For many organizations and social profit groups, attaining sustainability that’s authentic and equitable is both a challenge and a mission. However, many organizations are working towards this goal consistently, whether on a large scale or a community level. Douglas Nelson is joined by Mark Gifford, the CEO of the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia. Douglas and Mark discuss the concept of attaining sustainability in relation to issues such as inequality and climate change. Mark’s perspective on the issues is refreshing, empowering, and something you definitely don’t want to miss!
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Real Estate Foundation Of BC With Mark Gifford
There’s a small group of social profit CEOs that have started their positions in 2020 and have taken on their leadership roles at a particularly difficult time for our world, our country, our families, and for our sector. Our guest is one of that select group of leaders assuming his role in this time of uncertainty. Mark Gifford is the new CEO of the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia. We’re pleased to have him as our guest on this episode. Welcome, Mark.
Thanks for having me. I’m glad to be here.
A lot of CEOs start with their 90 to 100-day plans and we have lots of conversations with people about making that a successful launch into their new job. How have you approached your launch when we’ve got this very different way of doing business?
There are some circumstances, the best is to adapt a little bit in terms of a typical plan. I’m fortunate to be able to have started at the Real Estate Foundation at this point in time. It’s a foundation that’s got big bones. It’s had tremendous leadership from Jack Wong over the last several years, and a board that’s committed to its mission and mandate, and a phenomenal group of staff. That has been a joy to walk into despite the challenges. It’s made for an interesting start especially when the three variables that drive your budget, ability to pay bills and make grants, which are interest rates, investment returns and home sales in a minor state of flux. It’s also created a great window for learning both from staff, from board and from our stakeholders. It brings into focus what’s important, both in terms of supporting a team and their capacity, what’s important in terms of our purpose and who we’re in service to. In some ways, it’s a blessing in disguise.
You get to understand at the core of the organization because the urgency of the day-to-day is somewhat on pause. For those of our audience that don’t know the work of the Real Estate Foundation, could you tell us a little bit about it and how familiar you were with its work when you started the process to become the new CEO?
The Real Estate Foundation, our vision is a healthy environment and thriving resilient, livable communities, which is both a humble asking in our state of the world. It’s an audacious goal. We work to fund projects, connect people, and share knowledge that advances sustainable land use and real estate practices across BC. I became familiar with the Real Estate Foundation during my time at Vancouver Foundation where I had the opportunity to work for a number of years. I got to do a lot of great partnership work with the Real Estate Foundation at that point, particularly around advancing environmental and sustainability efforts across the province. It was a bit of a return. When the opportunity presented itself, it wasn’t something that I wanted to let passed by. It’s a chance to influence systems in this province that are the crux of us, meeting some of the biggest challenges we have in front of us. That’s part of my excitement from being here. Land use and real estate practices are at the heart of some of the biggest challenges and opportunities facing people in our province.
One of the things that I was interested and I hope we’ll get to spend some time on, and the reason why I wanted to have you on the show, I thought it was pretty unique for the Real Estate Foundation of BC to put someone in the CEO role, who was so deeply rooted in community. You mentioned your time at the Vancouver Foundation. After that, you were responsible for a neighborhood house in the lower mainland. How will that connection to community reflect itself in the work you do at the Real Estate Foundation?
I hope it reflects itself a lot. Advancing land use and sustainable real estate practices needs to put people in community at the center. How thriving, sustainable and resilient is a community or a natural environment if it doesn’t address inequality and a changing climate, which are the kinds of questions we would grapple with in neighborhoods and in community as well as through the work at a community-focused funder like Vancouver Foundation. How do we support people to rise up to meet challenges and stay connected and hopeful in the communities and the lands that they love through our relationship with land and real estate practices?
In your work and in your career, a lot of what you’ve done has been about building partnerships or collaborations across organizations and across communities. How important do you think that’s going to be not only for real estate foundation, but for building a healthier community as we come through this pandemic and come out the other side?
Working in partnership in a spirit of collaboration, the importance of that has been underlined at this point in time. It’s fundamental to our ability to get any work done and to advance our mission. None of us are in this work alone. We can all find ways and roles we can play. If they’re not in concert with the efforts of others around us and how we’re able to support people and organizations in that work, we’re not going to get too far.
What advice would you have to people who are leading individual organizations that are trying to be a part of that change, being a part of that support for the community right now or what it’s going to look like a few months from now?
Through this transition, it’s been hard not to have my head and my heart in the work of community-based organizations. Especially the one that I left where you’ve got deep relationships with people, both on staff and in community. You often feel that the change that is occurring is largely out of your hands. The leaders that have stood over for me in community or those who are creating space for their staff and volunteers to help inform the direction of the organization, where their teams have considerable voice in helping your organization adapt, where their communities can recognize their attempts to stay relevant and in service to the fulfillment of their mission despite the challenges, and to stay connected and trying to be tuned-in to the world around them.The best way to work through circumstances is to get your plans to adapt. Click To Tweet
At this time, in those community-based organizations and even your work at the Real Estate Foundation, there are many balls flying at leaders of these organizations. There are many things that need to be kept going, many new questions and new issues that are arising on a daily or hourly basis. How do you think leaders can focus or determine what is the most important thing to be spending their time on or to be putting their energy into at any given point?
