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The Philanthropy of Place

Author: Louise Pulford
Published Date: 11 September 2017


As the pace of life increases, our lives are continuously engulfed by technology and data. There are few opportunities for stillness.  We need spaces to recharge and recalibrate more than ever, and when we find these spaces, we need to use them more strategically. This is the view of Dr Helga Breuninger of the Breuninger Foundation.


At SIX, we share Dr Breuninger’s view.


Working in the field of innovation is hard. Society can only develop and execute sustainable solutions for the increasingly complex problems facing it through successful collaboration between actors and across sectors. Making change requires places where everyone can learn and grow together in an atmosphere of openness. Recognising this, Stephen Huddart, President and CEO of the McConnell Foundation in Canada, said “The ability to give the gift of place is a higher order”.

Helga and Stephen run philanthropic foundations, which co-manage the Breuninger Foundation’s private island, located in the Muskoka Lakes in Ontario, Canada, alongside the BMW Stiftung, Robert Bosch Stiftung, and the Community Foundations of Canada. These five organisations have hosted conferences and workshops on Wasan Island over the summer months for almost 20 years. They gather leading figures from civil society, the arts, science and business to share their views on specific challenges and to work on solutions together. 

SIX was invited to host two retreats this summer at the invitation of the Robert Bosch Foundation.

Wasan Island is a place with a magic all of its own. Surrounded by water and trees, its seclusion and ambience allow a unique culture of honest exchange. As Helga said ‘Wasan is a place to enjoy each other, celebrate diversity and be part of the human family. It’s a place to leave judgement behind and be at one with our diversity.’

The island is located on the traditional territory of the Anishinabe peoples who have been there for millennia. Prior to settlement the Muskoka's were rich hunting grounds that supported various families and communities throughout the year. Today, there are several neighbouring First Nations communities whose ancestors lived in this area, including Rama, Wahta and Wasauksing. This history is carefully observed and the culture is embedded in the space.

‘Hosting’ is well understood in the commercial field and business, but is less recognised as a philanthropic opportunity. Helga describes herself as ‘not the charitable type’. Rather than just giving money, she uses resources strategically to create lasting and deep social change. At SIX, we share her view that ‘place’ is deeply connected to our ability to make change. We share this planet as humans, we increasingly live in a partnership society, we are more connected than ever before, and we need to find ways to nurture these connections.

The magic of what happens on Wasan Island symbolises a bigger shift in thinking about the role of philanthropic foundations. Few other foundations offer their spaces in this way. Rockefeller Foundation have a centre in Bellagio in Italy, and the Breuninger Foundation also host people in the remote village of Paretz an der Have.

Several global foundations now recognise that to make the change we urgently need to see in the world, handing out money is not enough. It is only part of their role. They should also think creatively about their other resources, and follow Helga Breuninger’s lead and create more places like Wasan Island, which gather thinkers and doers together, and inspire more innovation.