The COVID-19 presents a seemingly insurmountable challenge for players in the social profit sector to continue providing their services and managing to stay afloat. Funding has always been an issue for these organizations, but it has become more so in a time when their services are needed the most. Today’s guest, Sandra Richardson, the CEO of the Victoria Foundation, joins Douglas Nelson to tell the story of how the foundation committed to a partnership with an individual donor and local media to raise funds for the community’s COVID-19 response. Sandra shares how different people in the community are doing their best to respond to the needs of frontliners and the vulnerable population, and how these stories encouraged people from all walks of life to do their share and give back to the community.
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Victoria Foundation With Sandra Richardson
Our guest is Sandra Richardson. She’s a longtime CEO of Victoria Foundation and we’re honored to have her as a guest on the podcast. Welcome, Sandy.
It’s good to be here.
Sandy, as you know and as all of our audience know, every organization in the social profit sector is trying to figure out what the most appropriate response is to COVID-19 and how to fundraise in the time of a pandemic. I’m pleased to have you on the show because I think that the partnership you’ve put together at Victoria Foundation is a model for others to follow. I’m hoping you could just start us off by telling us about that partnership and the fundraising response that you’ve seen in your community.
First of all, the Victoria Foundation is not normally engaged in fundraising. This was knowing that we wanted to do something in response to COVID-19. As we were looking around for partnerships, this was one that came together very quickly and it’s with our local newspaper at the times calling us, with an individual donor named Robert Jawl, who’s part of his own family foundation. They recognize too that within the community there was an immediate growing need to keep looking at the vulnerable populace to keep people that are housed, housed and people that are receiving food to keep those services in place so that it doesn’t become more pressure on our healthcare system.It takes a community to build a community foundation. Click To Tweet
The idea was Robert Jawl would put up $100,000 and we initially put up $250,000, and the goal was $1 million. Because we’re not in fundraising, no idea how the community would respond and $1 million was net within 36 hours. Part of the commitment in that partnership was that it would be money in, money out immediately and that the foundation wouldn’t take any fee that they would take care of all of the costs. We have been able to continue that. As this has progressed, we have found different groups come forward and say, “We would like to form a little group and a little challenge.” The next challenge became $350,000. The story has interwoven through the community, decorated itself if you like. With wonderful stories in our press, on our local news station CHEK TV, that has encouraged this community to show what it means to come together at a time like this.
One of the things you said there was very interesting to me. You and I have had this conversation going back a number of years about Victoria Foundation not being a fundraising organization, but you were able to respond quickly and the community responded to your request. What made the difference there? What gave you the positioning? What gave you the ability to put that request out to the community and have it responded to generously?
To a large part, it’s how we engage in our community. We do a report card called Vital Signs annually and that is listening to the community and then reacting to what they tell us. This looks at areas that we should be funding. Our board will choose their board priorities and it engages in a lot of communication with the community. At one point to recognizing the charitable sector or civil society as we call it, how fragile this sector is across our country. We engaged in some research to put out a civil society report to say we want this community to know the impact annually of the sector. When that report came out, it built a lot of awareness to the community when they thought, “When you look at what this sector gives economically, it’s over $1 billion a year here in Victoria.” I think some of the understanding that we’ve built about the sector and how we engage with the community meant that when we did come out in partnership to say we want to somehow give that that the community responded readily.
Were you surprised? You know the importance of civil society, the social profit sector. When those donations started coming in that quickly, what was your reaction on a personal level?
I was very surprised and I think very humbled because within sending out a gift and they’ve come in in every way, whether it’s by mail or wire transfer directly on the site, there have been these beautiful little notes along with them and you just realize how much your community cares.
The opportunity comes together with the private foundation, with the newspaper, and with Victoria Foundation. How did you move that forward from the idea into the project that you were able to launch quickly? Who did you consult?
We consult with your staff team and board first. No board chair likes surprises. It’s making sure this is what we think we’re going to do. Do you feel it’s appropriate? The time from the moment we said, “We don’t even have a system to do this.” It took us about two days to figure that out. Within two days, the newspaper had launched this and we were there. The organizations were very quick to respond. I think we know those organizations well, two that are just doing so much work in our community. You can imagine some of the challenges for them. If you’re an organization that is housing people in need and feeding them. Because of the protocols around COVID-19, all of a sudden you need that social distancing. You’re going to have to remove some people. You’re in that moment of where you can create more homelessness. These funds that float out quickly have been such a huge help. They’re not small grants. These are $200,000. It’s making a huge impact on an organization at a time when it’s needing it the very most.
You have deep experience at investing in the community, but when you have funds coming in, you said funds in, funds out. How have you decided where those dollars are going to be directed to greatest purpose?
