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Vantage Point With Zahra Esmail

By July 7th, 2023No Comments35 min read
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DSP 23 | Vantage Point

Building strong communities is key to driving better outcomes in the social profit sector. By bringing together essential partners, boards, and teams, we can create a unified force to make a meaningful impact in the world. In this episode, Zahra Esmail, the CEO of Vantage Point, shares her invaluable insights into leading communities in the social profit sector. Zahra emphasizes the importance of bringing the BC nonprofit community together and explores the creation of the BC nonprofit network. Zahra also provides advice for business leaders on how to bring together their team, their board, and their important partners to better serve their mission. Throughout the conversation, Zahra stresses the significance of community building and how it can drive better performance and outcomes for organizations. Join us as we learn from Zahra’s vast experience and knowledge of leading communities in the social profit sector. This is an episode you won’t want to miss, filled with valuable insights and inspiring ideas. Tune in now.

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Vantage Point With Zahra Esmail

In this episode, we have Zahra Esmail, the CEO of Vantage Point who shares her insights into leading communities and leading communities of organizations to hire and better performance in our social profit sector. Zahra talks a lot about the importance of the BC nonprofit community coming together, exploring the creation of the BC nonprofit network and also shares what it takes for organizational leaders to bring the community of their board, their team and their important essential partners together in service of their mission. Zahra uses the pronouns she, her and hers. Our conversation took place on the unseated territories of the Squamish people, what is now North Vancouver. Please enjoy my conversation with Zahra Esmail. I learned a lot and I know you will too.

Welcome, Zahra.

Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Zahra, we’ve been looking forward to this conversation. I want to jump right into it. Could you tell us about the great work that you and your colleagues at Vantage Point do and the service you provide to the nonprofit sector here in British Columbia?

Vantage Point is a nonprofit organization itself. Our purpose is to strengthen the capacity of other nonprofits across BC. We do this through a combination of education and consulting, primarily related to governance training, leadership training and a little bit related to financial management and fund development as well. We do consulting work with nonprofits related to strategic planning, organizational assessments, executive recruitment and assessment and a few other initiatives that way.

We also have a role in sector developments. We have a few subject matter-based peer networks. We’ve done a few research projects on the nonprofit sector, including our no immunity report and unraveling report, which came out during COVID to give a snapshot of the state of the sector and the challenges of the nonprofit sector, specifically during COVID. We’re exploring the development of a nonprofit network for the province. A lot of exciting things on the go but at its heart, Vantage Point is here to help strengthen and uplift the nonprofit sector in BC in the ways that are most appropriate for us to do.

For someone with that much on her plate, I’m sure our readers can see the smile as you run down that Vantage Point plays a critical role in helping a number of many organizations over the course of a given year. What are the typical organizations that are reaching out to Vantage Point for support?

We have a very wide variety of organizations that we work with. We say that our niche is small to medium-sized organizations. We do charge fees for our education and consulting work so we try to keep our fees at a place that’s going to be affordable for small to medium organizations. We have a bit of a sliding scale model so that if we do happen to work with a larger organization, we can charge a little more to help out those that don’t have as much of a budget in the future.

We’re trying to do what we can to be as equitable as we can and make ourselves available to organizations that would benefit from our services. We are a provincial organization as well so we’re very strategically trying to increase our relationships with organizations outside of Metro Vancouver, which tends to be where we have the strongest visibility.

How are you dealing with people who might suggest your organization sounds a little too Vancouver-centric?

We’re trying to hear them and listen to them. It’s funny. We’re thinking about the parallel between British Columbia vis-a-vis the rest of Canada. Many of us know how and what it feels like to have a sense that maybe we’re not centered in decision-making. I don’t particularly feel good about that when I feel most of the influence is coming from other parts of Canada.

We matter. We’re important. We’re trying to have that same sensitivity when we’re building relationships and working with organizations outside of Metro Vancouver. We see you. We value you. We want to come to you. We don’t expect you to always come to us. We want to get to know your neighborhood and your community. COVID in some ways made that easier for us to connect with people outside of Metro Vancouver because much of the work is over Zoom in addition to in-person.

