The COVID-19 Pandemic has undeniably disrupted almost all of our lives. Along with the rest of the world’s business sectors, many social service organizations have found themselves operating with far from normal business models. This episode is very timely with the current situation. Host, Douglas Nelson, talks with the Executive Director of the BC Center for Disease Control Foundation for Public Health, Kristy Kerr. Here, Kristy shares with us the response that her organization has been taking in the face of the COVID-19 Pandemic. She takes us to the early days of planning and preparation for the emergency situation and the ways they have been motivating their donors to make gifts to the emergency response fund. In this time of uncertainty, organizations such as the BCCDC Foundation must hold up and show people that there is light at the end of the Pandemic. Tune in to this insightful conversation.
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BCCDC Foundation For Public Health With Kristy Kerr
You’d appreciate our special guest. I don’t know that we could have had a better guest than Kristy Kerr. She is the Executive Director of the BC Center for Disease Control Foundation for Public Health. Welcome, Kristy.
Thank you for having me.
We want to get into the response that your organization has been taking in the face of the COVID-19 endemic. First, I want to understand and I want our audience to understand a little bit about who you are and the work that you’ve done that’s brought you to this role. You’ve been leading the organization for several years. How did you make that shift into social profit leadership?
It’s a bit of an interesting story. My background comes from creative writing to a science degree in animal biology, to a Master’s in Public Health with a specialization in health promotion. I was spending my time in Africa, Zambia and Kenya doing community development and capacity building work with local communities. I came back from that work and started working at the BC Center for Disease Control, doing some support work for UBC faculty. In that position, I got to meet the board of the BCCDC Foundation for Public Health and started to connect with them a little bit. They asked me if I’d like to come on board as the first employee to figure out how to build this new charity.Public health is very diverse, broad, and nebulous. Click To Tweet
Over the years, the organization has taken on some pretty impressive projects, which we’ll get into a little bit. I want to jump into what is urgent to our audience and to all of us, which is the COVID-19 response. Many organizations in the sector are trying to adjust to the new normal and make sense of what’s happening on a day-to-day, hour-by-hour basis. Food banks, social service organizations, and organizations dealing with seniors are finding new ways to operate completely different than normal business models. Some organizations are trying to retrench and figure out what they’re going to do in the short-term before relaunching their full suite of services sometime in the near future, hopefully. Your foundation has been pushed to the forefront. You have donors coming directly to you looking for that support. What have you been doing at the BCCDC Foundation and how have the donors been responding?
The donors have been responding wonderfully. I’ll take a step back and explain a little bit about who we are as a foundation. We are the BCCDC Foundation for Public Health. Our mission is to improve the population of public health outcomes in the province of BC. We do that by supporting and developing evidence-based initiatives. Our primary partner is the BC Center for Disease Control. We are already perfectly positioned to be at the forefront of this response. We started following things in the early days and watching what was starting in late 2019. We made a decision very early on to launch an Emergency Response Fund. We wanted to be able to support the amazing workers that we get to work with every day at the BC Center for Disease Control, and also support our mission of public health and protecting the population in BC.
As you started that early, you’re ahead of the awareness that we all have here in Canada. What did you do in those early days?
We started with communications because one of our jobs is to make sure that the public is educated, aware and informed of what’s going on in all aspects of public health in the province and beyond. As you can imagine, public health is very diverse, broad and nebulous. We try to focus our communications to get the general public to understand what public health is and why it’s important. Our first response was in making sure that the right messaging was going out to our followers and our public about what was going on. In this fascinating day of social media, we started to see some misconceptions going out quickly. That was our first response. We make sure that reputable and trustworthy sources of information were going out.
We then got together as a team. We thought about what are the needs and what can we do to support the response efforts. At this point, we were thinking if this gets worse, which we now know has rapidly evolved. We decided to launch an Emergency Response Fund. That is meant to support evidence-based and needs-based rapid response activities for our province in partnership with the BCCDC. There will be expert-driven initiatives. We want to be able to do that quickly. We have to set aside a couple of our other priorities that we’re working on to focus on the Emergency Response Fund.