We figured that would be a time where we called together a group of community leaders. For instance, you needed someone from the Vancouver Island Health authority because in getting funds out to an organization, you want to make sure that they can receive them and that protocols are being followed. Other funding organizations might be getting requests too. We established a number of years in 2009 something we call a Funders Network. It’s calling people like that and someone from United Way. A group that could quickly look at these and just say, “Yes, this is what I’ve heard.” Our staff on the ground doing all the research bring those requests together and then this group looks at that, make recommendations and then our board approves all very quickly done but back out there right away. We’ve funded 34 organizations and that total comes to about $2.5 million. That’s already out there in the community.
That is a very powerful story to connect with donors who give to this fund and seeing that it’s already being distributed. I want to get your perspective on something there. You said that you went back to the Island Funders Network that started in 2009. You’re not a fundraising organization, but you’ve been working in the community building deep collaborations and partnerships over a long period of time. That work that you’ve been doing over all those years, is that what’s made this possible, knowing who to talk to, whether in the donor community or whether it’s in the social service agency community?Every crisis is different, but each one provides the social profit sector with opportunities and requires it to think a bit differently. Click To Tweet
That’s the strength of the community foundation. There’s that expression, “It takes a community foundation to build a community.” It’s the opposite. It takes a community to build a community foundation. You have to reach out there, understand your community. 2009 was a dreadful time when all the markets dropped. That’s when our foundation chose to introduce a program. We called it More Than Money. Listening to organizations coming out of a crisis like that, what they needed. That’s when we formed this funders network as well to say we all fund, is there a way that we can do this together in a smart way? The timing of our grants or what conversations have to take place. That’s what led us through the crisis of ‘09. Those contacts are in place. Some of the people may have changed, but it just means that there’s a group of people out there if you’re going to do something that they’re going to be a sounding board and very quickly put up their hands to say, “How can we help?”
We hear a lot about the need for innovation in the social profit sector and we need to be doing things differently as larger organizations, established organizations, and new organizations. We need to be doing things differently and we need to innovate. The scenario you described is innovation over a long period of time with a lot of hard work and a lot of authentic relationships. Do you view that as the innovation over time?
Yes and no. I say yes because I think that’s what we’ve lived through. I say no because every crisis, this one is very different. It’s nothing we’ve experienced before, but it provides opportunities and it requires us all to think a bit differently. Are there different ways that we can do that? The key to us has always been, who can we partner with? How do we become more of a strength by working together? We’re seeing that already, the kindness that is shown in the community and that has almost a domino effect. For instance, one of these smaller businesses and we fund registered charities. She had a place called the Accent Inn, but all these places closed.
She decides that she’ll open this to frontline workers that may need a rest or close time between shifts that have to isolate from their family. Also on her premise is a restaurant that is not able to pay its rent. She says, “Not to worry in these times. We’ll forgive your rent.” That that restaurant is feeding those healthcare workers in that motel. You start to see how people react differently, how the social service sector and people that want to volunteer. We’ve caught plumbing trucks delivering food to some of these organizations. People want to step into the space and say, “What can I do?” It’s that spirit and if you’re willing to work differently, you can break the mold and make things happen differently.
As you’ve gone through this and you’re sharing some great stories with us here and I’m sure there are many more. You mentioned you first had to consult your staff team and your board. What has the feedback been from your board as this initiative has been so successful? It’s so unlike what Victoria Foundation usually does. Are they uncomfortable? Are they proud?
I would say they are extremely proud and we keep them engaged. For instance, they’ve been given each a list of some of these top donors, some of these people we don’t know. They’re new to us for them to reach out and make a phone call and to say, “Thank you for your generosity.” Hopefully, they get into conversations with them about the foundation as we go forward to plan what does it look like once we get out of response mode. There’s probably feedback from those people too that can be taken and brought into the conversation. They’re saying thank you and they’re doing a little bit of research for us, but there’s a very strong board that is engaged in the community and there’s a close relationship between our board and our staff. We have a top drawer staff, which I’m very proud to be part of them. It’s just reflective of how we work in a community this size.
Is there a story or a person that has been particularly meaningful to you through this crisis?
It’s so many stories. I opened the paper and I was taken by the story of Silken Laumann who’s a four-time gold Olympian, stepping into the space to say her children have given to this fund. She and her husband have as well. She was stepping out, challenging us all talking about how we’ll get through this. That was impressive. There was one letter from a 96-year-old native Victorian to say that she was comfortable in her life and just wanted to give back and thank heavens that reminded her of days of old when these things were happening. Right down to little kids that they’ve emptied their piggy banks or sent little notes. There are such encouraging stories of kindness out there.
How much do you think the position of the community foundation helps in terms of collecting those stories or inspiring those individuals to step forward and make a gift?
When you tell those stories or have other people tell them, it also reaches out to other parts of the community to say collectively as a service club, “How can we be part of this?” It has created an eagerness to stand up for our community, put our arms around this and recognize that this is something that can be very helpful.
Back to your comment about Victoria Foundation not being a fundraising organization. Given the response that you have generated and the way that donors have responded to your call, is that something you’d look at changing in the future?
