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Transforming Communities Through Listening And Engagement with Jennifer Johnstone

By July 8th, 2023No Comments21 min read
Home » Transforming Communities Through Listening And Engagement with Jennifer Johnstone

DSP 14 | Radical Listening


Deep engagement in an organization can only be made possible through radical listening. President and CEO of Central City Foundation, Jennifer Johnstone, defines what radical listening is and how it has created an authentic and healthy relationship within a community. Starting off her career in the non-profit sector as the founding program coordinator with the Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts in the late 1980s, she shares the core values and functions of the Central City Foundation and how she maintained the long-term focus with her management team and board members. Moreover, learn from Jennifer the importance of putting truth and reconciliation at the core of what you do. On the side, discover the way to get people to move past that feeling of competition and scarcity in non-profit organizations.

Listen to the podcast here:

Transforming Communities Through Listening And Engagement with Jennifer Johnstone

On the show, we have Jennifer Johnstone. She’s the CEO of the Central City Foundation here in Vancouver. She’s a great expert in the sector and someone who we’re pleased to have on. Welcome, Jennifer.

Thank you so much. It’s nice to be here.

Jennifer, tell us a little bit about what the Central City Foundation is.

We are a foundation that works to bring together neighbors and resources to transform our inner-city community to ensure that it is an inclusive community for everyone where everyone can participate, prosper and reach their full potential. We have a history that goes back to 1907.

It is that deep rooting in the community. You’ve been the CEO since 2006. What’s changed in the community in your time as CEO?

In my time as CEO, we’ve been through a few deep challenges in our community. The affordability crisis that affects housing, but also affects our sector strongly in the sense of finding suitable space in the community. Real estate has become a critical issue in the last several years. When I first came on as CEO, Central City Foundation, is the only organization to invest in social housing as a foundation. We were trying to save some of that unique housing stock in Vancouver that is the single room occupancy hotels and improve them and continue to make them available to low-income residents. Shortly after I came on board, BC Housing stepped into that work as well. They started investing in SRO hotels in Vancouver in order to hold onto that housing stock particularly as we were approaching the 2010 Olympics. We were seeing some significant speculations starting to take place in the market place. That changed the landscape in the inner city, in many ways. It’s led to many more nonprofit owned and operated SROs, but it’s also been part of the great rise in costs which makes it very difficult for nonprofit organizations to stay in suitable affordable space.

For us at Central City Foundation, one of the key ways that we have been working to support our community partners is by investing and developing a social purpose real estate. It’s a space and place for community organizations and providing both subsidized and secure tenure for nonprofit organizations who are missions match ours. Over the course of the last several years, we have grown that portfolio significantly. We have five social purpose real estate properties now around British Columbia providing everything from low-income housing to community space, treatment centers for youth, daycares, family services, health centers and more. We have found ourselves to be committed to deepening and understanding how that long-term relationship building with our community partners can lead to a transformational change both for the organization and for the community.

It takes a lot of discipline and a lot of effort to maintain that long-term focus in the face of the urgent affordability crisis and other issues that your foundation would deal with. How do you manage to keep that long-term focus both with your management team and with your board?

It does go all the way back to 1907. There are a couple of things here that we considered to be the threads that take us back to our roots, but also a part of what we see is the DNA of this organization. The first is a deeply held belief in the intrinsic value of human beings and truly believing that every person in our community has value and has gifts to share. In working to make this a community that is inclusive of everyone, we’ve spent over 100 years in authentic and consistent proximity with our community and in what we call deep radical listening.

Let’s say more about deep radical listening.

Amplify the voices of your community partners and of those marginalized people who are most deeply affected by injustice and inequality. Click To Tweet

That phrase is not our own. That phrase comes from a project from NYU back in 2017. That project was a group of researchers and practitioners who are approaching active listening a little bit differently. The word radical encompasses both the method of listening and its intention. It’s radical in the sense of going to the root of what is being said and not said. Radical in the sense of also creating a potential for transformation. We spend a good deal of time in building relationships with community organizations. We don’t just have to check writing foundation and it’s not a matter of processing applications. It is about trying to build those relationships. The team here at Central City Foundation is made up of people with strong relationship building skills and a commitment to understanding the complex history and the social context of the community where we work.

They’re recognizing the intersectional inequality and inequity that characterizes the social interactions in our community. Our commitment is in effect to social justice and an understanding that there is a deeper transformation in our community than some of the more superficial approaches. It isn’t to say that we don’t also support initiatives that are helping people at the moment. We have been trying to do a number of things to support our community in the face of the opioid crisis, which has hit our community deeply. Our approach to that is to both provide some funding and support to community groups particularly those that might be more controversial at their outset and being able to support those risk takers who are trying to find better ways to support community.

If the conventional ways are going to work, we wouldn’t be in this situation we’re in.

