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First West Foundation With Susan Byrom

By July 7th, 2023No Comments23 min read
Home » First West Foundation With Susan Byrom


Taking the philanthropic road can be challenging, especially when finding the resources to support your mission. One of those is the power imbalance between a funder and the charitable sector. Our guest in this episode found a way around it through trust-based philanthropy. Susan Byrom, the Executive Director of First West Foundation, joins Douglas Nelson to share how they are embracing that at First West. She shares the unique challenges of working with a credit union along with removing the barriers between funders and charities. Susan then talks about how they are creating a safe space for partners to have open and candid conversations, particularly around the accelerator program versus the granting program. Are you ready to explore a potential partnership with trust-based philanthropy? Don’t miss out on this conversation as Susan tells us more!

Listen to the podcast here


First West Foundation With Susan Byrom

On the show, we have Susan Byrom. She’s the Executive Director for Community Investment and First West Foundation. Susan and her colleagues are at the cutting edge of trust-based philanthropy and British Columbia, and a leading example of how a corporate entity can turn its focus to support charities and build capacity right across the sector.

In our conversation, she is very candid about the challenges of moving to trust-based philanthropy and open to sharing the credit and the reward of better enabling social profit organizations to serve their missions. If you are interested in working with foundations, if you already are working with foundations or if you are a foundation yourself, you are going to love this conversation with Susan. Please enjoy.

Susan, welcome to the show.

Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here.

It’s great to have you on. We have been looking forward to this conversation for a number of weeks. You are a unique guest on the show representing First West Foundation, and we are looking forward to the conversation. We are going to have in the leading edge granting that you’ve been doing. First, I want to start with a question we are asking all of our guests. What’s your first memory of philanthropy or giving back to the community?

I got into philanthropy and giving back a little later in life than some. I remember girl guides as a child, but as an adult, one of the things that moved me into the work that we do here at the foundation was a fire that took place in Langley back in 2002. I was working at a pharmaceutical company. More than 100 people were displaced by the fire in downtown Langley.

We were a small organization. We had 100-plus employees working, and we didn’t have a call-to-action. As I looked around our office, the community was rallying behind these individuals who had lost their homes. It was our first opportunity to look inward and say, “What can we do to help?” That was the start for me and it’s grown from there.

What was the answer to that? How were you able to rally your colleagues to come together and make a difference there?

We tapped the shoulder of our executive and we were able to make a donation. At the time when these things happen, it’s responsive. People react very well to a crisis in their own community, which is very heartwarming. From there, we moved into doing a little bit more work. I was a student at BCIT at the time. I started to look at community giving as part of my diploma program that I was doing.

I used the organization I was with as the test case and started to build out a community-giving plan. That was fascinating for me and I will share that. The first piece of work that we did in the community was in partnership. If we think about philanthropy and giving back, it was with the Langley Memorial Hospital Foundation.

This was in 2003. We stuffed 11,000 direct mailing notifications during the holiday time. It’s still something that makes me smile to this day because we had two floors in our building. One of the things that we found as an organization was the differentiation between the upstairs and the downstairs. How do we bring people together? How do we start to create this sense of community inside our own organization?

We moved all of the boxes downstairs and we set up a room and people would go downstairs, grab a box, and start stuffing them. We had families were signing out a box and taking them home and getting everyone to do it. We still have a relationship with the Langley Hospital Foundation to this day, and so it’s one of the best memories I have of the early goings of community involvement that I have done.

That’s a great story. If everybody can come together around stuffing envelopes, 2003 email starting maybe.

It wasn’t a thing. They had 22,000. It was the number they wanted to send. I said, “I will take them all.” They said, “Start with half,” so we did 11,000 of them. It was a lot of fun and brought us all together many times. It was good.

I want to continue this, but first I want to ask the very basic question that some of our readers may be doing. Tell us a little bit about First West Foundation and whom you serve.

First West Foundation is a private foundation with First West Credit Union. First West Credit Union is BC’s third-largest credit union. The foundation is 26 years old, so we turned 25 in 2021. We had a big party around that, and we serve all across the province. We work directly with the regions in which the credit union operates. We have a large membership base in the lower mainland, so in the Fraser Valley, on the island with our regional brand island savings and the valley is Valley First, and then we have Enderby & District Financial as well. We are the philanthropic partner of First West Credit Union.