We officially launched it early on. We were one of the first charities to do so in Canada. We’re quite proud and pleased that we’re on top of it. Being in the hub of what’s happening at BCCDC, we have a lot of early information. We launched the Emergency Response Fund. We immediately saw such an amazing response from donors that we know, but also strangers and donors that we haven’t engaged with before are responding to this fund. People genuinely understand the need and understand what we’re trying to do. They want to help.
In the conversations or the communications you’ve had with those donors, what’s been the message that they’ve been giving you? What’s motivating those donors to make gifts to this Emergency Response Fund?
It’s been uplifting for me because usually when we engage with donors, it’s typically around a specific project. This fund is quite general. We’re asking people to support us with a general fund that we will then fund specific projects out of. The willingness for donors to come in and say, “Here’s $25, $500, $1,000 because we trust what you’re going to do with it,” has been inspiring and uplifting to see. I’ve been thinking about it with this particular response and also with a lot of the other work that we do. What I’m seeing with this is that a gift to us in our Emergency Response Fund is a gift to support the people of British Columbia. It’s that genuine sense of, “I want to give back to help others,” that I’m seeing with this.
We’ve been talking to clients and organizations right across the country and some of our clients in the United States. Donors are wanting to have some agency or have some control like, “I’m going to be able to do something in the face of this pandemic that is otherwise quite scary with an uncertain future.” By making a gift, they’re doing something. They can put a stake in the ground and say this is important and they want to support. I would imagine for a lot of the donors or many of the new donors to your organization, that’s got to be some small part of what is influencing their decision to gift.
To be quite honest, this is the first time I’ve ever been to something like this in my career and my life. When we see something like what’s going on right now, it’s scary for people and there’s a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. Because things are changing rapidly and there are still a lot of unknowns, there is that sense of a lack of control both from the fundraising side and the communication side. When people can take some piece of control and they can donate if they’re financially able to donate, they can share our messages. If that’s something that they can do, it’s giving them that sense of control that they are doing something to make a difference to slow the spread of COVID-19 and ultimately stop this pandemic.
One of the things that have always been impressive to me about your organization is because it is evidence-based and you’re working so closely with the BC Center for Disease Control, you’re able to pick your spots and be involved in areas that are going to make a maximal impact on the system. In the early days of the organization, you’re focusing a lot on diagnostics and improving the diagnostics for infectious disease broadly defined in the province. With the opioid crisis, you’ve targeted some specific initiatives to support the scientific and medical response to that crisis.
You’ve been involved in the move to ban conversion therapy and to support the survivors of conversion therapy. It’s very much evidence-based. Now, you’re being in the face of the pandemic and COVID-19. You are responding shoulder-to-shoulder with the BC Center for Disease Control. It’s not that there’s a known path that you’re seeking funding for. We don’t know what the path will be, but we do know there’s going to be a need for philanthropic support. How are you making that transition to not having an A to B, “If we get funding, we’ll be able to accomplish these following goals,” in an environment that we’re all experiencing and is changing rapidly?
It’s been challenging but it’s also an opportunity for us. We take on projects that have specific outcomes that we’re trying to achieve with those. We’ve done some anti-stigma campaigning around the overdose crisis and supporting peers and peer networks and respond to that. Those are tangible projects with outcomes. As we fund something, we can even see the outcomes of that project. This is different and it’s been a little bit challenging for us in trying to find the right messaging so that people do understand what we are doing. The response back that I’m getting and what I’m feeling is people trust that we’re going to do the right thing with this funding. We have built a good reputation and the fact that we work with the BC Center for Disease Control, which is a phenomenal organization with an amazing reputation.Any future outbreak or emergency isn't going to look the same. Click To Tweet
There’s that sense of trust there that we are going to make the good decisions with this fund. Those are going to be evidence-based and those are going to come from the experts who are going to say, “This is the need, this is the gap, this is the thing that we need to do to make a difference in this pandemic.” What’s great for us too is we’re still a small young organization, which gives us the opportunity to be a little bit nimble and to move into different areas and to have different conversations. People recognize that we’re a growing organization as well. I feel like people want to support that too and help us to respond in the best way that we can to support the experts out there on the front lines to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.