For example, we have ED Unplugged, which is one of our peer networks. With COVID, people come to ED Unplugged. It’s a monthly group that meets. You see a nice mix of people from Vancouver and outside of Vancouver from all different parts of the province. We’re learning, growing and adapting. We’re probably not getting it all right but we’re doing our best and are open to feedback and suggestions as to how we can be more accessible and available.

Zahra, by reputation, you are known as someone who is a community builder and makes space for others, perhaps with your background in the Association of Neighborhood Houses but also as an orientation to the work. One of the questions about communities that we think a lot about here is the community around board tables in our sector. The essential role that board governance plays in enabling exceptional performance in organizations sometimes doesn’t work out quite well, diplomatic enough.

It can be such a powerful relationship between a staff team, the executive director or CEO and the board. If there’s not the right level of trust and understanding, it can be quite challenging and difficult. At Vantage point, we do what we can to try to help navigate those waters. One of our big focuses is helping to provide clarity about whose role is what and allowing organizations the space to think that we have a working board. Is this what we want? Do we have a governance board? Are we operating more as a working board?

Reflect and figure out maybe the way that some people are engaging, whether it be staff or board, is outside of the expectations of what everybody else is thinking that is happening here. If we talk about it, unpack it together and recommit to engaging in a way that everybody’s on the same page with, hopefully, the organization will be more successful because, for each party, their perspective is so important.

DSP 23 | Vantage Point

Vantage Point: The perspective of every party is important. If you all commit to engaging in a way that everybody lands on the same page, your organization will become more successful.

One of the issues that we are often looking for when we start a conversation with a board, even with a management team about the board, is the two code red concepts that we hear are control and in charge. Those are not words that we typically hear in organizations with well-aligned boards, control those power dynamics, maybe understood or have been articulated or are sufficiently buried that they don’t come up very often.

In organizations that are in trouble, that’s some of the first words out of either the board chair’s mouth or the executive director’s mouth point. How do you help organizations approach those issues? When it’s about control, there are usually two sides that feel fairly dug in. What’s your approach to helping people come out and see another way?

I’m quite wishing that my colleague, Maria Turnbull, who’s our associate ED, was on the call here because she’d be able to give some very good concrete examples. From my understanding of how we would approach that, it’s holding that space to have people talk and also providing some of that context about this is what governance can look like in these different iterations. We don’t do a lot of conflict resolution per se but through those conversations, a lot of whatever’s at the root of a conflict might come to the surface and it could allow the organization’s space to figure out how to move forward in a productive way.

We do support executive evaluation. Oftentimes that includes stakeholder interviews so that the board can also hear how the CEO or the ED is interacting with community members and staff. It’s not just about that board-ED relationship but also that the rest of the community can be brought into that a little bit and provide that context and framing as well about what might be working and what might not be working.

Another thing that we do is planning support. There’s clarity about what the organization’s working toward. It’s much easier to get people on the same page and figure out who should be wearing what hat to move that work forward. Sometimes when that strategic plan is not clear, it can feel a little bit more chaotic and difficult to understand how to align.

One of the concepts that we use is the idea of the crush of consensus. That can happen around board tables where everybody assumes their colleagues around the board table are thinking the same thing they are or have the same knowledge base or have the same view of whether we’re a working board or a governance board or primarily a governance board but we still do all the marketing. I like to talk about marketing so I’m going to talk about marketing. That crush of consensus forces people into a quiet acquiescence around the board table.

We often don’t hear the smartest and best advice from board members because they’re measuring themselves against their colleagues. One of the things that are important about managing that crush of consensus and that tendency for unthinking directions that happens in some boards is the importance of diversity around the board. Not just professionally but culturally and diversity in its broadest application. That’s something that Vantage Point has been leading with over the last number of years.

