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Collaborative Philanthropy with Eva Friesen

By July 8th, 2023No Comments20 min read
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DSP 31 | Collaborative Philanthropy


Most charity foundation CEOs are in the position where people put them in the ownership, but the good ones are those who try to avoid having their names be synonymous to the cause. In this episode, Eva Friesen, the CEO of the Calgary Foundation, talks about collaborative philanthropy and shares the highlights of her 14-year career as the CEO of three social profit organizations including YWCA. Discover how a CEO supports its board to align current activities with long term vision and how this position is key to individual members’ career growth. Learn how you can stay grounded while being an excellent leader.

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Collaborative Philanthropy with Eva Friesen

Our guest is Eva Friesen. She’s the CEO of the Calgary Foundation. Before that, she had been the CEO of three other social profit organizations including YWCA and the system of hospitals acting under a single umbrella for philanthropy. Welcome to the show, Eva.

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

How does being in a leadership role at a community foundation differ from either your work at the Calgary Health Trust or YWCA?

It’s significantly different. In the Calgary Foundation, we get to understand and learn about all of the needs across the whole community and we get to provide resources to the great work being done. When I was at Health Trust and at the YWCA, we were asking for those resources and we were working on a very specific niche part of that whole of the community. To be on the side of giving the grants rather than seeking the grants is a beautiful thing.

What did that perspective teach you about the social profit sector in general?

That perspective has taught me how fabulous the leaders of the social profit sector are. They are hardworking, they are smart, they run their charitable organization like an entrepreneur runs a business. I am humbled by the excellence of their efforts. It gives me a different perspective looking in on that sector that I have been a part of for many years.

The Calgary Foundation is a very significant grantor in the community, but you also receive large gifts from donors often, planned gifts to some extent. How were the conversations with donors different when you’re at the Calgary Foundation versus the Health Trust or YWCA?

When you’re at the charitable organization, whether Health Trust, YWCA or any other, the conversation with donors was always focused on aligning their passions with what your work was hoping there was an alignment and making an ask. At the Calgary Foundation, we serve a donor’s philanthropy. We don’t make asks and we don’t fundraise. It’s a very different conversation. Many times, when we learn what a donor’s passion is, we can facilitate a direct gift directly to a charity. It doesn’t need to touch us. We see our role as supporting a donor’s vision and their philanthropy in the way they want to do it. There is no one right way to do philanthropy. It’s very personal depending on one’s life journey, depending on your experience with the causes that you care about. We learn about that and we facilitate that. Sometimes a gift appropriately comes into the Calgary Foundation, but not always.

Being on the side of giving the grants rather than seeking the grants is a beautiful thing. Click To Tweet

That’s an interesting background. One of the things that I was fascinated by and learning more about the Calgary Foundation was this concept of collaborative philanthropy that you put forward. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is and how that applies to giving in Calgary?

We believe that all philanthropy is to be celebrated. If we can inspire it, it is great. If we can collaborate with private foundations for jointly making grants to the same cause because we both care about them, that’s collaborative philanthropy. All of the sectors have a very similar vision to make a community great for everyone, but each organization works on a specific angle in that what makes it great for everyone. Collaborative philanthropy is being able to step outside yourself and celebrate when philanthropy is happening and viewing gifts going anywhere, even if it’s not to your cause is a good thing and it’s good for a community.

That celebratory role and often the convening role around philanthropy, it must be a wonderful place to be as an organization and as the CEO of that organization.

It is a wonderful place to be. I will admit that the Calgary Foundation and any large community foundation has that luxury of being in that place because of the power of an endowment. We don’t have annual fundraising targets to run a shop the way an operating charity does. I give that we are very fortunate. I have gratitude for that.

That focus on endowment, when donors are thinking of making a gift or a contribution to the Calgary Foundation, how do you encourage them to think about the long-term impact through a gift to the endowment?

