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MakeWay With Joanna Kerr

By July 7th, 2023No Comments17 min read
Home » MakeWay With Joanna Kerr

What’s in a name? For President and CEO Joanna Kerr, the name change from Tides Canada to MakeWay is much deeper than just being just an attempt to solidify brand identity. It represents a bigger pivot from being a service-based organization to being a purpose-based organization. It represents the adoption of a more laser-focused approach on service that aligns everything to the purpose of making nature and communities thrive together. It represents a commitment to focus on empowering communities to create global impact. Joanna explains the deeper significance of this transformation with Douglas Nelson.

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MakeWay With Joanna Kerr

Our guest on the show is Joanna Kerr. Joanna is a true leader in the social profit sector. She was the first female CEO of ActionAid International. She was the Executive Director of Greenpeace Canada for five years. She’s the Chair of the Equality Fund, Canada’s global fund for women. Since 2019, she’s been the CEO of MakeWay and has led that organization through a transformation in name and scope.

Welcome, Joanna.

Thanks, Douglas. It’s lovely to be here.

I want to start with that transformation at name first. It’s likely not the most important part but the most tangible one to start with. Tides Canada becomes MakeWay on June 10th, 2020 in the middle of a pandemic. Walk us through that process, the decision that led up to it, and what it was like to celebrate a new brand, a new organization in the middle of a pandemic.

When I was applying for the role of CEO of then Tides Canada, I was very aware that the organization wasn’t clearly understood by a lot of people. It was doing many different, important things but it was hard to get a grasp of what the organization was all about. I mentioned that to the board to say, “Is it a challenge to communicate this organization?” They all laughed. They said, “Absolutely.” In fact, we have considered a name change over the years because we keep getting confused with Tides in the US. They said, “When you come in, if that’s something that you choose to do, that would be something we would support.” When I came in and I started talking to many of our partners, many of our allies did think we were the Canadian affiliate of Tides in the US.

Even though I said we don’t share any governance or administrative financial connection with the organization, we were inspired by Tides at the Tides US model years ago but we have no connection with them. People were genuinely surprised. I knew we had a challenge but then, of course, we were being attacked by the likes of Premier Kenney or Vivian Krause and being accused of all sorts of things that Tides in the US were part of but we had no part of. From the critic side and the ally side, I knew we had a name problem, and then I hear from staff to say, “We often get cranky phone calls because people think we’re producing those Tides soap pods that are so attractive to children. We’re an organization solely focused on oceans because of the title metaphor.”

It was time for a name change. We hired some researchers to try to figure out what is that all the things that Tides does. What connects us? We talk to our donors, changemakers that we support, peer foundations, and we kept hearing different ways that we provide momentum to either philanthropists or community-led initiatives. We thought that’s the concept that we have to find a name around. I pity anybody trying to find a new name in the next 5 to 15 years because once you’ve settled on a concept, you don’t want it to be too cute.

Nature and climate have no boundaries. Community-led innovations have relevance and impact on the rest of the world. Click To Tweet

You obviously don’t want it to be something that’s been used. You want it to make sense, most good names have been taken. We finally landed on MakeWay and we liked the idea of MakeWay because the ability to make way for new possibilities, indigenous-led solutions, and nature and communities thriving together. We liked the imagery and the verb behind it. It had lots of energy. That’s what we settled on. We were going to launch it with all great events from Yellowknife, to Vancouver, to Toronto.

We shelved it and then we waited to see when an appropriate time might be. We recognize that our name had some meaning at this moment. It was zeitgeisty that many people that wanted to make way for new ways of being, doing, building back better and all the rest of it. People did want something to come together online for that they could celebrate. We had 400 people for an online launch celebration, we launched the name and the rest is history.

I’ve watched the organization for a number of years. It’s an important and unique entity in the sector. One of the things I jumped out at me in preparing for our conversation and being aware of the name change, it seems like your organization is managed to avoid that intense, inward focus that often accompanies a name change or a pivot like that. Much of your communication is externally focused and your focus is on the people in communities, the people who are doing the mission work, and not much on your organization as itself. That takes leadership and focus. How did you keep that focus on what you’re here to do rather than the brand that’s on the door?