Maybe I’ll give you a challenge that we’re finding and tell me what the answer is. Although there are many organizations that say they want more diversity and inclusivity on their boards. We believe them. They genuinely say it and mean it. When it comes time to recruit board members, they’re still requiring us the specific level of experience or professional designation that historically hasn’t been available or hasn’t been as fully available to underrepresented groups.

They say, “We can’t find anyone so we’re going to do it the same way we’ve always done it.” It’s frustrating for everyone involved. How do you at Vantage Point or you as a leader, combat or deal with inconsistency between the state of desire and the expectations that prevent the desire from being realized?

I’m going to draw back on an old experience when I used to be the Executive Director of the South Vancouver Neighborhood House. That was my first time working with a board directly. 80% of the community that we served at South Van Neighborhood House were racialized people and 60% were newcomers approximately. That was a represented honor. It was a very concerted effort to make sure the same community South Van Neighborhood House was there for was in a decision-making capacity at the board table.

That’s very unique. That was my first direct experience but I recognized the value of that. When I was in the market looking for a new opportunity, one of the first things I would do is look at a board or a composition from what I could find on a website because it told me a little bit about where that organization might be in terms of their journey. Sometimes that’s an accurate way to assess things and sometimes it’s not.

It was a starting point for me as a racialized leader in terms of how much work it would be for me to try to pursue diversity, equity, inclusion and representation on boards at my next workplace. There are two things that have happened in the nonprofit sector in general and this is my opinion but there was this big push to try to diversify boards. There was this effort to recruit people who belong to equity-seeking communities but the boards themselves hadn’t necessarily done enough work to understand how to make space for different perspectives.

DSP 23 | Vantage Point

Vantage Point: In the nonprofit sector, there’s this big push to try to diversify boards. There was an effort to recruit equity-seeking people, but the boards themselves had not done enough work to understand how to make space for different points of view.

I have had that experience where I’ve gone onto a board and I’ve been made to feel or have felt that I’m expected to assimilate. I don’t think that if I bring things up that are a little different, I’m going to be perceived as ruffling feathers or making waves and not for the right reasons. I don’t think that this board understood what value different perspectives can have.

That’s a fast and easy way to get those people not to stick for there to be high attrition. If a board hasn’t done the work, they might look back and say, “This is why we can’t recruit people who are diverse because they don’t stick it out without thinking, ‘What is it about our culture that’s not accepting people the way that they are and as they come?’”

On the flip side, my mother is a retired nurse. She’s been in Canada since the ‘70s. She’s fluent in English and a professional woman. She has never felt that boards are for her. She lives here but those things are beyond her understanding or designed for other people. There’s a two-sided thing. First of all, some boards are not welcoming people the right way and some people are from diverse backgrounds and make assumptions that they’re not going to be welcomed and not going to be able to contribute well.

With that, what Vantage Point is trying to do, we’ve created some board diversity and inclusion workshops. We have part 1 and working on part 2, which is a very introductory workshop to help boards start to have that conversation about their culture, whether they’re looking for culture fits or culture adds. Those are very different. If you’re looking for people to fit into an existing culture, you’re probably not making space for a lot of diversity in that.

If your board is willing to hear, be agile and flexible and make that space to potentially shift what your culture looks like with the new people you’re bringing in, that’s a different journey. We’re trying to help through these workshops organizations have that self-reflection and get started to become a more inviting space for different folks to be able to join and feel they can meaningfully contribute to.

On the flip side of that, we’ve been inspired by programs like the SCOPE Project that’s run by Mosaic, which helps newcomers through a four-month training to build their knowledge, confidence and understanding of how boards work. There’s another program run by FORA Network, which is called Girls on Boards and it’s for young women up to the age of 24 also to learn how to get involved with boards.

Minerva has a similar program to help with prepping a new cohort of people to join boards. Vantage Point understands not everybody who applies to those more intensive programs can get into them. We’re working with those partners, learning from their experiences and creating a shorter series of half-day workshops.

It’s going to be either 1 or 2. They’re still in development but they’re for people from equity-seeking communities to be able to have a very friendly introduction to what is a board, what is the function of a board, what are the different types of boards and how can I, as a person from a diverse background, find my voice if I was to join a board. We don’t use the term fiduciary. It scares everybody and people retreat and run away because it’s a big, intimidating word, even the word governance is not an easy word to wrap our heads around, for anybody.

