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United Way Of Greater Toronto With Daniele Zanotti

By July 7th, 2023No Comments27 min read
Home » United Way Of Greater Toronto With Daniele Zanotti

The challenges of the COVID pandemic has changed how social organizations operate. In this episode, we learn how the United Way of Greater Toronto has risen to the challenge to provide social services to their community. Douglas Nelson speaks with the president and CEO of United Way, Daniele Zanotti on United Way’s response to the challenges of the pandemic. He discusses United Way and the changes in how it engages not just with their donors and sponsors, but with the community as well. Tune in and be inspired by their journey to help others.

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United Way Of Greater Toronto With Daniele Zanotti

Our guest is Daniele Zanotti. He’s the President and CEO of the United Way Greater Toronto. We’re thrilled to have you on the show. You’re a name that everyone in the sector likely knows, and we’re hoping for some great insights from you.

I’m thrilled to be here. Thank you.

You mentioned that I should lower the bar. I guess I didn’t do that with that introduction, but I’m sure whatever bar I could set, you’re going to be very comfortably clear. As a way to start the conversation, maybe you could tell us about the community that your organization serves and how you approach serving that community in all of its diverse needs.

As United Way Greater Toronto, we are the largest funder of social services next to the government. We work with communities in the Toronto, York Region and Peel Region. The trio that makes up the Greater Toronto Area. As we’ve gone through two mergers, first York with Toronto in 2015, and then Peel joining in 2018, we’ve maintained what I believe is critical to social services, what’s critical to care, and our future as humans going forward. Fiercely local clarity and specificity. It doesn’t matter how big we’ve gotten in scale and infrastructure.

We are stubbornly committed to a small is a beautiful mentality and a fiercely local precision that what we do in Brampton will be fundamentally different than what we do in Markham or Parkdale. That local clarity is what I believe has made our scale and scope continue to work and what’s made this telescopic and microscopic capacity of United Way Greater Toronto.

As the leader, how do you look through this telescope and look down the microscope on any given Wednesday?

I look in the mirror and ask myself, “Why did I get into this work to start out?” Often in our work, we get lost in the administration, the bureaucracy, and the critical HR business transformation gobbledygook. I start every morning asking, “Why did I get my first job at progress place and the clubhouse for people with mental health challenges? Why did I pursue a Master’s in Social Work? Why did I get my first job in the community? Why did I feel I had met magic when I landed at United Way? Why have I remained there?” It’s because I fundamentally believe that people and community are the answer, not philanthropy, not social services, but people building capacity to solve issues on their own.

I never think about the size of our organization. I always think about the clarity of a single person. They, who lives on the 27th floor of a social housing building in North of Etobicoke in Toronto, wake up every morning at 3:50 AM, writes a note for her daughter that says, “Don’t forget to give grandpa his meds at 8:00 AM. Don’t forget to let the United Way personal support workers in at 10:00 AM. Don’t forget to get your brother online for his counseling program by 2:00 PM. Don’t forget that the volunteers are coming from the United Way Hub with our good food box this afternoon. Don’t forget to do your homework. Love mom,” and then leaves by 4:30 to catch her bus to her job at the nursing home all day.

People and community is the answer, not philanthropy, not social services, but people building capacity to solve issues on their own. Click To Tweet

Leaves at 3:30 in the afternoon to walk to her second job stacking shelves at the local grocery store, and then gets home at 10:00 at night in enough time to give her dad a hug, make sure the voices in her son’s head are doing okay, and thank her daughter for holding the family together with some social supports. If I lose clarity of Day Woo and the wraparound support, then I got to get out of the work because I’ve lost clarity on why I’m here and why we’re here.

As a leader, how do you share that clarity with your leadership team?

Constant storytelling. In fact, our number one role as leaders is to provide hope to seed hope, not with data on our donor base and our impact, but with precision on lives, neighborhoods, changes made together, our ability to make a change and for all of its negativity and what we’re still going through in wave four now of COVID. There have been a series of opportunities that we’ve got to harness. We haven’t seen an outpouring of generosity like we saw collectively in COVID. We haven’t seen the cutting through of bureaucracy and the power of collaboration like we’ve seen it in this moment of COVID. We haven’t seen us act in a united way like we saw in COVID.