Part of where we see our job once we’ve done that listening is to amplify the voices of our community partners and of those marginalized people in the inner city who are most deeply affected by the injustice and the inequality that we see. One of the things that we’ve instituted is a community report. The last one that we did was in 2018. It looked at the opioid crisis. It looked at its impact on our sector and community groups. One of the things that very few people at that time weren’t talking about and what we were witnessing was many organizations dealing with deep trauma and grief amongst those who are providing support to the community as well as to community members. We wanted an opportunity to listen and amplify their voices around what was needed to try to ensure that those organizations would survive this crisis as well as our neighbors in need.

I’m interested in the conversations that happened around your board table as being on the leading edge of the response in terms of supporting community that deep listening and amplifying that voice. Are you ever having to encourage the board or pull the board along to do what you feel needs to be done?

We call ourselves a small but mighty group here at Central City Foundation. It’s a small staff. We are deeply entrenched in this work every day. Our board is an amazing group of volunteers who are not deeply entrenched in this work every day. A good portion of what we’re trying to do is to provide them with opportunities to deepen their understanding, to learn and listen with us. We’re trying to participate in some of that deep radical listening as well as providing them with everything that they need to be the champions for these organizations, the good stewards of our assets and to be good thought partners for me as CEO as we move forward and try to maximize the impact of this organization and the resources that we do have.

What percentage of your time would you say is directly involved in board education and engagement?

It’s a good 20% of my time probably. There are so many things going on here at any given time. It’s hard for me to break it down quite like that. We have been engaged in a deep governance review at Central City Foundation, which has been an extraordinary process. We’ve been not just exploring and ticking the boxes on policies and bylaws and things like that but digging into some of those foundational pieces. We’ve come away with a new board manual that is rooted in some commitments around our approach both to community-focused philanthropy and community-led solutions. We are in the midst of deeply articulating our commitment to truth and reconciliation at Central City Foundation and what that means for all of the work that we do.

What prompted that deep governance review?

It changes in the community and the works that we were doing. It changes at the board level and a sense amongst the board of a need for deeper engagement and wanting to have a better understanding of the work of the foundation and their role. In the way that we do things here, we didn’t just want to do a policy review. We wanted to take a step back and have some deeper conversations about the why and get a little deeper than our strategic plan to understand how it is that we work here that’s different and some other foundations and other organizations. For a long time, we’ve had a clear understanding in terms of the difference in what we do sometimes. Our commitment to social purpose real estate for example and 50% of our core capital is invested in our mission, which is unusual and unique amongst foundations in this country.

DSP 14 | Radical Listening

Radical Listening: The word radical encompasses both the method of listening and its intention. It’s going to the root of what is being said and not said and of also creating a potential for transformation.


We understood that, but the way of the impact of that was something that the board wanted some time to explore. We’ve been doing that and it led to a fruitful retreat in March of 2019 where we had a couple of days to explore these concepts. We understand better how we do this work to ensure that we keep that focus on community and we keep that commitment that we have here too. We’re acting on our understanding of the context of our community. For us, that is about truth and reconciliation and building a new relationship between indigenous peoples and non-indigenous Canadians and what role do we play particularly given that our work is primarily in Vancouver’s inner city. We know that there are many indigenous peoples who are in our inner city. There are many organizations that we’ve been working with for a long time. We’re wanting to understand if we’re doing that in the best way we can.

As a long-serving CEO at the organization to take that deep dive with a lot of turnover on your board, that’s letting go of the reins quite a bit there. How did that feel on a personal level to open the doors to a different type of organization?

At times, it was a little bit nerve-wracking. I’m deeply committed to the way that we work here at Central City Foundation. I’m committed to understanding that our strength lies in relationships including the relationships with our board and individual board members. I felt strongly that it was a real opportunity to provide people with an opportunity to fully engage. It’s been an extraordinary journey for the last few months. It feels empowering, not just for the board but for staff and for some of our community partners who we reach out to be engaged a little bit differently and thinking about how we work with them.

Part of your job is to give the board members the opportunity to deepen their understanding of the mission and the work on a day-to-day basis with a long-term view, how do they enter into this deep look at the organization? Was it timid at first or were they able to just jump right in?

They were ready. One of the things that we started a couple of years ago was part of what led us to this place. It was what we’ve been calling the hope dialogue series. We have been bringing together leaders of our community partners in various communities within our community together with our board members, supporters and influencers. We’re doing it our way, which is to bring people together in a deep conversation sitting together in an intimate setting at a small table and learning from each other and listening to each other. The first one we did was in October 2017 with about twenty women’s organizations from the inner city that we’ve brought together. That was an amazing opportunity for our board members to listen, learn and share their insights as well. I felt like it was an opportunity for them to deepen their understanding.