We’re designing that series of workshops with somebody like my old mother in mind. How do we create an opportunity for somebody like her to build confidence and understanding that she will feel like, “Maybe I can contribute as a leader at my senior center board of that organization.” That’s pretty exciting. We are still developing it. We’ll see where it is but we’re quite keen and excited about it.

It’s wonderful to hear the dual perspective there, both sides of that coin. I’m sure there are some inspiring stories that have already come out of that and many will come. I want to go back to the dynamic that you identified, organizations that are looking for cultural fit versus cultural add. I have a colleague here who does a lot of our executive searches.

His mantra is, “Fit is code for the same.” We don’t do searches to find fit. We do search to find leaders for our client organizations. I hadn’t heard the phrase for a cultural add before. For our readers, executive directors, CEOs or board members who are reading, for an organization that believes that they want to get this right, the intention is there.

Many of their colleagues are at the board table, maybe feeling more in that cultural fit mindset. We want people who care as much about it, the causes we do in a very similar way that we do. What is something that they can do to get started to be on that conversation or build that cultural add?

If there was somebody who belonged to an equity-seeking group that there was a relationship with trust with and if they were invited into that space, they’d be able to tell you pretty quickly whether or not they felt at ease there. Sometimes you got to ask. It takes some risk and maybe you have to be a bit vulnerable as a group to be willing to hear that feedback. We tend to be very defensive. All of us do.

I sit on a few boards. I’m not talking about anybody else necessarily. I’ll frame it around myself but you’re putting in your time as a volunteer. There’s a lot of passion and time, which is very precious that’s going into a cause. The idea that maybe we’re doing something wrong in terms of not creating that space for other people to join can trigger that defensiveness.

People are only on boards with the best of intentions but we’re not getting it quite right if they’re as homogenous as they are. It’s being able to park some of that natural knee-jerk defensiveness and sit back and say, “This is a learning opportunity.” If we want to live in a world where there are diverse voices that are empowered to contribute to our communities, how do we hold up a mirror and look at how we can make that easier for people?

People are only on boards with the best of intentions, but we're not getting it quite right if they're as homogenous as they are. Click To Tweet

That self-reflection is the first step. Inviting people in to give feedback might be a second step and truly allow the spaces to be humble. I’ve heard several times as well when organizations are working in emergency response that there’s a crisis on the line here. We don’t have time to hit pause and think of who’s at the table because we’ve got lives to save or whatever it is. It doesn’t have to be an either-or. The pace can be what works for the organization but the fact that it might be an urgent emergency response shouldn’t be used as an excuse to not put in this work to figure out what inclusivity might look like if it’s something an organization is deeply committed to.

What’s your impression about whether we’re making progress? Are we making progress?

I would like to believe so. I was reflecting with a friend of mine who’s a woman of color and she’s the executive director of an organization. When I moved back to Vancouver after living in Toronto for a few years as the ED of South Van Neighborhood House, I could count on one hand how many other racialized women were in ED or CEO positions.

When I look at it in 2023, I run out of fingers so it seems to be that there are more people of color who are being empowered or earning these positions, which is a great thing to see. I want to hope that the boards that they’re working with are supporting them to be successful. It’s such a new phenomenon, only time will tell.

There is a different level of support and wraparound that we need to feel like we can dismantle systemic racism in our organization, for example, as people of color. We can’t do that without supportive boards around us. I’ve talked to some people about this as well without even articulating that that’s a goal that I have.

It’s an expectation. People see a Brown woman come into a leadership role and they’re like, “This is my preconceived notion about what kind of leader you’re going to be and I’m expecting you, whether I say it or not, to make this organization better in ways related to EDI.” There is an added pressure that those boards need to be supporting organizations and leaders like me to get there. We can if we work together. I have to believe that.