As leaders, if we can continue to tell the single stories of hope, change, and build capacity amongst our staff, a network of agencies, and government partners that there is a path forward, that’s the greatest gift. That’s what I believe our servant leadership needs to be about. I used to be so theoretical and focused on our KPIs. Now, I have shifted to a real bias for action. I don’t care about the research anymore, Doug. I want to know quietly what the hell are we doing on the ground. How are we appearing? How are we changing lives? How are we empowering the community to do what is rightfully theirs to do?

We say this all the time. We’re not going to social service, fundraise or charity our way out of this. We have got to build sustained civic muscle. That means getting citizens involved and the government involved. It means moving from a charity to a social justice organization that isn’t afraid to say, “We’ve got to look at philanthropy differently. We’ve got to look at impact differently and nothing like 2021. We’ve lived to layer on top of the pandemic, layer the pandemic of equity, and racism on top as well.”

Take me to the first board meeting after you decided you didn’t want to pay attention to KPIs and research anymore. I know where you’re coming from. That is a fundamental difference in how your organization shows up to itself. I’m sure it doesn’t take very long for the organization to show up differently in the community when you do have that microscopic focus on local and putting the human and humanity at the center. What was that transition like at the board table when you said, “We’re not doing that anymore?”

We’ve all lived through so many well-intentioned strategic plans. You go through and check off done, and yet you feel like we’re still running to stand still. We’re in the exact same space. We talked at the board about the various transformations and incarnations of change we’ve been through as a United Way. In that, we are all living in a period, whether you’re in a startup, medium-size for a Fortune 500 company, or you’re United Way or a frontline agency on the ground, the speed of change is faster than any strategic plan. It’s not even worth the paper it’s written on anymore. We try to hone in on what are the drivers and what are the from-to’s that we can agree to as a board over the next few years.

We, as United Way, came up with five. It’s very specific to us. We need to move from a center of excellence in workplace giving to a center of excellence in philanthropy. We need to use our network of 280 agencies to build systems solutions. It’s not enough to fund 280 agencies. They have to cumulatively build system solutions together, “We need to go from transactional engagement. Let’s go to an agency to see how they operate. Let’s paint a wall at a local shelter to engage as a tool for change.” That is a fundamental leap in anyone’s journey. We need to go from having data to becoming insight-driven and using that data to make a change. We need to turn our organization outward. I don’t want to have 250 staff in buildings coming out with research and going to the community. I want every single person on our staff turned outward in the community.

Those five directions acted as the visions of where we need to go. I don’t care how the hell we get there. What I care about is that we’re in evolution to get there. To some extent, it has meant taking United Way from the brand to a powering tool to United Way as an accelerator. You recall the days and I’m sure Mike McKnight, when he’s been on the show, has talked about this as well. United Way is known as the thermometer that came out every September and then went into hibernation for a few months for us to succeed. It is no longer about the United Way brand being front and center but how United Way can power the community to do what it needs to do locally. That’s a fundamental shift. There are no KPIs for that long-term infinite game that we’re in.

This is a community gate. It’s long-term and we’ve got to be there. We saw it in COVID. COVID gave us an opportunity to be centralized and empower a community. We saw innovation at the margins that we would never have experienced if we had written a theory of change, a report and some strategies. Within hours of COVID, we provided flexible funding to all of our agencies. Do what the hell you need to with our funding.

We don’t care if we gave it to you for Senior’s Programs and you need to move it to Homelessness Programs. You’re the expert, you decide. That flexibility and general operating support allowed them to have the glue that holds themselves together because so often now, our sector has moved to 1 or 2-year program funding. How the hell are we going to make system change if we’re throwing money for a year in a specific program as if the charity can cut that little pocket out and say, “I’m going to pay for 1/3 of the EDs arm, 1/2 of the space, and 1/4 of the photocopier?”

It makes no sense. This transition for us, the flexible funding, was the first step. The second was we set up in partnership with the city and the region, local community tables by neighborhood, and we convened hundreds of agencies virtually to solve issues together. We converted low-rise housing into a quarantining space or safe housing for women who were trying to enter the shelter system but needed fourteen days to self-isolate.