As a private foundation associated with the credit union, how do you work with the credit union to develop the priorities for your grant?

We have a board. The board is separate apart from the credit union board, and they are wonderful supporters of the work that we do. Our strategic plan is in place through the end of 2022, and we’ll be doing a bit of a refresh as we move into 2023 as well. We are generously supported by the First West Credit Union as well as our employees. We administer over $18 million in assets, and that provides us with our annual granting dollars to benefit the social sector.

You’ve done some unique things. Many of our readers will be familiar with the trend toward trust-based philanthropy. You’ve done it. Tell us a little bit about how you see trust-based philanthropy and the steps you’ve taken to embrace that at First West.

We are right in the midst of it. I had a conversation with a colleague and I said, “This is an ongoing journey for us and we are just starting.” Trust-based philanthropy started to hit my network and my point of sight in 2021, and that was at the time that we took the information to the board and did a presentation on what could happen with trust-based philanthropy. Should the foundation move forward in this direction? We receive strong support and so we have moved forward. What it’s meant for us is looking at ourselves very critically through the lens of our charitable partners and saying, “How can we do it better? How can we be the best partner that we can as a funder?”

DSP S7 6 | First West Foundation

First West Foundation: What it’s meant for us is really looking at ourselves very critically through the lens of our charitable partners and saying, “how can we do it better? How can we be the best partner that we can as a funder?”

Trust-based philanthropy talks about a power imbalance between a funder and the charitable sector. What are the barriers that we as funders put in place that our charities have to navigate in order to receive a donation check? We have started to remove those. In 2021, when we think about the pandemic, the First West Foundation released $1 million through a community response fund.

The response fund was set up in a matter of weeks through the generosity of the credit union with the funding, and we did a two-question application. How much do you need and what do you need it for? We move the dollars in two-week sprints. Every two weeks, we are removing money out the door until the dollars were depleted. When we think about that and transition into 2022, the notion is why would you go backward?

Why would we as an organization take a step back and go back to the way it was? The way it was, is we have got this long application and we are going to ask you, “What are you using the dollars for? Is it going for a program?” We have removed that. We have worked to remove the barriers. Our application is now 6 questions down from 18.

We will take a verbal application if someone is having difficulty navigating our application forum or isn’t comfortable transmitting what they do into words to the application so give us a call. In 2022, we released our dollars unrestricted. Unrestricted dollars were popular in 2020 and 2021 in response to the pandemic. Why would we go back? We didn’t, which was very exciting.

We had to remind a few people that these dollars are unrestricted. Will you use them that way? It’s exciting to be able to do that, and then it’s reaffirming and reassuring our charitable partners that it’s okay for them to take those dollars and move them into an area of their organization where they may need it most.

When we go back to 2020 to 2021 moving to the two questions, there was that, “Let’s do everything we can immediately to get things out the door.” Great response. Not hard to convince boards or the credit union that’s providing the dollars that we need to do this. As you are looking at those two questions, were there stories that stood out for you as being like, “Why haven’t we been doing this all along?”

It comes to that a-ha moment, at the end of the day. The difference between the pandemic funding and regular granting is that with our regular granting, we are moving towards something. We are working with an organization to move into a partnership to, “What can we do for you? What more do we have in addition to our dollars?”

DSP S7 6 | First West Foundation

First West Foundation: At the end of the day, the difference with the pandemic funding and regular granting is that with our regular granting, we are moving towards something.

Our dollars aren’t expansive and so we are always looking at how can our level of funding make a difference for your organization. The pandemic dollars were what do you need right now and how will these dollars help with your basic needs and PPE? Food security is one of the signature investments that we make here at First West, and so we were focused on those basic ne necessities for our charities and our communities.

While we had to move a little bit into some formality with our 2022 granting, we still have the flexibility with the support of our board to move more into trust-based philanthropy. What that means for us is, “Are we funding as many organizations as we can through multi-year?” We still got some work to do there.

How do we be the best partner by saying, “What about impact statements?” We are not going to ask you for information that we are not going to use. Rather than fill out a long impact statement, let’s have a phone call. One of my colleagues is making phone calls to all of our grantees and they are having a quick conversation. “How are the dollars used? How did they help you? Tell us about your organization. What do you need?”