I appreciate you sharing that. I’ve worked with leaders in the past who have resented that assumption. “I’m here to lead this organization for this purpose. Who I am, my culture and my gender is not on trial here or aren’t on my performance review and pushed back against it.” That was a challenging expectation. In this case, she was going to be more representative. She didn’t want to be and it was a trying time. It is that balance and understanding, both what organizations are looking for but also with the leaders, the individuals who are filling those leaderships or looking for.

I don’t think it’s necessarily fair because it’s never articulated but that added pressure can be felt many times. Figuring out how to bring that to the surface and have conversations about what diverse leadership wants, where we want to spend our energy and what we’re being compensated for is also important. That’s a topic for a whole other episode.

Having conversations about what diverse leadership wants, where we want to spend our energy, and what we're being compensated for is important. Click To Tweet

I’d love to float volleyballs up for you to spike in a conversation like that sometime. We find a lot of common ground. One of the things I’m optimistic about in our sector and I believe in the dynamic nature of our sector is people call it generational change. The boomers are retiring and moving out. What that means for our sector is that there will be new generational leaders, younger for the most part, more culturally diverse and aware. It’s only going to mean good things for our sector.

It’s going to mean good things for our fundraising and program development. If there’s anything that we can do to accelerate the process, not necessarily to push people into retirement, though in some cases it might be a good idea but as you say, “To support the new leaders that are coming in.” One of the biggest changes that we’ve seen through the pandemic period is the number of first-time executive directors is higher than I’ve ever seen in my more than 25 years in the sector and people taking on those leadership roles. How do we make sure those people can be successful?

That’s a big challenge for our whole sector. The turnover is an exciting thing. There are new opportunities and ways of thinking. On one hand, organizations are having a hard time finding those leaders to replace legacy leaders, who have been there for a long time. I’m noticing an increase in co-ED models and leadership shifting from 1 to 2 or even 3 people. There are a lot of interesting models that are coming up about shared leadership, which present new challenges because it’s not a tried and tested way of leading.

Having that curiosity and support from a board helps new leaders get it right. Also, a recognition that newer leaders are going to have different curiosities and learning curves. If they can’t be expected necessarily and nor would it be necessarily a good thing for them to do everything that their predecessor did because most of the time, their predecessor might have had decades of experience and have been used to doing things in a certain way that might have been working well but things may have to shift and adjust to thrive under new leadership. None of us can fill somebody else’s shoes in an exact way.

DSP 23 | Vantage Point

Vantage Point: There are a lot of interesting models about shared leadership that present new challenges because it is not a tried and tested way of leading. Having that curiosity and support from a board helps new leaders get it right.

Gold star for diplomacy. Zahra, that was very well done. One of my buttons is we can’t find leaders. No one can replace me or my generation and people who look like me. It drives me crazy because surely that’s always been the case in generational transitions. You feel like the kids don’t understand. They don’t have the experience and seasoning to be ready to take on these senior roles. Yet time and again in our sector, we’re seeing younger leaders, usually, women leading organizations to exceptional results weren’t happening.

They weren’t operating that way before. For boards that are feeling like, “We can’t find anybody or there’s no one to hire,” they’re not trying. They’re not open to it. If there’s anything we can do as sector leaders and people working with boards can do is to encourage that transition and find the capacity for leadership in people, rather than waiting for the demonstrated leadership and someone who’s been doing it for 5 or 10 years. Take the chance.

Give people time. They’re not going to be able to step in and know right away. I started working at an organization once and they asked me what my work plan was going to be in the first six months. I said, “My work plan is going to be to build relationships and get to know the culture of this organization.” What do you expect me to deliver in six months when I’m trying to get to know what’s going on here?

Patience and holding space for people to come in and learn and figure out how they can contribute are important. Oftentimes, they’re expected to start focusing on output when if you make decisions without having enough context and background, you’re going to cause a lot of harm unintentionally because you’re not well informed enough to make those decisions. I should talk about my organization a bit. I’m very bad about this. I enjoyed talking to people.

You’ve done a very good job and this would qualify as a commercial so far.