We took over factories that had been closed or furloughed and turn them into food distribution centers where we were pushing out thousands of foods for the homeless. This ability for us not to create theories of change but to actually empower agencies and the community to come up with solutions, I believe, has now transformed United Way. Everything we were talking about doing became actionable in COVID, and there’s no going back.

As you’re talking, I was thinking about flexible funding, which has been the answer. United Way has been a real leader in that. A number of community foundations across the country have provided that flexible funding. It’s impossible for me to imagine a day where anyone says, “We’re not doing that anymore. We’re back to line-by-line program funding.” What’s become clear is that it wasn’t working.

Being one of the first, you helped set the standard. One of the challenges of articulating the philanthropic case or the role of philanthropy and a lot of the social services, the challenging, complex, and complicated social issues that United Way takes on is that you measure progress over a long period of time. You’ve got all of these longitudinal measures.

I was pleased to know that’s done with the KPIs. Let’s talk about what we were actually doing. It is very difficult to show what we believe we did in this program and what we believe years from now. Things will be different. It’s hard to feel good about it, feel engaged with the people who are participating, and report to the donors that are giving that they’re making a difference. That idea of community action, local action, and the immediacy of it. How hard has it been to change the muscle memory of the organization to focus on that? You have been a leader, and that’s not always been the way United Way has been viewed anyway as being the first to act. How have you overcome that muscle memory within the organization?

We need to move from a center of excellence in workplace giving to a center of excellence in philanthropy. Click To Tweet

I would admit that we are in the act of becoming still in a few pieces. There are some things that have stayed the same and there are some things that are changing. When about our network of agencies that we fund, we at Greater Toronto have stayed stubborn and resolute that the network of agencies, with all its connected coordination, collaborative tissue is, in fact, the best frontline response to meeting social needs.

All of the research says that connected communities where agencies, residents and businesses can connect and provide frontline support respond to crises faster and they emerge from the crisis. That’s been one piece that we’ve been firm on. We’ve learned, and we are learning more and more that we must work with the community. Doug, there are many terms that everybody uses and we all reference, but then it’s in the action that it becomes real.

Our research can no longer be us and a few universities going out looking at a bunch of theories and then coming out to say, “Community, you should do this.” Increasingly our research, like our most recent work on social capital, involves people in the community. It is lived the voices who are saying, this is what we’re experiencing. We’ve also pushed more and more of our funding from programs and agencies to broad collaboratives.

We fund Ontario for all, which is a network of faith-based associations and small advocacy groups, who started by working on issues that we needed to bring to the provincial election. It was the first time that United Way funded this big, broad, messy, collaborative that was going to position for the government. Here are four things you should worry about. We’ve not only changed who we fund and how we fund them, but we’ve stayed firm in this old-fashioned belief that we need to be multi-year and long-term.

What I think has changed, the muscle we were still grappling with, is finding our voice in tough issues and how quickly we can respond. This is the narrative that I referred to earlier of how do you move from a charity model to a social justice model. In the Greater Toronto area and likely across Canada, the map of low-income neighborhoods, precarious employer use or frontline workers, racialized communities, the highest number of people going to ER or the lowest educational rates are the exact same map as the COVID hotspot overlay. You can’t have a discussion about COVID without talking about poverty, race, and equity. Up until about 2015, at least at United Way Greater Toronto, we didn’t even articulate the word poverty because we felt we needed to have a broad tent for many to come in and feel they were doing good.

In 2015, we narrowed in and said, “No, we’ve got to fight poverty in all of its forms.” As COVID has immersed and emerged deeper in those communities where poverty is toughest, most stubborn, with the highest number of racialized or frontline precariously employed workers, we’ve also gotten bolder to talk about equity and racism. Our investments need to be specific and precise, that our volunteer base needs to reflect the community. I feel that we’ve gotten bolder because our staff and volunteers have pushed us and asked us. This is not a leadership thing. This is not any mine or any of our senior teams, wisdom or courage. It is actually a response to what I believe is a fundamental shift in how we’ve got to approach our work going forward. It’s no longer enough to deal with the crisis. We’ve now got to be talking about the root causes, and those are tough conversations.

I’m sure it was the sum of many, but when you saw how interconnected those two issues, poverty and equity, do we have to operate differently?