The way in which endowments are viewed by donors seems to have evolved in the time that I’ve been in the sector. In the beginning, certainly when the Calgary Foundation was started, it was viewed in very high regard. It went through a phase of thinking that’s money left on the sidelines could be a better use. With the downturn in the economy and with a lot of cutbacks, the charities receive the end result of the cutbacks either from government or from diminished funding. Charities suddenly realize if they had a reserve fund, if they had an endowment, it would be able to smooth out their revenues in a tough time, letting them have the time to figure out how else to bring resources to their good work.

I’ve seen the views that donors hold of endowments come full circle. Many more donors realize the value of when an organization has an endowment to backstop it, that’s a good thing. No better example that tells that story is when you highlight a fund that was started twenty years ago with $1 million. We have the Watson Family Fund with $1 million twenty years ago. In twenty years, that fund granted out $1.4 million and the size of the fund is $1.6 million. That illustrates the value of the endowment that just provides a revenue stream regularly, consistently and can continue to do it to a greater degree as that endowment grows. A lot of donors, we paint that picture. They love that.

The Watson Family Fund is a great example. How do donors respond when you share that example or other examples like it to see that they can have a significant impact over a twenty-year period on into the future?

DSP 31 | Collaborative Philanthropy

Collaborative Philanthropy: Collaborative philanthropy is being able to step outside yourself and viewing gifts going anywhere, even if it’s not to your cause, as a good thing for a community.


Donors respond very favorably. Often, it’s the motivation that causes a donor to want to create an endowment fund.

In my experience having been CEO of a large health charity as well as you have, donors in healthcare are typically not interested in funding and endowment. They’re interested in a cure or making a difference. How does that urgency of giving pair with the work of the Calgary Foundation?

I would say that I’ve met many donors in healthcare that in fact do want to fund an endowment to support a professorship in endowed chair, for example. Those are endowments to create the leadership of the research in the long run. We host many of those endowed funds for medical research right here at the Calgary Foundation because the donors want the assurance that that will be preserved forever. My experience is different than yours. There is medical urgency of course. Finding cures isn’t exactly in the short run. Critical equipment is in the short run. Certainly, donors do that with short-term use money, not with endowments. Our experiences, a lot of medical research funds are held right at the Calgary Foundation.

Speaking of how donors approach giving, one of the emerging trends in Canadian philanthropy following the trend in the United States is for corporate donor-advised funds to be a vehicle for donors to make gifts over a period of time. How have you seen those corporate donor-advised funds coming into the marketplace and how does that work with the community foundation movement?

We don’t have corporate donor-advised funds. We don’t seek them. Do you mean where the corporation is the donor and starts the fund?

It’s where like Scotia Wealth or RBC has their own donor-advised fund.

Those are charitable entities, Scotia’s Aqueduct Foundation. They’re started in the US and there are many in Canada. TD Bank has their foundation, Scotia has theirs and RBC has theirs. There’d be an example of an opportunity for collaborative philanthropy. There’s another organization, donors with advised funds in a financial institution that can benefit from sharing the knowledge the community foundation has and co-funding community projects they might care about. They’re just another opportunity of partners in philanthropy.

I think that’s a great perspective and it is a fascinating conversation that’s happening in Canadian philanthropy. What is encouraging from my perspective is that a lot of people try to have the most impact when donors contribute to the community. We’re still figuring out the best way to do that. I would guess you would say there’s probably no one size that fits all or no one solution.

A board should represent the community they serve. Click To Tweet

That’s right. There’s a lot of motivation. The donor often has a motivation certainly to make a positive impact in the community on an area they care about. They also have a motivation for a beneficial tax outcome at the end of the year. The commercial institutions have a motivation. Of course, they want to do good in the community, but they also have a motivation to keep a client group in their business for their profitability. A community foundation has a motivation to have a client as well for their profitability, although it’s a not-for-profit. There are many motivations in that whole system of philanthropy and donors and donor-advised funds wherever they may live. Sometimes all those different motivations want to be pitted against each other, but a competition. We try at the Calgary Foundation to step out of that and above that and think about the common vision we have for some good in community. There’s no one-size-fit- all. It’s all good.