I’m glad to hear that but Vantage Point is well aware of the fact that a lot of people who work hard in our sector don’t necessarily have access to leadership training or management training. If you’ve put in the time and there’s a job that comes available, people from internal organizations should be given that opportunity to be promoted and move up. That’s part of the reason that we have such an emphasis in our training on essentials for new managers and leadership principles and other types of training to help emerging nonprofit leaders.

To build their skills and more than that, build their confidence so that when they step into those roles, they know how to deal with some conflict that might come up. They know how to engage in performance and some goal setting. For all of those things that don’t necessarily get passed on when people are in frontline capacities needs to be helping people understand how to build those skills. That’s one of the things that Vantage Point is trying to do. I hear a lot about Imposter syndrome. Skills can be taught but having that space for that confidence to build is critical.

We offer something called Exec Lab. It’s cohort-based. Part of that is for new leaders or leaders at various levels to come together and feel like they have peers that they can talk and learn. That confidence to go in and do the tough job of being a leader in an organization becomes a bit easier and more palatable. You know you’re not alone. All of us are making mistakes. In any sector that you’re in, people make mistakes all the time and that’s not something that should create a bunch of shame. That’s normal. We learn from it, move forward and do better next time, hopefully. That’s human.

In any sector, people make mistakes all the time. That's not something that should create shame because that is normal. We learn from it, move forward, and do better next time. Click To Tweet

I’m reminded of the first time I had the chance to be a CEO of an organization. I didn’t know how to read a balance sheet and I didn’t know the difference between a balance sheet and a profit and loss statement or an income statement. I had a board member who wasn’t the finance chair but a board member came and visited me after work at the end of his day, a couple of nights a week, for the first 4 or 5 weeks I was in the job and walked me through basic accounting and gave me the understanding of what to look for, what numbers to look for, always read the notes in the audit, worry about the numbers, read the notes and gave me a framework for how to ask questions about financial matters.

I’ve always been incredibly grateful for that because otherwise, as someone who grew up as a fundraiser and talking about top-line revenue and the expenses somebody else looks after and the CEO, you can’t approach your board that way. In that role, I had several mentors that helped me fill in the gaps. I feel very fortunate and surely, there’s a way that we can systemize this so that more people and executive directors and CEOs have that when they step into the role. That’s important and a great testament to the importance of the work that you do at Vantage Point. Let’s keep the commercial going.

Zahra, one of the things I’m interested in hearing more about is Vantage Point’s efforts around establishing the BC nonprofit network. I want to put in a plug that you call the Social Profit Network because we would like to talk about nonprofits. After all, a negative definition is ultimately limited. We’ll save that for afterward. The BC nonprofit network, tell us a little bit about what that is and the process that you and your colleagues have been going through to get it going.

I joined Vantage Point in December 2021. The board asked me to help them understand what Vantage Point’s role in sector development was. That was a lovely challenge and opportunity. The team and I started chatting with the organizations across the province and getting a sense of what was already happening and where there might be a potential gap that needed to be filled to help strengthen our sector.

At the heart of it, Vantage Point exists to strengthen nonprofits and our community across the province. We had this opportunity to figure out what the role of Vantage Point and the sector would be and where is there a gap that needs to be filled. Vantage Point was doing a few peer networks and we had done a bit of research along with some partners. We started to explore.

We started to talk to organizations in other parts of Canada, including the Ontario Nonprofit Network and Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations. We’re in touch with Impact organizations of Nova Scotia and Imagine Canada. It became very clear that there wasn’t a convener of the nonprofit sector in BC. We chatted with some of our funding partners and decided that the best thing to do would be to ask the community across the province, “Is this something that is of interest?”

Do organizations across BC think that there is a need for us to create a provincial network to support public policy, advocacy or at least the visibility of the sector as well? We decided to do a feasibility study. We did a series of community conversations with nonprofits in different regions and belonging to different sub-sectors across BC, a combination of in-person. We did go to a few regions for those in virtual conversations as well.