We came away from that with a number of commitments as an organization and with board members who were keen to do more. We’ve always taken board members along on-site visits and things like that. This was an opportunity for them to learn about those deeper issues and to think together with our community members about how we could be working differently to support their work and to have a greater impact. By the time we got to the conversation about how does that affect or impact the actual work of our board and how our board works, they were ready.

That is quite a journey for them and it shows a lot of confidence in your own leadership style to be that open about what next steps are the organization might look like.

We’re taking some time to work our way through a deep dive into policy and things. We’ll be turning our attention soon to recruitment to invite some others to join us in this work to do things a little bit differently.

Truth and reconciliation are areas that so many organizations in the Canadian social profit sector are wrestling with to try and understand how to make a positive contribution. Some of that is an awareness that needs to be part of the discussion. How have you, at Central City, leaned into that and let out to put that at the core of what you do?

We weren’t an original signer, but we were a very early adopter and an early signer on the Canadian Philanthropic Community’s Declaration of Action on Truth and Reconciliation. In signing that declaration and joining the Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples, we made a commitment to understanding how to share our networks and resources and build different kinds of relationships with indigenous communities beyond what we had been doing for many years. While we have this long history of funding and providing community space for indigenous-led organizations, we hadn’t delved into many of the aspects of the actions coming out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would help build new kinds of relationships. We have spent a considerable amount of time looking for ways to share the truth of truth and reconciliation. We’re ensuring that board and staff have training in indigenous cultural competency. We’re commonly referring to as Anti-indigenous Racism Training. We’re digging deeper into that. We’re understanding how colonization has impacted not just historically but continues to impact people’s lives and how our work is to understand what we need to do to make changes in our organizations, in our thinking and in our ways of working in order to foster these new relationships.

Strength lies in relationships. Click To Tweet

Having been as thoughtful as you have been and as involved as you have been, what do you see as an opportunity for the social sector in general to do a better job of supporting the truth and reconciliation process in Canada?

I’m seeing growing opportunities for people to engage with the truth part of learning. Anyone who is an adult now has not had the opportunity in school that we’re now seeing start to rural out to the education system in terms of incorporating the experiences of indigenous peoples into the education system. It’s not just the historical but understanding the current situation, the resilience of indigenous peoples and still being here with us. There’s an enormous education gap amongst Canadians to understand that history and to understand how the trauma of the residential school systems, the ’60s scoop and continued over-representation of indigenous children. For example, in the child welfare system, it grinds down into the intergenerational trauma that affects indigenous people in our country and learning about that. Learning about what organizations are doing to support a different kind of future for all of us in this country, but particularly for indigenous peoples. Increasingly, I see organizations and groups of organizations finding ways to add to that education to provide opportunities for people to learn not just individually, but in groups situations as well. We find ourselves as an organization and the networks we’re in supporting any and all opportunities for people to learn and to deepen their understanding in order to move forward.

Through our work here at the Discovery Group, we encounter a lot of organizations that are very supportive and are struggling to a greater or lesser extent to integrate that into their mission, their value proposition or in their day-to-day work. You make an excellent point that it’s not optional. It’s a reality of what doing this type of work in Canada is. It sounds like you’re doing a great job of leading on that point.

I’m not sure we’re leading, but we are working hard here to ensure we’re doing our part.

Leading is the wrong word. It’s not a race. There’s not a finish line. This is a process as you described. As you’ve looked at the organization, you’ve been through it, your community-end of your strategic planning process is about to recruit a new board, what are you most excited about for the organization over the next two or three years?

We’re hitting our stride with regard to what we call community focused philanthropy both within our own organization. We’re spending some time interrogating our own model of philanthropy and how the way that we invest in the community can change and can start to support that community transformation. I feel like there’s a number of things that are happening. We are in the midst of co-convening something that’s called the Feminists Deliver. For us, it started at our Hope Dialogue. One of the things that we came away from was a mandate from community organizations and our organization internally to find new ways to support collaboration and to support community groups coming together. In 2018, we convened together with myself and Angela Marie MacDougall, who’s the Executive Director of Battered Women’s Support Services.

We began convening some meetings of women’s organizations to talk firstly about what and how community groups or grassroots groups might want to intersect with the international conference that’s coming to Vancouver called Women Deliver. It is built as the world’s largest conference on gender equity. We began a series of meetings and in very short order discovered that we had lit a spark. We have some 25 different women and women identified organizations who are coming together regularly. They are planning a parallel four-day conference to make the connections for grassroots community organizations with the global issues of gender equity. It’s also to provide an opportunity for all the people who are marginalized by gender to come together in deeper learning and understanding from the perspective of the beginnings of the work as in decolonization. I’m excited about this different kind of role as a foundation. It is organic. We’re learning new boundaries about how to support the community beyond being a grant maker or even beyond convening our own conversations, and how do we support new kinds of conversations in the community. That is an exciting development.