When people are thinking about how to change the world for the better, good things are likely to happen. I want to transition a little bit to talk about your board and how the board of the Calgary Foundation contributes to the overall mission. Thinking about the board, have you found that your relationship and the conversations you’re having with the board has changed over time?

Certainly, I’ve been here for fourteen years, and it’s a different conversation than it was when I started. Of course, our endowment has changed substantially in those fourteen years. That shifts the conversation. The conversation at the beginning was more centered around how do we grow. The conversation is more centered around how do we deepen our impact and what’s our responsibility given our size.

Has the makeup of the board needed to change to reflect that difference in focus?

Like everyone, we have evolved with a great effort to have a board that represents the community we serve, a diverse board. Some years were better than others depending on who leaves and what we are able to recruit. We’re never the perfectly diverse board we want to be, but we have the same challenges that every charitable organization who want to get diversity and then the governance skillsets. That’s an ongoing effort of ours. Our eye is always on what we need to recruit to our board to be best at our mission.

Over your time at the Calgary Foundation, you’ve worked with the number of chairs. One of the issues that we see a lot in our work here at the Discovery Group is that the importance of that relationship between the board chair and the CEO. How do you approach a new board chair coming into the role as the longtime CEO?

The way I approach it is to learn and listen and to flex my style to adapt to suit the current chair. I think that’s the prerogative of the CEO. That’s our job. We shouldn’t expect the many different chairs in our chairs or in their role for two years. It’s my job as the CEO to facilitate and support that board chair to be the best they can be and to alter the organization’s way of working with the board to suit the style. That is the leader.

How do you figure out the way to get the most out of that board chair to make them feel most comfortable to do their best work?

DSP 31 | Collaborative Philanthropy

Collaborative Philanthropy: A CEO’s role is to facilitate and support the board’s chair, and to listen, learn, and adapt to its leadership style.


We always know because we have a long experience with them before they arrive at the board chair role. Some need and want more preparation for any speaking. Some are better off the cuff and are winging it. We understand who wants specific notes written out, who wants bullets, who wants facts and data, or who wants stories in the way they speak. There’s one example.

Those are things that you can adapt to base on what you understand they’re looking for. Have there been many surprises for you when those transitions have happened?

Not really, because a board chair doesn’t start out at the board being the chair. They’re always there for a while first, so you get to know them. One of the reasons that it keeps the job changing. I’ve been here for several years, seven different board chairs and many new board members and the organization always does new things. It’s never the same job. I guess that’s why I’m still here.

You’ve certainly done an exceptional job, which is another reason why you’re still there. I’m fascinated with long-term CEOs, those at ten years-plus. The average tenure of CEOs in large not for profits in Canada is right around six-and-a-half years. Those leaders like yourself who’ve been able to stay with an organization for such an extended period of time, I think there’s something special about your approach to the conversation with the board. What do you see in colleagues across the country, either in the community foundation movement or elsewhere?

I was twelve years at the YWCA at Calgary as the CEO, so I was a long-term there as well. Two things are very important. One is there is a best before date on everyone and everything. My antennas and I think CEO’s antennas should be the sharpest to pick up what are the signs of a best before date approaching. I should be the first to see that. I have a regular conversation with the board, engaging them in helping me see that. If they see it first, please speak up. Let’s talk. That’s the first thing I have learned. I have worked with people who are past their best before the date and it’s never good when others see it before they see it. I tried to sharpen my antennas daily.

The second thing, when you’re a long-time CEO in a charitable organization, it can become synonymous with you and it must not. It must not be Eva Friesen’s YWCA or Eva Friesen’s Calgary Foundation. One of the strategies that work very hard at is when we’re out representing speaking, having ambassadors for our organization, it’s more than me who speaks. Board members go speak. Senior staffs go speak. There’s more than me here who is the public face of the foundation. I think that matters.