I’ll give you our most recent one, and it’s not the first one, Greater Toronto area headlines about encampments with a huge number of homeless living in parks. Let’s situate United Way. In that context. We fund a number of frontline agencies that are providing support to the people living rough in the encampments. They’re there 24/7. We fund the programs that are in there.

We fund a number of the broad collaboratives, the Toronto Hostel Association, a number of the broader base groups, the Social Planning Council who are doing advocacy with the city and the police on potential pathways away from encampments. We’re doing work with the City of Toronto. We co-chaired a report on moving from emergency shelter to permanent affordable housing. The City of Toronto also runs a United Way campaign, and many of them give dollars to United Way.

We work with the police. The police run a United Way campaign where individuals give to United Way. We partner with them on a number of programs like our focus tables, where every week in eight precincts across Toronto, United Way police and about 100 frontline agencies get together to talk about life cases around homelessness, mental health, drugs, and gangs on their way to the courts. We’ve been able, through that partnership, to divert about 85% back into the community and for local supports. We are having a discussion about encampments and how does United Way speak about a path forward when we’re convening all of these players. There’s a lot of ways to answer that quietly. Sometimes behind the scenes. Sometimes we have to be public about we were in support of this, but we think there is a better path forward on this.

This is a different United Way that is not coming at it from an organizational level but the sum of its voices on the ground. The sum of all of its partnerships when a priest, two ministers, a rabbi and a woman’s advocate got together in a bar in Denver in 1887 to start the United Way. Their starting point was community, not who’s giving us funding and who are our partners, but what is in the best interest of the community and how do we represent the voice of the community. In fact, we’re often called the Community Chest or the Community Steward. This has been humbling for our board and staff to shift from a philanthropy lens to a community development approach, which is fundamentally different.

It’s also helpful on the philanthropy side if anyone knows your passion or reading this blog. If you’re half as passionate, when you’re talking to donor partners who are funding, I would imagine that they’re excited by the potential to be a part of that through their support of your organization.

To get beyond the wrapped up with a bowl, happy outcome of Day Woo is living a tough life in Toronto, but thanks to United Way, everything is great. It’s better, but it is not great because there are some systemic issues we’ve got to deal with. She’s got to do two precarious jobs to pay the rent in social housing. She’s got no access to childcare. How do you have honest conversations with donors, wherever they’re at, but bringing them forward as well? I’m the first to admit. When I got into this work, we were afraid to have these conversations.

What if the donors don’t give? They don’t want to hear that and they want the box. I’m convinced that the more authentic organizations are about what they can do and what donors can do through they’re giving to any organization, the more authentic and real we are, the more generous people are going to be, and the more connected they’re going to be because people want that connection that powerful movement organizations like yours represent in the community.

I believe in the capacity and resilience of the people we work with, first of all, and I’m sick and tired of the needs approach that we speak to all the time. I also trust the ability of our donors to understand that this is a long game. It’s important for us to be transparent about that. I don’t want to have a conversation with a donor that says, “I gave you $100 to deal with homelessness and it’s two years later, I’m still walking by the homeless person outside the Tim Hortons.” We’ve got to be able to have a long, deep conversation on the immediate and the root causes. Donors and people get it, for God’s sake. We have tried to dummy down conversations to expedite getting the buck.

That’s why I keep talking about civic muscle. The biggest gift United Way can support, facilitate, and convene is the capacity for people and communities to build their own civic muscle. Whether we raise $100 million or $105 million, although that’s a good barometer and KPI, it is not going to change what’s happening in some of our lower-income communities. We can put more programs in as preventative but the long-term issues, affordable housing, access to childcare, and good jobs are going to turn the needle.

It is no longer about the United Way brand being front and center, but how United Way can power community to do what it needs to do locally. Click To Tweet

It’s likely been the most uncomfortable year in my years of work in this area because with COVID, the George Floyd murder, the layers of racism that we’ve experienced across Canada, the Muslim community, Asian community, graves that we are still unearthing, and the indigenous community. I have felt humbled at how little I know and how important it is for us to depend on each other as we move forward. This vulnerability and empowering of people to solve issues are, in fact, the pathway forward.