One is those leaders need to do their best to take care of themselves. One of the most important pieces is taking time to ensure that staff are well taken care of. One of the pressure-points that people are feeling right now is how to sustain their teams and their organizations. The health and well-being of the people that have been doing this work often have a fair amount of precariousness connected to their work. That’s who we’re leaning on as communities right now. People who are on the frontlines that aren’t particularly well-paid are being asked to take on significant risks to their health and well-being.
They are witnessing significant amounts of trauma in community at the best of times. Now they’re being asked to do that in this context. It’s very challenging to help staff feel well, connected, safe and confident that we’re going to be able to move through this period. We won’t be able to do that if people aren’t healthy and well. Being tuned into that, for organizational leaders, we get caught up in the funding pieces like our financial resilience and relationships with partners. It’s important for us to be self-aware about the privilege that we carry, both as individuals and relational privilege in our organizations where we tend to forget about that when we get caught up in the day-to-day of navigating our organization through crisis.
Everybody around us doesn’t have the same level of security or the same feel for where we’re going as an organization or as a community. That’s wearing on people, especially those that put their heart and soul into the work for a lifetime often. This pandemic, we talk a lot about us all being in this together and we all are, but we all experience it very differently. That’s important to remember. Both as organizations, me making the jump from a community organizing and leadership there to a foundation, it’s a very different kind of leadership picture in community. It’s certainly challenging for those who remain and providing leadership like in my case, and then personal privilege. I’m a middle-aged white dude that speaks English, has a home and all the relationships that I need. I’m okay. It’s disruptive and it’s awkward, but I’ll be fine. That is not the case facing many people in our community and many organizations that are trying to serve them. Being aware, whether you’re a foundation leader or a nonprofit leader, both as organizations, we’re experiencing this differently but as people, it’s a very different experience.
That’s an important point you’ve made there. I wonder how that applies now in your current role. You’re replacing a long-serving CEO. Jack Wong had been there for several years and very well respected. Coming in brand new in effect to the organization, how are you providing that support to the team as that new leader? These are people that you probably don’t know very well, that you’re needing to offer these supports to. What has your approach been?We talk a lot about being in this together, and while we are, we experience things differently. Click To Tweet
Listening to the staff, I’ve been so impressed with the ability of the staff team that I have to adapt and make adjustments and be patient with me. With my board and their willingness to recognize that things are going to be a bit fluid. Best laid plans in February are going to need to adjust as we go through this immediate period, but probably our medium-term work too. Helping people keep an eye on the ball, what we’re trying to accomplish, how we best serve our mission and how we begin to adapt not just to the challenges of this particular time we’re in, but also the longer-range ones that drew me to the foundation of why its mandate is relevant to our future as a province. Recognizing the pandemic in some ways provides a bit of a vignette for us in terms of underscoring how important inequality and climate change are as threats to our vision of sustainability for this province. It underscores how we need to begin to be much more intentional about putting those at the forefront of our decision-making and planning.
You mentioned the three levers of funding that you have at the Real Estate Foundation and how all three of those are under immediate indirect threat as a result of the health and economic climate. How has that changed the conversations you’re having with your board chair or with your board in general?
It’s made for more frequent conversations. We’re playing quite close attention. It’s been good for both staff and board to be tuned into. There is so much volatility right now. It’s hard to get a straight bearing on where we are going to be in 2 to 3 months in terms of the external picture. We’ve taken a very thoughtful approach to how we’re moving forward. The organization is in great shape from a system standpoint. The market is what the market is in investment side. We’ve got a phenomenal investment committee that helps put shape the work that we do there. We’re not an endowed funder. Some people don’t realize that, so thank you for the foundation or many other foundations. We don’t work from an endowment. We work to get money out the door. We have a two-year grant stabilization fund. It’s a rolling average that sees us move money in and out the door over that period of time. We will see more volatility than other funders in terms of what we’re able to disperse in any given year. This will be one of those years. We’re doing our best to maximize how much we can support a community without jeopardizing the health of the organization.
That’s a common issue across the sector that funders are having that they see this as a time when there is greater need than ever before perhaps. There is a lot of social pressure and real genuine intention to get as much money into the hands of the organizations and the people that are doing the great work of the sector. In its early days, I appreciate it, but how have your conversations with the organizations you fund gone? Are they looking for the foundation to step up or are they understanding the position that you’re in?
The response has been great. We’ve very proud of the work of the team for putting as much emphasis as we can on strengthening communications with our grantees. Adapting what we do like creating as much flexibility in the kinds of support we provide at this time. Examples of that include everything from relaxing, reporting requirements, to helping organizations shift from project-based funding to general support so that they can have the flexibility to respond to pain, funding out early. Everything we can do with current grantees, listening to them to see what issues that they’re identifying. Trying to bring that into our thinking in terms of what we might be able to offer short, medium, and long-term.