It’s a valuable insight into maintaining that in service to the mission and service to the organization, ethos that makes leaders successful in our sector. Maybe you could share a story on a time when you thought you might have been coming closer to that line about Eva Friesen’s Calgary Foundation or Eva Friesen’s YW?

There was a big event on the OH Ranch part of the Stampede Foundation. Normally I go, but I had a conflict and I decided it was time for someone else to go. Our VP for Grants and Community Initiatives went from me. I told him about his job. We give grants to the Stampede Foundation so he’s the perfect person to go there and be networking. As he’s there, people are asking him what he does and he says with the Calgary Foundation, “What do they do?” He says, “It’s a corporate sponsor-type people.” Not all had necessarily to hear about us. He talked about what we did and one of the people said to him, “That sounds like what Eva Friesen does.” Jason said he hit himself in the head and goes, “Of course, it’s Eva’s Foundation. I should have just said I worked with Eva Friesen.”

There is a best before date on everyone and everything. Click To Tweet

Often, I think CEOs are in the position where other people put them in that ownership role in the foundation and the good ones are able to maintain that distance as you described.

In our annual report we are publishing, we have an approach and a style to take the angle of the Calgary Foundation as your foundation. Numerous community people, anybody are holding up signs saying, “My community foundation.” They wanted me to hold such a sign and be one of those people and I declined. I said, “No, the last thing this is supposed to be is my community foundation.”

That’s a great perspective. A valuable lesson for people who have been in the role for a few years and are trying to find the energy to take the next step with their organization is to maintain that distance. Thinking back to your very early days as a CEO, what advice would you give your new CEO self?

I first became a CEO of a YWCA in Yellowknife at 26 years old. When I think back to all those years, I’ve learned so many things. Number one, I knew much more when I was 26.

I have the strongest opinions about the things I know the least about.

As I reflect back when I was 26, everybody else who looked exactly like my age, gender and type was probably the best at their job. I’ve learned that that’s not the case. Our biases are profound. It would have been good if I had this wisdom back then, but I didn’t. It takes you a lifetime to build it. The most important advice I would give to any CEO is to listen a lot and speak less. We are the leaders, but our leadership is often more effective when you’re behind and underneath supporting and lifting up. It’s not when you’re in front.

How do you maintain that balance between listening and speaking?

I’m quick to speak. I’ve developed the technique that I could feel it coming. For me, it’s in my back. I feel the need to jump in. What I do instead at a board meeting, for example, the board meeting is the board’s airtime. The leadership team or our staff is present, but I make sure that everyone understands, don’t use up the board members airtime. We have lots of airtime, five days a week, 40 hours. We can have all our air time, let this be their air time. We contribute when it’s critical and important, but not just to share an opinion because it’s not our time. When I feel the want to jump in, I close my lips, I pick up a pen and I start writing everything I’m hearing and that helps me listen rather than speak.

That is a very tangible tip for others and probably a good idea. Do you find in those situations in the board meeting than when you are keeping yourself in reserve for those conversations that it ends up that the board’s looking to you for guidance or information at the end of that discussion?

That’s right. I’m very happy to provide it but I don’t want to offer it too early. It tends to shut down other people’s comments they might have made.

DSP 31 | Collaborative Philanthropy

Collaborative Philanthropy: When you have a sudden urge to talk and cut in a conversation, start writing what you are hearing instead. It will give you time to assess if there is a real need to speak up.


You’ve mentioned a couple of times the role of your senior staff in your leadership style and in your work at the Calgary Foundation. How have you gone about building the team that you have?