The roots of the organization were to ensure that charitable mechanism or charitable services could drive impact for people and the environment in Canada. It’s almost like that service culture was built-in from the beginning in terms of the DNA. Over the years, we developed lots of incredible tools for the sector, whether it’s housing donor-advised funds, the housing of community-led initiatives ownership platform, or the hosting of funder collaboratives. All of these great tools as well as the grant-making that we can provide enabled a service culture or a servant leadership model but it was to ensure then everybody was clear as to why we exist.

That was the last piece that we needed to drive with this name change. Our mission is now quite concrete and we are here to build partnerships and solutions to help nature and communities thrive together. We’re here to serve changemakers in all of their forms to drive that. We want to ensure that all of the different services that we are offering integrate in ways that are going to lead to nature and communities thriving together. I can’t take the credit for it, Douglas. There’s the culture of the organization but I am someone who’s tried to foster a servant leadership model over these years. It felt natural to take that the next step forward.

Through our work here in the show, we see and observe organizations that either go through a merger, a brand change, or something significant about how they’re going to communicate differently to the world. Donors or the community that they’re seeking to serve doesn’t respond to those changes because the change has been too internally focused and hasn’t been inclusive enough around the mission. It does come through that you have managed to avoid many of those pitfalls, at least from the outside looking in. I know how deliberate that has to be as an approach to do. One of the phrases that came through as part of the change that grabbed me and I’m hoping you could talk a little bit about it, is community-led global impact. Can you talk a little bit more about how community-led global impact represents MakeWay in this organization?

For many of your audience, they might understand the global relevance of the historic Great Bear Rainforest Agreements. There’s an example whereby we helped facilitate those processes that have protected vast Marine and terrestrial environments but also ensured indigenous authority and stewardship over the Great Bear Rainforest and what a model for the world. That, in many ways, inspires that. The extent to which we want to be able to support communities to drive change from where they are but those changes will have global impact. All nature and climate, there are no borders to it. The ways in which Canada has welcomed the world and we are such a multicultural country where there are many interactions socially, politically, and economically with the rest of the world. The extent to which we can be harnessing community-led change and innovation that can have relevance to other parts of the world. That’s what we mean by them.

The idea that what we’re doing in this community, what we’re supporting through are giving in this community has a global impact. It must be inspiring for people who are new to the organization or those who’ve been with the organization for a number of years.

DSP 69 | MakeWay

MakeWay: The organization is shifting to doing things at a programmatic level, making sure that everything is geared towards helping nature and communities thrive together.

One of the things to is that the organization has also been seeing much more as one that’s been quite rooted on the West Coast and then in the Canadian North. We also want to have that national impact. The new role has been created a director of national programming so that we can weave together all the ways in which many of these community-led initiatives can influence the Canadian policy framework. If we were to look at, for example, food sovereignty, we’ve been doing innovative work in partnership with First Nations and Métis communities on food security, food sovereignty, new food solutions.

The work that we’re doing in Manitoba connected to the work that we’re doing on the Pacific Coast and to the work that we’re doing in Nunavut, is there something that we could share across those learnings that would have a relevance to the Canadian food system and then beyond outside of those borders? That’s another example of what we’re trying to do to truly have integrated programming that’s going to have relevance beyond the community level but it’s going to have a much wider impact.

As part of the change from Tides Canada, you talk about pivoting from a service-based organization for the sector to a purpose-based organization. Could you explain that and how that pivot is changed to day-to-day work at MakeWay?

It’s a little bit how I was describing it before. Often, we would be forward-facing or externally facing to talk about our tools and services like, “Come, we can help you through our financial services. Bring your initiative here and we’ll provide the backbone to you. Come, let us work with you to provide philanthropic services if you’re a philanthropist.” We were very service-oriented in that way and then doing all sorts of amazing things at a programmatic level. We’re trying to say, “Let’s make sure we’re very clear that everything that we’re doing is towards this purpose of nature and communities thriving together so if there are projects that want to come work with us that aren’t related to nature and communities thriving together, we wouldn’t necessarily take them on.”