We wrapped up a survey. We want to hear from everybody about whether or not this is something that there’s a groundswell of support for because we can only build it if there’s a lot of interest. If this is something that the sector wants, that’s the only way it’ll be representative of the sector and the voices of the sector. That’s where we’re at. The survey’s wrapped up and we’re looking at the results of the survey to report back to everybody who participated and the community overall about what we learned, what we heard and what the appetite is for the sector to build a collective network.

I’m sure people are pretty hungry for that.

Some folks who work at more of an association or advocacy level are quite keen. Even looking at my experience when I was at the neighborhood house, sometimes it can be hard to understand how it can relate to the frontline work that an organization is dealing with, which is fair. Overall, there is quite a bit of excitement, interest and curiosity. Depending on the final results of this study and the report that comes from it, we’ll have an opportunity to reengage with the folks that we talk to and hopefully talk to more people to share back what we heard and get into the next phase, which would be the implementation plan.

That would engage with as many folks as want to talk to us about what the governance of that body would look like. Do we need an advisory? Do we need a steering committee? How should communication work? How do we make sure that all the voices that we need to hear from across the province are being engaged the right way?

When it’s all put together, what’s going to be different?

We look up to Ontario Nonprofit Network quite a bit. We’re very lucky that the team has been giving us advice about their process and how they function along with all the other provincial networks. In that way, we’re lucky we don’t have to necessarily create something brand new. It can be learning from our peers and counterparts and what’s worked and hasn’t worked. A couple of things, when COVID recovery was happening, there were all of these programs that were designed for other sectors of health and small businesses. Nonprofits didn’t even know if we would be able to qualify for some of the benefits that were coming out of the federal response.

It’s because we didn’t have a coordinated voice. We didn’t have a seat at that table to say what we needed. We had to sit and wait to see if some of these benefits that were being created for other stakeholders would apply to us. Part of what we want to be able to do is earn a seat at that table where we have a coordinated understanding of what it is that the nonprofit sector wants.

In terms of policy, advocacy and how to influence resource allocation, there’s a lot of beautiful research that’s coming from other networks about decent work and how to respond to the Lobbying Transparency Act, which has been quite difficult for nonprofits, trust-based philanthropy. There’s systemic racism in our sector and beyond.

There’s a lot of interesting thought leadership that could sit with the network and a continual research arm as well to do a periodic state of the sector so that we can build that research and see the trends in our sector over time. From what I understand, those two reports that I referenced, which Vantage Point led in 2020 and 2021 contributed to the creation of the parliamentary secretary for community development and non-profit position in government.

Having that research, we’ve been told time and time again that there’s power in research and numbers. If we can continue to increase the visibility of our sector through that type of initiative and demonstrate that we can coordinate ourselves and be clear about what we’re asking, decision-makers will be a bit more accountable. When we ourselves are a bit scattered or some sub-sectors might be asking for something and others asking for something else, there’s a bit of a push and pull. It’s hard for us to be able to pursue any real systemic change.

There are two parts that jump out at me. One is that transition from the scarcity mindset. There’s only a dollar that we all have to compete for. Do whatever you can to get your $0.15 and use your pebbles if necessary. It’s moving from that scarcity to more of an abundance mindset, thinking about our sector.

The other part and it’s been woven through your comments and our conversation is about the professionalization of our work. Not those of us that have made our careers in the sector be more professional than what we do and have the skills to do it better but it’s also being viewed as professional. The value that the people working in our sector contribute to their organizations and their community. That coordinated voice has an opportunity to elevate the view of the work that happens in our sector.

We’re not a sector that should be ignored. We contribute hugely to society and the community. I don’t like to think about a potential world where we can’t pay enough or our funding gets cut. We don’t have seniors programming, childcare centers or emergency response for people experiencing homelessness. Also, sports programs or arts programs.

We need every single one of those and other parts of the nonprofit service for our communities to be healthy. We should not allow ourselves to be an afterthought. We need to be able to take back our collective power and demonstrate to decision-makers and the community how we function and why we matter and not wave on. I like the world that we live in that has these services available and I don’t want to think about a world in which we are not as strong as we are. I want a world where we’re collectively stronger.