They’re simple questions, but we can get what we need for our board from those interviews. Sometimes it’s turning the dollar about 25%. Let’s turn the dollar 25% to the benefit of the charity and not us. We can do the homework. We can type in all of the extras for our board reporting. We can go and look for the information we need about an organization to determine its eligibility. Let’s ask for what we can’t access and what we don’t know, and then we’ll call out and we’ll ask them.

It sounds like you’ve thought a lot about that. How did you convince the board of the foundation to go along with that? I’m sure that it wasn’t automatic or maybe it was.

We have a supportive and forward-thinking board. I wouldn’t want to diminish the work that was put into preparing for the presentation to the board or the decision-making at the board. When we are able to have conversations with our team members that outline what we are already doing. As an organization, there were several things when we look at the principles of trust-based philanthropy that the foundation was already working towards.

I don’t like to call the principles a checklist, but when you start to see yourself mirrored in a document, a methodology that is nationwide, you start to say, “We are doing that. We think about multi-year.” We have three multiyear going beyond the check. We do that. We offer extra assistance through volunteer engagement and the assets of the credit union where we can.

You start to see yourself being represented in these principles. Once we were able to do almost a bit of a matrix for our board that says, “This is where we are at. This is our current state and how that aligns with trust-based philanthropy. Here’s where we have additional work that we can do, that we can invest in ourselves, and we can do the learning and the listening,” and the board said yes.

You have lots of conversations with the board where it endorses this is where we are going. How was it when you started handing out or started making those grants of unrestricted dollars? How hard did you have to convince the organizations that it was unrestricted?

I first had to convince one of my team members that it was a good idea. Her name is Jackie, and she is largely responsible for our interactions, and our relationships with our charitable partner. She looks at our granting. She was almost the first barrier that I had to talk with. She will tell you she thought it was crazy. She did some research. We had some great conversations. At the end of the day, she is now the cheerleader for trust-based philanthropy and the calls that she is able to make. What it comes down to is, “How do we have open and candid conversations?” We have to create a safe space for our charitable partners in order to do that.

We must create a safe space for our charitable partners to have open and candid conversations. Click To Tweet

Our granting for 2022 was still applied for by our charities under the context of a program. Largely, the foundation provides capacity grants and program funding. That was the context of our grant application. As we had all of our applications, our application program was closed and we made the decision to release all of our funding for 2022 as unrestricted. We adjudicated all grants under the notion of how they were applied for.

It was to create equity and to make sure that we didn’t overlay any bias. We didn’t supplement any of the information because we had new information. Our charitable partners did not have this information. We sent three pieces of correspondence and each one was about, “These dollars are unrestricted,” in bold and larger types so that when they received the funding, they would know that. Each one of our grantees, whether they are approved or sadly declined for a grant, receives a phone call. Each one is called personally to let them know of their status and during that phone call, we were also able to let them know that the dollars they would be receiving were unrestricted.

At least there are three chances for them to hear the message. It’s remarkable in our work here at the Discovery Group with clients, we often hear stories of organizations get receiving unrestricted dollars and then deciding to restrict it at a staff level and sometimes very junior staff levels. The employees of these organizations are more comfortable if they know where the money got put.

It’s a learning process for a lot of the social profit organizations and charities as well to understand that these dollars can come in unrestricted and then be able to answer the questions, “What did you do with the money from a place of pride rather than the scandal of having to pay to operate the organization, which is no scandal at all?”

As funders, we have to recognize and start to talk about the fact that somebody needs to help to keep the lights on. Whether we are funding from a foundation or corporate structure, the lights need to be kept on there. Rent needs to be paid, salaries need to be paid, and we have to start taking ownership of that and making it a safe space to have these types of conversations.

As funders, we must recognize and start talking about the fact that somebody needs to help keep the lights on. Click To Tweet

One of our grantees this 2022 received a $20,000 grant and had their interview for an impact statement, and was asked, “How was the funding used?” There was a strong hesitation on the other end, and they were prompted, “Please go ahead and tell us.” They were able to use those dollars in five different ways, and that was what made sense to them.