If there’s a philanthropist who’s interested in cancer research or particular, that’s not the best example because I could see how nature and community striving together would relate to that. Say sports education or something like that, we wouldn’t be your host whereas in the past we might have considered that. It’s to be clear about our theories of change of how we’re trying to advance change at the local, regional, national, global level by using our tools towards that end.

You’re touching on something that is relevant for the sector as a whole which is increasingly donors, funders, observers of the sector, critics of the sector are looking for organizations that recognize that they are not an end in and of themselves. Donors give to an organization as a means to achieve or effect a mission-driven cause that they care about. The organizations are the stewards of those missions and not the owners of those missions which is that deep connection to community and helping to support the people who ostensibly will be benefiting from these programs is an essential element of it. Many organizations particularly budgets are a bit tighter as a result of the pandemic. Many organizations unfortunately are looking inward rather than using this as an opportunity to look outward. How have you managed to keep that external focus, that partner collaboration focus which I’m sure your organization has not been immune to the results of the pandemic so far?

There’s enough of us in the organization that is very much systems thinkers. We recognize our niche within the system. Therefore, it’s not one that doesn’t look inside but looks at how you are connected to the system. To be more specific, we are a public foundation so we are a grant-maker. By being a public foundation, we also raise money from other foundations and individuals. We are someone that an entity that is trying to use its influence, its resources, and its tools to drive systems change. Therefore, at least one eye has to be at 10,000 meters so that you can make sense of the system.

During COVID, what a dramatic system shift. First of all, we saw how all of our systems are interconnected. Our economic system is connected to our health system, which is connected to our education system, so on and so forth. For us, there was an opportunity to say we are connected to many indigenous remote Northern communities who are vulnerable to food supply disruption. This is where we can play a role. How can we get emergency funds to those communities? That was a big piece of our pivot right at the beginning to see if we could raise significant funds for those communities which we did. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised and are continuing to be distributed.

Changemakers are the people who step up and devote their money and time behind ideas and people to make the world a better place. Click To Tweet

It’s the extent to which how do you then also take this moment to talk to your peers, either in the philanthropic sector, about how to be generous at this time. 2008, 2009, many donors contracted because they saw their investments fall significantly but then they bounced back. They regretted looking in hindsight that they didn’t grant out at a time when people needed extra resources. Again, how can you shift that system, the philanthropic community, but then how do we then look at how this moment where nature has been recognized for greater appeal?

People who’ve never appreciated their park or a little piece of community garden more than ever. As well as the way in which we have seen such vast inequality in terms of who’s been affected by COVID and then around police brutality and racial injustice, how that has come through at this moment. It’s been a real opportunity for people to see the system. There are many of us inside MakeWay who are systems thinkers in that way. That helps us to keep part of that conversation externally focused, to see how we can leverage this moment, leverage conversations, and using our tools in ways to drive change forward.

Earlier on in the conversation, you used a phrase that when I read it on your website, I read everything you had about it because I thought it was such a great concept and an interesting way of thinking about things. You said, “We work with changemakers.” Who are the changemakers?

How we define the changemakers are those people who step out in their own communities to say this needs to change. By stepping out, they set up a project, an initiative, a set of deliverables whether it’s trying to organize people in urban Toronto to be resilient to climate change whether it’s people who’ve banded together to regenerate a river system in their area or indigenous community that group of people say, “We are losing our language, we need to find ways to bring it back, to celebrate it and to inspire others to learn this language.” It’s in many different ways.

It’s those people who step up and step out and say, “We need to bring a better change,” then they need to find support whether it’s money, financial, human resources structures, governance, legal advice, all the rest of it to make that stuff happen. That’s largely how we define changemakers. Anybody who is giving at this time, they are changemakers. They’re obviously investing in a form of change by putting their money behind ideas and behind people to make the world a better place. Our definition of changemakers is quite broad. We want to give a lot of focus to those people who are at the community level, courageously stepping up, stepping out, and driving changing the status quo.