I know you’ve been meeting with the head of the BC Center for Disease Control and a number of other leading scientists and healthcare providers. What is it like as the philanthropic partner to those people as they’re experiencing this crisis, this first pandemic in our lifetime type of event? What’s the role of philanthropy? It may not be the top priority or the first thing that they’re thinking of but certainly, it’s the question you need to be putting on the table. What have those conversations been like?
The role of philanthropy is not on the top of mind of our experts who are very much in the thick of this response. They are flat out doing their jobs amazingly. That means they have put their heads down and they are trying to figure out how to keep people safe and stop the spread of this. When I and my team have these conversations with these experts and we bring in the idea of philanthropy, sometimes there’s a little bit of surprise. “Yes, we can do that and great, what can we do?” The conversation goes from there. It’s not at the top of their mind when we remind them of it.
There’s this absolute almost relief of like, “You can help with this too.” In particular with the new leader of the BCCDC, Dr. Reka Gustafson. She started her role at BCCDC in early February. She has come on to this massive new leadership role. It’s a massive portfolio in and of itself, which means she’s also the Deputy Provincial Health Officer under Dr. Bonnie Henry. She’s taken on this massive portfolio in the midst of this pandemic. I’m so proud that I get to work with her and I look forward to continuing to work with her once we get through this. She has been very clear with us when we say, “What are the needs?” She’s like, “Here they are. Here are the things that we need right now,” and also recognizing that those things are changing and may change daily.
If a donor phones you and says, “I want to make a gift, tell me what it’s for,” that may be different now than if they were to call the following weeks. That’s why the Emergency Response Fund and I understand that’s why you wanted to maintain that nimbleness that you talked about with what you’ll do with these philanthropic donors.
There are a few core projects that we will likely fund out of this. If we were to talk again the following weeks, that could change. What the needs are right now because of how rapidly things are changing with COVID-19 and with the response to it, one of the challenges is keeping guidelines up to date for healthcare professionals and the public. I don’t see that necessarily changing. That’s going to continue to be something. There’s a gap in funds for supporting funding like that. All of the experts that we want to work on this response are working on the response. The extra things that they also need to do, they’re all working crazy hours and trying to get all that done.
If we can find a way to fill some of those gaps for them so that they can focus on ending this pandemic, that’s what we want to do. That’s an example of a project that probably the following weeks will still be a project. Another thing that we have and this is something that we’ve been talking about for years. This is not something in response to COVID-19. What’s happening is when there’s an outbreak or a pandemic, everybody is flat out trying to solve it. There’s a missed opportunity to study it in real-time when it’s happening to inform and possibly prevent future outbreaks and emergencies. What I see is that’s something that we have the opportunity to do with COVID-19. Observe, research and study what is happening, what works, what doesn’t work, and have that information so that the next time there’s an outbreak or any emergency, we have that information already in our back pockets. From my perspective, that is an important one piece of this.
Being able to learn as we go, not only looking back in the case of a future pandemic or a future outbreak but being able to have the confidence to make decisions so that perfect doesn’t become the enemy of the good and people can act with confidence. That’s probably important.
Any future outbreak or emergency isn’t going to look the same. Our last pandemic was H1N1 in 2009. It’s a very different situation than what we’re seeing now. However, the basic concepts of what works, what doesn’t work, how quickly can we act, move and respond, all those things will be the fundamental pieces of any outbreak response. Being able to gather some of that information from what’s happening right now in real-time, while that maybe doesn’t sound super exciting, is an important part of this work. That would go a very long way to support the BC Center for Disease Control and public health officials across the province. People working on the front lines and the other health authorities and everything are doing a phenomenal job. If we can find a way to support them now but also in the future, that is important to me.
Your professional training with your Master’s in Public Health and the work that you’ve done in the field, how much is that content background helping you as you’re leading your organization through this time of crisis?