I think in a community this size with the sector, there isn’t a huge corporate sector. One of the reasons we haven’t fundraised is not to be a competition to them, but to be there, to support them, to make good grounds when it’s a very competitive field. There’s a lot that you can do in partnerships. Once this is over, who knows what that’ll look like. We’re always open to new ways of doing things. If we knew how long it was going to go on, that would be different too. My guess is some of these charities will return looking quite differently. Some of them may close down, some of them may join together, but it will be, what can we do to support the sector moving forward?
What does the response that you’ve seen tell you about the importance of the social profit sector?
This sector is amazing. What goes on in some of these organizations, the goodwill, the hard work. If ever you’ve volunteered in any of their food kitchens, you realize the commitment and the caring. This may get down to even like school programs where not all children have everything they need either. All of a sudden these schools are closed and people coming together to say, “How can we make sure those children and families are fed?” There’s a consciousness in the community. They listen to what’s going on and it’s their job to make sure that we understand as a community that we have 50,000 people here who are food insecure. How do we deal with that as a community? It’s times like this that they echo the needs and that we should be responding.
How important do you think it was that you had the private foundation partner as a part of this approach to the community? Was that validation or was that showing the importance of this issue?
I think a bit of both. They’re a well-known family, the Jawl family. They are known for giving back to the community and they just wanted to do this in partnership and their heart is into helping areas of homelessness, food security, children and women in need. They knew the community foundation engaged in this. They wanted to have a mechanism to get the story told. A willing newspaper and a willing TV station if you were looking at elements of or components of a good fundraising campaign, if this was actually planned to have that much press from your local newspaper and a TV station is incredible gifts that they’re both giving us. For him and their family, they feel this is the work that they should be doing. The community is being good to them as a family and now is their opportunity to step up and give back. I was proud of the steps that they took.
What lessons do you think we should take with us as a sector as we move from this crisis that you’ve done such an effective job of responding to in partnership with others? As we move from this crisis to recovery, what should the social profit sector learn?The social profit sector is absolutely amazing. In everything they do, you see the goodwill, the hard work, the commitment, the caring. Click To Tweet
We can’t take anything for granted, that’s for sure, but also to realize that this is a generous, thoughtful community. As we move forward into recovery is to looking out partnerships. Not everybody can be out fundraising all at once, but it’s also looking at how as a sector we act responsibly and work together. You can see that and also the role of technology for them. Many of them that’s shortcoming, their doors are closed and what they need is tools and funds for technology as well. Lots of work has a sector for us, but they should also stand tall for some of the innovation that we’re seeing to work, whether it’s the arts or whatever areas they’re trying to be creative and remain with their name out there. When recovery does come, it changed book for all of us.
Has there been anything in this pandemic and the response that has surprised you?
The amount of kindness that is being shown. The thoughtfulness and people trying to be respectful. The whole range of emotions that you hear people talking about. Every age group had a response to what this means to them and why they feel they should give back. I found that quite surprising.
I’m sure it’s very satisfying.
Absolutely, and very humbling.
In the midst of all of this, in the disrupted but very active work calendar, how are you looking after yourself?
For me, just spending a few moments every day and a little bit of gratitude saying your family’s healthy and that’s key to me. If you look around and our team and our board are healthy and think of all the things that you’ve got to be grateful for, it’s an opposite emotion of fear. Take a few minutes to be grateful every day is a good way to take care. Also, listening and reading positive things as well. Looking for spots of humor are always good. Speaking to a lot of people who are very courageous through all of this. I enjoy getting out there every night with my pots and pans on the deck, joining my neighbors out there. There are lots of good things.
A reminder to be grateful and that it is a counterbalance of fear is important not only for us as individuals, but as organizational leaders and board members who are reading this. Remembering that gratefulness and that optimism for the future is what is going to make the difference between those organizations that come through this crisis well and those that struggle. Sandy, thank you so much for making time to be on the show. We’ve been trying to have you on. I’m grateful to have you. Congratulations to all that you’ve done to galvanize and bring together the Victoria community.
Thank you for this opportunity. I appreciate it.
About Sandra Richardson
Prior to joining the Victoria Foundation as CEO in 2001, Sandra enjoyed a successful career in fund development in both Canada and the USA. Most recently, she worked for five years as Director of Development and Planned Giving with the Victoria Hospice & Palliative Care Foundation and prior to that as Director of Development for the Cleveland Playhouse/Cleveland Opera. Among her many professional endeavours, Sandra has been a member of the Canadian Association of Gift Planners (CAGP) for over 10 years and has been an integral part of the success of the CAGP Vancouver Island Roundtable, where she served as Chair for four years. She also served on the Board of Community Foundations of Canada for eight years and for six years was an active participant with the Transatlantic Community Foundation Network. Sandy has been recognized on many occasions for her achievements and for her distinguished service to the community, including being invited to enter the Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem (2007) and a recipient of the Royal Roads University Community Leadership Award (2008), Vancouver Island Public Relations Professional of the Year Award (2009), University of Victoria Distinguished Alumni Award (2010), Rotary Community Leadership Award (2011), Order of British Columbia (2016) and University of Victoria Honorary Doctor of Laws (2018).