What you described in philanthropy, community, and those critically important issues around equity is moving from the transaction and getting the quick buck or getting the $100 for homelessness to engaging people in changing the way our communities work and operate. A couple of times in our conversation, your organization has been a real leader in this. One of the questions that we get a lot through our work at the Discovery Group, and we’re working with organizations across the country, is boards wanting to understand how they can address these issues of equity and reconciliation. In United Way, you’ve put together an equity and reconciliation plan. I’m curious, maybe if you could start with how that equity and reconciliation plan impacts the work of your board.

We would say that we’ve been on an equity and reconciliation journey for decades. Undoubtedly, as for many, the George Floyd murder and the series of movements afterward were a catalyst for us to review, internalize, and then think of what is our work, how do we deepen this work with more intention and precision as we go forward. We began to work with our staff and a diversity and inclusion survey that, for the first time, asked for the experience of our Black colleagues. What we found is that even working at United Way is not the same experience for all. It was shocking for us to hear that many of our Black colleagues didn’t feel they had opportunities to advance within our own United Way.

As a leader, how did you get that black and white? Are you reading it on the page? What did that feel like?

Balling, punch in the gut, and then a week or so later and understanding that at a bare minimum, maybe we have provided a safe space, a brave space and opportunity for people to express what they had been living for quite some time, but didn’t feel ready or able to express. Now that it is said, how do we collectively work together as a staff on it? Getting beyond the fragility of, as a White male saddler in the CEO seat, woes me with all of my privileges and trying to figure out how people are experiencing our workplace from wherever they lead.

It was actually the staff that acted as the catalyst for us then to say to the board, not only to launch a series of trainings and exercises, which every organization is going through and should go through but then for the board to say, what is our vision of equity and reconciliation as we go forward and put that in writing? What are the principles that we will use as an organization? What are actions that we will take across every part of our organization to show we are living this equity and reconciliation plan?

Not only has the board committed to what is now the Federal Government’s 50/30 ratio, which is 50% minimum, 50% women and 30% racialized. Not only are we doing that at the board and committee level, we’ve also done the same with all of our campaign cabinet volunteers. Interestingly, it has been difficult for us to represent the diversity of the Greater Toronto area on our fundraising volunteer site. Now, we’re building it in to say, “We must. Here’s a pathway of how we’re going to do it.” At the high level, the board is saying, “What do we look like? What’s our pipeline for representing the community we serve?” Below that, a full review of all of our policies, we are rolling out a series of investments.

As we speak, we focused on Black-led serving organizations and indigenous-led and serving a new stream that will provide multi-year funding for agencies in those communities to build their capacity and make them part of the United Way family. While we fund many of them already, we recognize that, relative to the proportion of Toronto and the Greater Toronto area, we had a long way to go. We’re also revisiting how we tell our United Way story.

What are the pictures we use? Who’s in the pictures? Are we creating a donor-savior hero mentality with I came in and gave you $1,000? Here’s a picture of my family and me to help this person, or are we using an asset base where everybody has strength, brings talent to the table, and donors and community are often one and the same? These are massive changes because they’re deeply embedded in who we are as a United Way. We put out an annual report of all of our donors by the size of their gifts. What does that look like as we think about equity going forward?

As a leader, who has obviously embraced this very passionately and taking it very much to heart, how have you personally, around your leadership team and throughout the organization, avoided or managed those moments where you want to be defensive or protective? What you’ve shared is a vulnerability that the organization that was there championing equity in the community didn’t have it quite right. Instead, it’s a gun punch, so you’re opening your organization up. There must have been moments where the temptation was there to say, “This is too much and too hard. We’re too exposed here. We need to lock this down.” How did you keep going?

As I mentioned earlier, it has been the hardest, most humbling, but important work I’ve done. For those that know me well, and particularly my family, this next part would be the hardest. I’ve adopted there at Ernesto Sirolli’s TED Talk line of, “Shut up and listen.” I intentionally mute myself, unlike what I’m doing now on the show because it would not make for good entertainment. I try my best to shut up and listen. It sounds so cliché, but there are all kinds of proof that leaders can only last 8 to 10 seconds before they feel compelled to say something smart or wise.