I’m grateful that I have that because not having that would make leading this organization in this crisis very difficult. The reason that I got into public health in the first place is that I care about people and our population. I care about promoting positive health. That’s why I did a health promotion degree. This is what’s keeping me afloat right now because I don’t have to learn anything. In theory, I know it. When I’m talking to experts, they don’t have to explain concepts to me. The conversations can happen a lot quicker. When it comes to communicating with the public, being able to explain things simply is also important. If I didn’t have the public health and health promotion background and that experience, it would be more challenging. Don’t get me wrong, it’s challenging. We are responding and working on this every day. We have had to refocus some of our other energies. We do have a lot of other projects that are important to us. I’m glad that the board saw in the early days that having a public health professional lead this organization was the right direction to go.
Either in the conversations or the content you’re covering with the experts, how are you communicating that content to the general public as the BCCDC Foundation for Public Health?
We are on social media. We’re at @BCCDCFoundation on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We’re making sure that we are putting out public-facing communications across those different channels. We are relating to the different audiences who are on those platforms as well. We also have a monthly newsletter. We’ve made sure that there’s a lot of content in that. I’ve been doing a series called Decoding Public Health, where I’m writing about public health concepts and trying to explain in general, simple terms to make it very approachable, what public health is and what we do. There’s a post there about what is pandemic and what does that mean. Some of the terminology that we’re seeing like explaining what “flatten the curve” means.
I’m pleased to see that that’s become quite mainstream. I was talking to a friend and she said it and she’s not involved in health at all. I thought, “You’re getting the concept.” We’ve been doing this for quite a while, not just around COVID-19. We’re trying to make sure that we’re sharing trustworthy information in a simple way that doesn’t instill panic. We’re constantly messaging, “We’re going to get through this working together.” One of our brands is called Activate Health. What that’s all about is getting people to understand that individual actions can have a population-level impact. What more is Activate Health than what we’re seeing right now with social distancing and taking these measures to protect ourselves, but to protect our population, in particular, our vulnerable populations? We’re doing quite a bit of public awareness and communications. All of that is also on our website, BCCDCFoundation.org where people can also donate to our Emergency Response Fund.
One of the challenges as a public health foundation that focus on health and prevention is it’s difficult to get the philanthropic community or individual donors to feel grateful for the disease they didn’t get or the disease outbreak that didn’t happen. We’re seeing that the disease outbreak has happened and health is being challenged. Your people are paying attention. They are using phrases like flattening the curve and social distancing. Is that something that you think will stick? Is that something that will be a silver lining to this pandemic that we’re dealing with?
I hope so. People do have a bit of a short attention span these days with the internet, social media and everything. The level of engagement that I’m seeing around this and people seemed genuinely interested in understanding what’s going on and learning. I hope that it will stick because I do believe we will get through this. I hope that the people will remember what happened, the response, and all of the experts that worked nineteen-hour days to help us get through this. I do hope that sticks because this is the bedrock of public health and responding to infectious diseases. I hope that a lot of that interest in it is maintained once we get through it.
You certainly are in the place to hear the experts and see them in action. I’m grateful for you taking the time out of your busy schedule to be on the show and do this to share this information with our audience. Kristy Kerr, Executive Director of the BCCDC Foundation for Public Health, thank you for being on the show.Individual actions can have a population-level impact. Click To Tweet
I want to give a shout-out to our public health professionals in British Columbia and federally as well, Dr. Bonnie Henry, Dr. Theresa Tam, and our political leadership. Everybody is stepping up. In prior weeks, I was feeling a lot of discouragement around what I was seeing on social media and the negative side of human reaction in some ways, but in the last few days, I have seen this immense support. There’s a Dr. Bonnie Henry fan club on Twitter. There’s a movement across Canada called Care Mongering to replace scaremongering. It’s about supporting people who need support. I wanted to say and acknowledge that we will get through this. The leadership that we are seeing is wonderful and I’m proud to get to work with all of these people.
Thank you for underlining that. That’s a great message of confidence that we can have in our health professionals and our political leaders at this trying time. Thank you very much, Kristy.
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