Very carefully and strategically. Some people I have I inherited when I came here and they are terrific. The new ones have evolved because others retired. The most important thing is to fit with the culture and a passion for the mission. That culture is in service and humility. The best happens when we lift up the role of the charitable organizations in the work that they do not lift up ourselves. People who are so self-secure deep inside themselves that their own ego doesn’t have to struggle to come forward make for the best leaders. That’s a journey.

How does your staff earn a special gold star with you?

I’ve never thought about gold stars.

If someone wants to show that they’re ready to step up in the organization, either in their responsibilities or a level in the organization, what do they need to do to show you that they’re ready?

What I react to and appreciate the most is when leaders show initiative to solve a problem. When they do so they think big picture and they seem to very quickly and automatically all those interrelated parts of things, not necessarily in a direct relationship to the problem, but those unintended bigger consequences that can happen. They have the big-picture thinking and they’re quick to see who this could be done better, what’s all involved and let’s focus on a solution. The thing that loses the points fastest for me is when people don’t take responsibility but want to point the finger because we all are in this story and have a role to play in the story.

Regardless of what’s happened as a team, we have to come together and either fix it or change it. If you’re pointing your finger, it’s hard to be contributing to the solution. How have you seen in your time you’ve had people that have come into the organization and left to go to other organizations? Do you look at those that have left and think about their careers and take some pride in what they’ve learned from you in their time working for you?

We actually haven’t had that many leave other than they moved cities for example, but they tend not to leave here, which is maybe a good thing. We have a policy. We’re small. When I started, we’re at fifteen staff and we’re 38. I say to people, we want to support you to grow your career and this is a small shop. We don’t have a promotion for everyone when you’re ready. When you want a bigger job and it’s outside of this organization, we’ll help you. We’ll groom you. We’ll help get you positioned to take that job.

If you want to be a CEO and I’m not going anywhere, don’t let me stop you. Let me help you get there. We’ve had a very few though. I could list them on one hand where people have actually left. Partly we’ve had quite a bit of internal growth because you’ve gone from sixteen staff to 38. We’ve had jobs that people could grow to. We’ve been lucky to be able to develop from within and we’ve had three of our VPs who are new-ish in their role because the ones I inherited retired after being here for a long time, twenty years almost. Our replacements were in position and ready on the inside to move up.

That speaks to an outstanding culture that you’re able to fill three senior VP positions with internal hires. That’s a bench strength that would be the envy of most social profit organizations that I can think of. I want to ask you one final question. Your energy for the foundation and for the sector comes through in all of your answers and the work that you do in the community on a daily basis. Looking at the philanthropic landscape in Canada, what makes you optimistic for philanthropy in the future?

Despite the most amazing downturn economically that this city, Calgary, has experienced maybe four or five years, the generosity of citizens continues. If that doesn’t make one optimistic, nothing will. That is a beautiful thing. We have a beautiful city of beautiful, generous people who care about their community.

You’ve done a great job in building a platform for them to make a difference in that community. Congratulations to you and all your team. Thank you so much for being on the show.

Thank you, Doug.

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About Eva Friesen

DSP 31 | Collaborative PhilanthropyWidely respected in the Calgary community, Ms. Friesen has an extensive background in providing effective leadership. She has been the President and CEO of Calgary Foundation since 2005. Prior to joining the Foundation, Ms. Friesen was CEO of the Calgary Health Trust for 4 years, and had a 22 year career with the YWCA spanning three cities: Winnipeg, Yellowknife, where she was CEO for five years, and then Calgary where she was the CEO for 12 years.

Ms. Friesen has served on a variety of Boards including the Calgary Police Commission, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, and the Calgary Rotary Club (Downtown). Eva was the recipient of the 2011 Haskayne School of Business MAX Award, an award given annually to an alumni in recognition of outstanding success. She has an MBA from the University of Calgary and a Bachelor in Physical Education from the University of Manitoba. Eva also holds an ICD.D designation through the Institute of Corporate Directors and ICD-Rotman, Directors Education Program.

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