In the context of developing solutions to these challenges, he drew an interesting distinction between charity and philanthropy. He described charity as instinctive, not calculated. He said the impulse for charity is rooted in two of our most natural emotions – empathy and compassion. He explained that there would always be a need for charity. However, he viewed philanthropy as a more deliberate and strategic development of solutions and deployment of resources to social problems. In this context, he explained that money is only a facilitator – not a cause – of social change.

He also described as a central reality the end of a 500-year era of Western hegemony. As he explained, the domination of Western culture, technology, science, military used to be viewed as a given, but is no longer. He argued the visible decline of the United States’ domination started with the election of President George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq. 
As one of the two American Scholars, I decided to push back on this point, and argued the US is still much more dominant than any other nation. I pointed out that the US economy is still two-and-a-half times as large as China’s, the US military is still dominant (accounting for almost half the world’s aggregate military expenditure), American culture is dominant (e.g., popular movies, television, music), and that some of the moral legitimacy we lost in the Iraq invasion we’ve regained in the Obama era, particularly with our multi-lateral approach to foreign policy. However, I conceded his point that our world is now much more multi-lateral.

Mr. Brodhead also noted that we are now less engaged in, and less willing to trust, institutions (e.g., government universities, churches, foundations). Instead, we want more responsibility and independence. And our political system is sclerotic — unable to adapt or compromise.

Despite all these challenges our world is facing, Mr. Brodhead concluded by presenting a positive way forward. He defined citizenship as contributing and belonging to the collective. He said that participation gives us an identity as part of the community. While government has traditionally occupied much of this space, it is pulling back, and does not have to do all of the things we expected in the past.

Therefore, he said, we need to rethink government because people need to be more engaged. We need to develop a different value system, we need to be more engaged citizens, and we need to drive social innovation through creative problem solving. How we shape this value system, and its related institutions, is critical to meeting our future challenges.