There are lots of good work there and lots of great positive feedback from the organizations we support, most of which aren’t frontline organizations. We’re working primarily with organizations that are focused on longer change, longer-term, sustainability concerns and the health of our environment. Those organizations tend to rely more heavily on philanthropy and foundation support than government funding. Though they’re not on the frontlines operationally or organizationally, they’re facing some real pressure looking ahead in terms of, how’s this going to land for us in 6 to 9 months? They’re also going through a period where they’re asking a lot of questions with themselves on their future and how to adapt and respond without dropping the ball on their mission.
How frequently do you find yourself relying on your experience from your years at the community foundation in those conversations?
My time at Vancouver Foundation and the Philadelphia Foundation before that has been important in forming both my learning and how I work in community and with partners. I’m drawing on that every day and looking for ways to bring some of the insights that came through that work experience into the work that I’m doing with my team at the Real Estate Foundation.
You’re coming into this role at a very sobering time for everyone. Before we knew about COVID, before the pandemic was a real thing, you were getting ready to start this. What was exciting to you? What was one of the one thing in particular that you were looking forward to jumping into as you became the CEO?
I was very excited about the mandate. I love working in community. The intimacy of work at a neighborhood scale is beautiful. I did miss an opportunity to take a big picture approach to see work across a province and ask how do we help create the conditions to ensure that the communities are thriving, sustainable, resilient and a work with a great team to do that. As I’ve mentioned previously, I do think that land use and real estate practices are at the heart of the biggest challenges and opportunities facing our province. Whether that’s in terms of inequality and climate or changing demographics, the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians, how all of those have land use or real estate practices at the heart of them. There isn’t another funder in the province with a mandate to be focused on that work and how we create public good out of real estate or public benefit that’s a service to helping this province meet some of those challenges and opportunities. That’s exciting to me.
Those are huge challenges in their own right without the overlay of COVID-19. You’ve mentioned public benefit a few times through our conversation. That’s important to keep in mind, not only given your role but in general in the sector. Do you think that definition or understanding of social benefit is going to change as a result of what we’re going through right now?
I haven’t thought about that in terms of how we think about it. What I would be hopeful for is that our notions of public benefit and social benefit become more of the forefront in decision-making both in the public sector and private sector. Certainly, that’s been at the forefront for social profit leaders in charities and nonprofits around the province. The importance of that conversation with public sector and private sector partners in order to ensure all of our long-term viability.The intimacy of work at a neighborhood scale is beautiful. Click To Tweet
One of the encouraging things that I’ve seen in the sector over there has been the number of unique collaborations, whether it’s all the hospital foundations in the Toronto area coming together or the partnership between the Unitedway of the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Foundation, Van City and the City of Vancouver. Bringing together partnerships that in another time may take months or years to pull together if it ever happened. They’re coming together quickly to respond to this crisis. My hope is that feeling of urgency, that are the need to respond and support community is more important than the traditional barriers that get in the way of organizational collaboration. That urgency is what we take forward. We’re able to continue to get things done that may have been more difficult in earlier times. Put that public benefit right at the front of what organizations are doing in collaboration and partnership across sectors.
The Real Estate Foundation BC has a very special place in my heart because when I was a very junior fundraiser at what’s now the Sauder School of Business, but it was named at the time the University of British Columbia. The Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia is one of the first significant gifts as a fundraiser I got to be a part of and establishing a professorship. It was years ago, Stan Hamilton, who was the senior associate dean of the business school, working with the Real Estate Foundation to come up with this. I remember filling out forms and going to several committee meetings to get that approved. When that gift came through, it was a special one for the university, but for me as a junior fundraiser to be a part of.
In some ways, the Real Estate Foundation can be credited for this show. We’ve had fabulous relationships with our universities across the province to that being an example of one and these long-term relationships with the organizations that have informed the organizations ways of knowing as well as what we do. That’s a nice story. I’ve heard lots of those connections to the work that the foundation does.
They are very fortunate to have you in the chair through this difficult time. I know all of us and you are looking forward to more regular business as usual in order to get after all that important work that you’ve described.
Thank you very much for being on the Discovery Pod.
- Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia
- Vancouver Foundation
- Unitedway of the Lower Mainland
About Mark Gifford
Mark is the CEO of the Real Estate Foundation of BC. In this role, he leads the staff team and oversees the Foundation’s operations, programs, and grantmaking. He is interested in the relationships between land use, real estate practices, and community sustainability, and excited about opportunities to work with people to create thriving, resilient, and livable communities across BC.
Mark’s professional, academic, and volunteer life has focused on creating more socially just, inclusive, and sustainable communities. Mark brings more than 20 years of leadership experience in the philanthropic, public, private, and non-profit sectors. Most recently, he served as Executive Director of Kiwassa Neighbourhood House. Previously, he served in senior grantmaking and community engagement roles at Vancouver Foundation and The Philadelphia Foundation. Mark is also a Trustee and past Chair of the New Westminster Board of Education, is a former Chair of Environment Funders Canada (formerly known as the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers Network), and has served on numerous boards and committees throughout his career.
He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Geography and Latin American Studies from Simon Fraser University and a Master of Arts in Urban Studies from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA.
Mark lives in New Westminster with his better half and their amazing son, and enjoys riding his bike, a good hike, or finding an excuse for a cup of coffee.