The conversation there was that if we hadn’t had that flexibility, then there were 1 or 2 other things that would not have been able to be carried out this 2022. That’s what we are driving for. We are working towards all funders. We are working towards helping our charitable partners be partners to be the best that they can be, and in order to do that, we need to build that trust that says, “You know what your needs are and we are here to help facilitate, help partner, and help you be successful.”

You are doing a lot more than supporting that with confidence in a conversation and some granting. You partnered with the New School of Fundraising to create the fundraising capacity accelerator program. I’m interested in hearing a little bit more about that and also how the conversations are different when you are talking about the accelerator program versus the granting program.

At the First West Foundation, we don’t do programs. We have some flexibility because of our relationship with the credit union. I have had the pleasure to know the New School of Fundraising’s Founder Rowena for many years, and I had the chance to attend a couple of workshops in 2021. I called her up one day and said, “What would this look like to you as an organization?” We know that we have lots of smaller organizations and charities to whom we provide funding. Resources are difficult and they have the expertise. The New School of Fundraising has the expertise to help these organizations move into a new state.

We are wrapping that up. Rowena jumped right in. She created a curriculum. She created a schedule. What we have done is gone one step further. Rowena and I have partnered together with the foundation that we are providing each of the twelve organizations that joined this first cohort with an additional bursary that provides them with access to one more fundamental workshop to help their capacity growth, as well as two and a half hours of on one-on-one consulting time with The New School of Fundraising.

One of the biggest barriers for organizations, for charities, in particular, is that you go through a capacity-building program. You have professional development opportunities come your way, but the implementation of that is sometimes lagging and/or lacking. Business gets in the way and you have these great ideas and great conversations when you are with a peer group and you get back into your own office. It can become a struggle to put those actionable items into play. We are hopeful that this additional bursary will help each one of these organizations take some action on the priorities that they have identified over the last few months.

It’s an impressive way to put your money and your support where your mission is as a foundation to offer that to smaller organizations. You’ve done a lot to be on the cutting edge of granting. One of the things I like about the way you talk about that you make it sound so obvious. You started doing trust-based philanthropy.

All of these grants were unrestricted. We are funding these small organizations and accelerator programs, but our readers will know that these are all three very challenging things for funders to do. You are doing all three with a great smile. Great energy. As you’ve moved through this, who have you looked to for advice on how to keep First West Foundation at the forefront of this movement?

The peer group is important. We work closely with Vantage Point out of Vancouver. I try to have a strong network of colleagues in the community as well. We lean into that big question all the time, “How can we do it better?” With trust-based philanthropy, you go out and buy a new vehicle. It doesn’t matter what it is because you haven’t seen anybody drive that vehicle. You are going to be the first one in town to have the vehicle. You buy the vehicle and now you see them everywhere. Trust-based philanthropy crept up on us a little bit like that. It had been nationwide for some time percolating in different organizations at different speeds.

It was right in that 2020 and 2021 frame that started to see it, and it was coming. It was popping up here and there, and all of a sudden, I saw it anywhere. It was almost like you got hit by a ton of bricks and it was like, “Here’s an opportunity.” Creating a network as a leader in the sector that you can reach out and have conversations with, being able to ask questions like, “What are you doing?” We don’t need to reinvent a wheel. We don’t need to ask more of the sector than the sector is already placed on itself in order to support our communities. What is it that we can take on ourselves that can be a lending hand?

You’ve got colleagues calling you, asking, “You went ahead and did this. What went wrong? What should I be paying attention to?” If a funder is thinking about moving more fully into trust-based philanthropy, what advice would you have for them?

Listen. We have reached out and had conversations with our charitable partners to say, “What’s working for you?” Taking that feedback back in, we were able to design a whole new application. We have two different applications, depending on if you are a single-region or multi-region, so that was instrumental.

Don’t be afraid to ask your charitable partners what they need. How can you then take that back and do the work? Don’t be afraid to try. At the end of the day, if we are not taking a step forward, we are only standing still. There’s nothing wrong with trying something and it doesn’t quite work. This is our first year of verbal interviews of verbal impact statements.