Your commitment, your passion and your resolve come through in everything you say about whether your organization is doing and is going to do. It’s very impressive. That’s what it takes to be a CEO in a significant organization for a long period of time. It’s being able to put that mission forward, how you see yourself as the leader and how you see the organization in the community. Because you work with so many different organizations, you must have a perspective on how the social profit sector is evolving. What are you seeing in terms of how charitable organizations are working with programmatic organizations and where are we headed?

Perhaps it’s not new, but there is more urgency for creative solutions that nonprofit organizations seek and trying to deliver on their missions. I have often been a critic of the way in which primarily funding and whether that’s government or foundation funding is a force that separates community organizations. It creates a false competition around impact where most organizations are looking for opportunities to collaborate and intensify their impact in partnership with other community organizations. I do see growing creativity amongst organizations and trying to challenge that. You are familiar with a longstanding refrain within the sector of the need for operational funding. That hasn’t changed, but how organizations are coming together to access funding and to find ways to center the people that they’re trying to serve in their work and look for partners to work with.

We see this often. The evidence for me lies in some of the creative solutions for community space that are emerging. We are saying interesting collaborative co-working spaces for nonprofits and not just random co-working but rather an intentional co-location of organizations and programs and increased government services. We’re finding ways to co-locate in order for the service recipients to be the ones walking through one door and being able to access what they need rather than having to go to a number of different places. What’s happening in terms of new ways of working together and collaborating that is coming out of those creative colocations bodes well for a strong future for the community services sector.

DSP 14 | Radical Listening

Radical Listening: There is more urgency for creative solutions that nonprofit organizations seek and trying to deliver on their missions.


One of the things you said that resonates with me is working with a lot of boards. They start from the perspective of our competition is. It’s not the only language but a view of the sector that I find problematic. If we are competing with other organizations that have similar missions or mandates to our own, we’re not being constructive. I don’t think we’re having the right kinds of conversations. How do you work to get people to move past that feeling of competition and that scarcity that can be so dominant in our sector?

One of the ways that we do that is through our commitment to Social Purpose Real Estate. One of my poster organizations is Aunt Leah’s, which is an organization that works to support foster caring use to prevent homelessness for foster care youth and for young moms. They’ve been around for 25 years and doing amazing work. In 2012, we finally finished the project. In 2012, we were able to buy a building in New Westminster that has been through a couple of renovations now. It’s become their core space for their administration and programs. There’s a deep subsidy in terms of the costs of that, but there’s also security of tenure that we’re in this with them for the long run.

That has allowed that organization to flourish and to have foundational support to take risks, to venture into new programs, to look for those opportunities for collaboration and cooperation. We were looking for ways where we can support organizations fundamentally in that way that allows them to take risks. My experience with community service organizations is that on the ground, those organizations are looking for partners. They’re looking for ways to work together to better serve the communities that their mission is all about. Whatever we can do to provide them with that stable and secure base from which to do that work is something that shows great promise.

I want to encourage everybody to go back and read this again because this is what it sounds like when you’ve got a leader who lives in the mission of the organization. The one that I want people to take away from this is the strength of your organization and all our organizations are in its relationships. The important part of leadership in the social profit sector is to put those relationships front and center and the discipline and the courage to keep them there is more unique than we would hope. You are certainly an example of that in real life practice. Thank you very much for sharing that.

Thank you so much. It’s been a real treat.

Thank you, Jennifer.

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About Jennifer Johnstone

DSP 14 | Radical ListeningJennifer Johnstone, President & CEO with Central City Foundation since 2006, has an extensive background in non-profit management and community resource development, including experience as a fundraiser, marketing and communications manager and non-profit executive for more than 25 years.

Jennifer has held key leadership positions with organizations such as the Vancity Community Foundation, Battered Women’s Support Services, the Vancouver Status of Women, and Ballet British Columbia, Canada’s pre-eminent contemporary ballet company, where she focused her efforts on building a sustainable non-profit dance company grounded in artistic excellence and community relevance.

Jennifer began her career in the non-profit sector as the founding program coordinator with the Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts in the late 1980s. Jennifer has also maintained a successful private consulting practice in fundraising, organizational and strategic planning, and workshop facilitation and is an instructor in the Fundraising Certificate Program in the Faculty of Business at BCIT.

Jennifer holds a BA Hons. in political science from Queen’s University and pursued graduate studies at the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies and in Women’s Studies at Carleton University. Jennifer remains passionately committed to social justice and community investment and, throughout her life, has served as a volunteer in many capacities with various organizations at the local, provincial and national level. Jennifer is the past president of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Vancouver Chapter, and currently serves on the Boards of AFP Canada, Yaletown House Foundation, Leon & Thea Koerner Foundation, A Better Life Foundation, Battered Women’s Support Services, and Hastings Crossing BIA. [email protected]