This needs to change is such a natural role for many organizations in the social profit sector whether it’s a research organization seeking new treatments or cures, it’s educational organizations expanding service deepening the richness of their offering, or providing social services that something needs to change. As someone who has looked globally and worked globally for such a long time, what would you have our sector do better here in Canada to keep that focus on this needs to change or identifying those things that need to change and then taking action on them?

There’s not enough of us collaborating as effectively as we could be. I would say it’s unfortunate that sometimes we see one another as competition.

Is that the major barrier to collaboration on your view?

DSP 69 | MakeWay

MakeWay: Players in the sector need not compete with each other. There are so many financial resources available; we just need to be smart about how to leverage them.

Sometimes. It’s easy particularly for a culture of scarcity to sip in as opposed to a culture of abundance, when there are much financial resources available, we need to be smart about how to leverage them. In some instances, it’s a competition of scarcity. Other times, it’s also not quite understanding and seeing the whole system, how we are all networked in a system, and if we could design our collaboration in ways where we could leverage each other’s influence and skills. The environmental sector is still siloed from the health sector and much of the human rights sector. There are not enough examples where an intentional approach to integration to see how by working together more effectively, we would advance more quickly. That would be a big thing that we could be doing much better.

It’s interesting you say, cast it in that way because where you can bring together a health environment and equality is at the level of community, which you describe your organizations starting with community-led for global impact. As we look ahead to what’s coming for the sector and for the world, what is giving you hope for what is to come?

I believe this painful moment during the pandemic, which has exposed significant suffering by racialized communities, women, parents, caregivers of the elderly, all of these things, there’s a reckoning that is coming about as a result of it. I don’t think we would’ve been able to have gotten here as quickly to have seen how much our society and economy has been reinforcing inequality and also been destroying the planet at the speed as it has. The hope comes from more people recognizing that we can’t go back to the way things were and there is this opportunity to redefine our economies, our communities the ways that we take care of one another and nature.

I’ve been part of many conversations with people. There’s a certain intimacy that almost gets created on Zoom that you’re in people’s bedrooms and you’re talking about things that you wouldn’t necessarily be talking about the way you would be if you were in a windowless hotel conference room. It’s created some intimacy and vulnerability amongst people who want to make change and people who are determined that we use this incredibly dramatic and difficult time to come out of this better. That gives me a vast amount of hope.

I also have to say that the whole fight for black liberation, indigenous sovereignty, the whole Black Lives Matter moment. I don’t feel we’re going to go back. It feels new to me talking to my white friends to wouldn’t necessarily be interested in talking about systemic racism as we have been over the summer. This feels hopeful to me. It’s up to all of us to make sure we don’t slip back to coddling our anxieties through shopping malls and mindless entertainment that we build communities that take care of one another. That’s what matters.

It does feel like an inflection point in many important ways. I agree with that reason for hope with some genuine excitement about what the world is going to look like as we start to put it together in a way that’s hopefully more equal and more reasonable in a lot of ways. Joanna, I want to thank you very much for making time to be on the show. You’ve shared some great ideas about an organization and transformation and the idea of what the sector can do if it stays focused on the community to have that global impact. Thank you.

Thanks, Douglas. It was lovely talking to you.

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About Joanna Kerr

DSP 69 | MakeWayJoanna Kerr is the President and CEO of MakeWay. She has dedicated her career to advancing social justice and women’s rights, a healthy environment, and strong civil society.
Prior to joining MakeWay in 2019, Joanna led Greenpeace Canada as Executive Director, working to stop climate change and protect precious biodiversity while supporting Indigenous rights. She served as the first female Chief Executive of ActionAid International working in 50 countries with the most marginalized communities to tackle inequality. She also led the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, transforming it into one of the most significant global feminist conveners and influencers on funding for gender equality.