At the end of the day, the difference between pandemic funding and regular granting is that with our regular granting, we are moving towards something. Click To Tweet

Are we going to get the right information that our board is looking for? We might not and so how will we go back and retool those questions? It doesn’t matter if we are having a telephone interview. We still want it to be concise. We don’t want to take up an hour of the time of our leaders in the sector, so we have to be very straightforward. We are always tooling. Always looking at where can we make further adjustments. The biggest thing is to be a little humble, to be candid, and to create a space where people know that they can come to you and ask that question. Be accessible.

Easier said than done for many funders, but it sounds like you did a good job of pulling that off. Tell me if there’s an executive director or somebody in a small charity in one of your regions reading this episode. What advice do you have for that person when they are going to first approach First West Foundation and explore a potential partnership? How should they get started?

Pick up the phone and give us a call. Our numbers are online. We are here. That’s our role. Everybody is busy. There are no two ways about it. Our calendars are pressured. The sector is pressured to deliver services and programs at a high rate to a wide audience, and we are here to be that support mechanism. We are accessible. We are happy to have the conversation. We don’t have unlimited dollars to be able to put into the communities. There are difficult decisions that are often made, but we make them with as much grace as we can and that’s how we move forward. I always say, “I want to be the first person someone calls.”

I may not be able to provide them with the financial support that they are looking for, but what else can we offer? Is there another avenue that I may have heard of or that a member of my team has heard of? Is there a different opportunity for us with the assets that we have that we could lean in and support them? Is it capacity? Is it volunteer engagement? Is it the assets of facilities, anything?

I had a colleague. It was a mentor of mine who once said, “The more that you can put at least two of your assets into an organization, the better the relationship you can cultivate or you can have.” I always try to lean into that as well. Our funding is an entry point. Financial support is so needed and yet it is so hard to come by. It’s challenging, difficult, and competitive which is a terrible thing, but that’s what it is. It’s knowing that and how can we walk alongside an organization to the best of our ability.

If you had a magic wand and could change one thing about the social profit sector, what would it be?

I would like for there to not be such scarcity. Everyone who is working in that sector is earning the same compensation that those in the private sector are. Funders and donors understand the work that is being done and therefore remove themselves from the conversation of the overhead of operational costs that we invest in the whole organization right at the start.

That’s what a donor is doing. A donor or a funder is looking at an organization and saying, “We love what you are doing. We love that you are taking care of my family, my friends, or my community.” Let’s jump over the hurdle and invest in the organization. Let’s not worry about where those dollars are going. The organization will worry about where those dollars are going. Their executive director and board will worry about where those dollars are going. As a donor, we value the work of the organization that we are contributing to. Let’s honor that.

My final question to you is what are you looking forward to in your role as Executive Director at First West Foundation?

More change. Isn’t that a funny thing to say?

Everybody was looking for less change. Let’s slow this down. Let’s figure out where we are. You are on the other side.

Change is opportunity. There are continued ways to do things better. How do we continue to grow what we are doing? How do we make a bigger impact? These are conversations that we have at the board table. What type of impact are we as an organization seeking to fulfill in the sector? Where is our role? What is our role to play in the sector as a funder and as a partner in particular? How do we grow those relationships to be authentic and to be where they are needed?

DSP S7 6 | First West Foundation

First West Foundation: Change is an opportunity. There are just continued ways to do things better.

The other part of a funder is that sometimes all that is needed is your dollars. Be happy with that. There’s much going on in the sector right now from the funder perspective that we need to work on and work towards. It’s quite exciting. There’s a lot of opportunity to continue to grow and do this work better than we are now. I’m proud of where we are at now. I’m proud of our team. I’m proud of our board and our organization as a whole for their support and their generosity which helps us do the work that we do.

You and your colleagues are an example of work done exceptionally well in the sector. For our readers, I hope you picked up what Susan was sharing as we went through the conversation. Take the next step forward, get feedback, and keep moving forward. This is a great message for leaders whether they are funders or whether they are running a charity, any other organization, or one of us trying to get through the next day. Susan, thank you so much for being on the show.

Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure.


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About Susan Byrom

As Executive Director, Susan provides strategic leadership to the First West Foundation. She brings over 15 years of experience serving the social sector as leader of First West Credit Union’s community investment, employee, and outreach programs across BC. A member of Volunteer Canada’s Corporate Community Engagement Council, Susan is a graduate of Simon Fraser University and holds an MBA specializing in Non-Profit and Charitable Organization Management from Trinity Western University.