What has been amazing about the journey, especially around equity and reconciliation, we had one session early on where the host asked us, “On a scale of 1 to 10, where would you situate yourself on the equity and reconciliation continuum? How much do you think you know?” I gave myself a two. A year later, I would probably give a zero because I know now how little I even knew back then. This has reprogrammed my understanding of what leadership means and maybe what United Way means not to answer or have the answer but to convene the leaders and experts who can bring voice to those answers. It is the hardest work.

On my first day of work after I graduated, my first day at the Rexdale Community Health Center, it was in a small community in Etobicoke called Jamestown. I was at a Residents Association meeting. There were 50 people in a room 10×10. We were talking about the fact that the city had not been picking up garbage, and there were many issues amongst the neighbors. I pulled out every great community development theory I could, and I was ready to jump in because I was getting paid, for shit’s sake. I had to say something.

Before I even stopped Marva, who was chairing the leader, the Chair of the Residents Association said, “Kid, do you know how many community workers it takes to change a community?” I’m thinking, “I didn’t learn this in my Master’s program.” I’m trying to find the answer. She says, “It’s rhetorical. Don’t worry. None. The community has to want to change.” Much of our work in the sector is believing that we’ve got the answer, the program and the research. If we could flip that to building the capacity of the community, the work would be so much more empowering, liberating, and the change, I believe, would be faster, but that’s a tough thing.

Daniele, as we come to the end of our conversation, and I appreciate how candid you’ve been as we’ve gone through your own experience as a leader through these very difficult issues, I want to end with the question I like to ask of leaders who are internally looked inside themselves and understand what it takes to be a good leader or their best leader. Who do you look to when you have a question you’re struggling with as a leader?

I’ve taken on the practice for many years, but more in COVID to reach out to five people a week. In those calls, I always include a corporate, labor partner, frontline agency, either a frontline staff or an executive director, and one person with lived experience on the ground who’s a resident or involved in the work. In all of that, it is what gives me fuel. There is no single person, but it’s the collective of voices that I believe help ground me in navigating this equilibrium. In fact, that is our role as leaders. It’s to take the collective voices and somehow try to find a path forward. It’s the toughest process because I never feel clarity. I always feel I’m a conduit for many voices. That increasingly is what I feel to be the role of a leader, reflection, and mirror of the range of voices she, or he, or they serve.

Everybody brings talent to the table and donors and community are often one and the same. Click To Tweet

That is a great lesson for anyone who is a leader in the sector already to reflect on and a piece of great advice to anyone who is seeking to be a leader in this sector. Thank you very much for sharing it. Thank you so much for being on the show.

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

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About Daniele Zanotti

Daniele Zanotti was named President & CEO of United Way in June 2016. With more than 20 years of experience in the public and non-profit sectors, he has earned a reputation as an accomplished, strategic, and energetic leader.

From 2007 to 2015, Daniele served as CEO of United Way York Region, where he led an evolution to transform the charity from federated fundraiser to convener, mobilizer and agent of community change.

In 2015, Daniele was the catalyst behind a merger between United Ways in York Region and Toronto. He helped establish a new regional organization to tackle issues on both sides of Steeles Avenue and stewarded the first-ever United Way Toronto & York Region campaign to an historic achievement of $100 million for United Way’s agencies, programs, and initiatives. United Way’s record-breaking annual campaigns and community investment have continued, and the charity has applied an increasingly regional lens to its work.

Under his leadership, on April 1, 2018, United Way Toronto & York Region merged with United Way Peel Region. As United Way Greater Toronto, the organization is now able to use its bigger scale to strengthen a region-wide strategy to fight local poverty and address and advocate on complex social issues. Crucial to that work is the contribution of donors and volunteers across the region. To harness their time, talent and treasure, United Way is innovating to provide digital tools and a regional infrastructure that will welcome and support the engagement of 1 million people in its efforts by 2025.

Before joining United Way, Daniele served the community through organizations like the Rexdale Community Health Centre; The Regional Municipality of York; Family Day Care Services; and Villa Charities Foundation. He is also deeply involved outside of his professional career, volunteering his time as a member of CivicAction’s Board of Directors and the City of Toronto’s Partnership to Advance Youth Employment (PAYE) and Toronto’s Resilience Steering Committee.

Daniele has a Masters of Social Work from the University of Toronto and Bachelor’s Degree from York University. He lives in Vaughan with his wife and two children.