DSP 23 | Vantage Point

Vantage Point: We need to take back our collective power and show the community and decision-makers how we work and why we matter, and not just wave on. We mustn’t think about a world in which we are not as strong as we are. We must want a world where we’re collectively stronger.

You are the right person to be leading this conversation. I’m glad you’re with your colleagues at Vantage Point. I’ve got two questions for you as we come to the end. Our readers who’ve been following along in our conversation and those that know you either by reputation or personally know you’re someone that builds community and brings others along with you. That’s your reputation. I’m curious when you’re faced with a challenge, who do you go to for advice?

I have some wonderful mentors. I’m very lucky that I have quite a few very strong women leaders in my life that have taken me under their wing or allowed me the opportunity to learn from them and work with them. My board chair at Vantage Point is a wonderful sounding board, not just a sounding board but also a thought leader. We challenge each other in good ways. He helps me think about things to get to an outcome that’s going to support me and the organization as well. I also like to talk to my leadership team and my team in general at Vantage Point. We’re building it together.

It’s not always that easy but it’s having that humility, curiosity and ability to make the time to talk to people and understand what they want and how they want to contribute so that we are building something together. I don’t believe that any of this work will happen if we’re not engaging in the right way. Community development approach is quite embedded in me from the time that I used to work in international development in India.

I learned a lot through that experience. I feel that if we take a community development approach to the way that we interact and build community, we’ll hear the right things. We’ll make sure that everybody is included as much as they want to be and we’ll be able to build it together. I keep drawing back from Hillary Clinton. “I do believe we are stronger together.” I love that tagline. She didn’t win the election but we will win. We’re trying to build for a stronger sector. Fingers crossed anyway.

If we take a community development approach to the way we interact and build community, we'll hear the right things and make sure that everybody is included. Click To Tweet

Zahra, what are you looking forward to?

I have a daughter. Her name is Cyra. She’s delightful. I remember my parents were newcomers to Canada. When I started, my sisters are both taking the professional route. They’re both lawyers and I decided to take a different route. There was not a lot of encouragement for me to enter the nonprofit sector. There were a lot of question marks than concerns about my ability to have a good career and be able to survive in Vancouver. I can understand that and it’s because of our system. Nonprofits are not resourced the way that they need to be for us to be able to support a strong workforce in the future.

I mentioned my daughter. I would like to see a world in the future when she’s entering the workforce, where joining the nonprofit sector is something that people will encourage her to do. She’ll be able to earn a very solid living doing something that she does. She’ll be respected and will have stability. That’s my goal, not just for Cyra but for the whole future generation. I want us to do a better job influencing the systems that we work under to bring in that equity and the respect that we deserve as a sector. Set the stage for our kids to do a good job with that.

Zahra, you’re doing a wonderful job of bringing that future to reality. I thank you for taking the time to share your expertise and perspective with us here on the show.

Thank you so much, Doug. This was a blast. I had a good time chatting with you.


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About Zahra Esmail

DSP 23 | Vantage PointZahra Esmail is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) for Vantage Point, which provides training and capacity building support to non-profit organizations across BC. She has worked in the not-for-profit sector for over 15 years with experience in international development, housing and homelessness, community development, youth entrepreneurship, fundraising, and microfinance. She has a master’s in globalization and international development from the University of Ottawa, a bachelor’s in history from UBC, and an associate certificate in fundraising management from BCIT.

Zahra sits on the board of Lookout Foundation, Cuso International and Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society, and is a member of the Honorary Governor’s Council of Vancouver Foundation. She is the Chair of BC’s Poverty Reduction Advisory Committee, an independent committee that advises government on policy developments related to poverty reduction and prevention. Zahra was recognized as one of Business in Vancouver’s Forty Under 40 in 2019 and was nominated for a Women of Distinction Award in the Non-Profit category in 2022. She lives in Vancouver with her husband, vibrant 8-year-old daughter, and very affectionate cat.