Tag Archives: Balsillie

Note to Balsillie: Lack of funding didn't kill the CIIA, its culture did

Interesting news on the Canadian international policy front. Some of you may have read this story outlining how Balsillie has given $1million dollars, and will lead the fundraising effort for another million, to establish the Canadian International Council.

This is a good news/bad news story with some important lessons for anyone running a national organization.

First, the good news.

Any funding into the study of Canadian Foreign Policy is good news. Thanks to Andrew Cohen, the notion that Canada’s influence in the world is in virtual free fall is now accepted orthodoxy. As Jeffrey Simpson aptly put it: “never before has the world meant more to Canada; never has Canada meant less to the world.” A wider set of voices, activitely engaging in public debates about Canada and the world, should be a welcome development.

Moreover, this move will rescue the fast declining Canadian Institute for International Affairs (CIIA). At one time the CIIA was the crucible in which the international affairs were debated and discussed in Canada. Membership was essential for anyone active in the development of foreign policy.

Times, however, have changed. Today there are a wealth of groups that engage international issues: Engineers without Borders, Journalists for Human Rights, the Canadian Red Cross, Oxfam Canada, Greenpeace, Canadian Council of Chief Executives, etc… offer both a more focused discussion and, perhaps more importantly, tangible impact, in a way the CIIA couldn’t, and the CIC can’t. Common wisdom says the glory days of the CIIA ended for a reason… as the above mentioned list attests, the marketplace simply became more competitive and specialized. That said, it may be that there is both an interest in, and a critical role for, a non-partisan organization that brings Canadians together to talk about foreign policy in the broadest sense. I certainly hope so.

And now, the bad news

Rebranding and plowing money back into the CIIA saves it from having to ask itself the tough question: why is it dying? And have no doubt, the CIIA is dying. This is true in the figurative sense, something John MacNaughton, its chair conceded in the Globe when he noted that the establishment of the CIC “moves CIIA from the deathbed to the launching pad.” It is also true in the literal sense. The average age of the CIIA’s 1300 members is in the 60s and possibly 70s (remember, this is the average age). I went to several events in Ottawa where the under 50 crowd represented maybe 5-7% of the audience.

The challenge for the CIIA, and now the CIC, is twofold, but with a single goal: become relevant by attracting new, younger, members.

Part of this problem is structural. In many chapters (the Kitchener-Waterloo branch being a notable exception) the CIIA has become a place where retired diplomats gather. It’s boards are dominated by retired diplomats (although there is often a token young person, usually from the local university). This means the issues, discussions, and networks are geared towards an older audience. When the CIIA was a place where aspiring diplomats and foreign policy geeks gathered, the network effect caused more young members to join, so they could meet peers who were rising stars. Today, the CIIA is a place where retired diplomats and foreign policy geeks meet, this means the network effects work against younger people, who while possibly keen to learn from wiser souls, recognize they are less likely to meet contemporaries and peers. In short, the CIIA lacks critical mass in the right demographics.

The part of the problem is cultural. CIIA meetings tend to be stuffy, formal events, reflecting the diplomatic tradition from its founding period (1930’s-50’s). While there is not dress code, members tend to wear suits and events focus on speeches with some Q&A. It’s all very traditional, formal and hierarchical. International affairs already suffers from a reputation as a snobby subject, this formality almost certainly discourages novices and younger members from participating, and returning.

In short, the CIIA financial issues were never the problem, just the symptom. The problem is cultural.

Money: an opportunity rife with risk

Without a real change in course, things at the CIC will look very much like they do at the CIIA today. Moreover, if past performance is anything to go by, the selection of 20 fellows will have little impact, and could make things worse. My suspicion (and fear) is that the CIC’s fellowships will become the retirement home for Canada’s foreign policy old guard, men like the eminent and highly qualified Allan Gotlieb. Worse still, the alleged “innovative” choices will people like Jennifer Welsh, Michael Byers or Rob Huebert (just to cover the political spectrum). In reality these people should be “safe” choices. As they, and the old guard, already have a pulpit from which to speak, and have done so effectively. If the CIC wants to be about new ideas and compelling debates, it should bring in some younger and more diverse blood. Perhaps set a target of making a third to half its fellows true “risky” choices – rising voices, or those outside the old safe, stodgy world of the foreign policy cocktail circuit. Ideally, they’d target people with credibility, and an emerging track record of engaging in public debates.

So in closing… here are some people I’d like to see nominated for the CIC fellowships (in no particular order):

And for some older voices probably not on the radar of the CIC I might include:

  • Daryl Copeland – Public servant, outside thinker
  • Max Wyman – the arts in Canadian foreign policy
  • Chief Billy Diamond – business and first nations perspective

So there it is, the unvarnished analysis of the challenges facing the CIC. I’m cheering for them, I just hope they are willing to break the old-boys network mold. If not, we’ll be back where we were in no time.