Dr. Jane Goodall is the iconic and inspiring figure behind Jane Goodall Institute Canada. As the institute’s founder, she brought everyone to help build a better, more sustainable world through a community-centered conservation program. Turning hope into action is Bella Lam, the CEO of Jane Goodall Institute Canada, who takes us into her role in leading an organization so tightly connected to individuals. She also shares how telling big stories is important in an environmental movement. Bella also brings us into her leadership and how others could leap and navigate into a senior leadership role. Join Bella Lam to unravel the tapestry of today’s topic, and together, we’ll take action and inspire others to make a difference in our community.
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Jane Goodall Institute Canada With Bella Lam, CEO
It is a rare treat when I get to have a guest on that I know I’m going to get a lot of credibility with my children. I get to go home after that and say, “Guess who I talked to?” They’ll say, “Who?” I’ll say, “I spoke to Bella Lam.” Bella Lam is the CEO of the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. She is a veteran of the NGO sector in sustainable development and international cooperation. She goes deep in our conversation about what it is to lead an organization so she’s tightly connected to an individual, a celebrity, and a hero to so many.
She talks a lot about her journey moving from the program side through the organization into the CEO role and what it means for those individuals in our sector who are seeking to do the same thing moving from programming into the CEO. Bella is candid and funny. She does a great job of showing all of us what it’s like to be a part of the Jane Goodall Institute for Canada. You’re going to enjoy this conversation.
Welcome to the show, Bella.
Thank you for having me. I’m excited.
I have been looking forward to this conversation, not only because of the credibility that I have with my children for getting to talk to the head of the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada but also because of the great work that you and your colleagues do at the institute. Dr. Jane Goodall is a name that most of the readers know but the work of the institute may be a bit less unknown. Can you tell us a little bit about the work that the institute does around the world and also in Canada?
The Jane Goodall Institute of Canada is part of a global organization with chapters around the world. We’re committed to protecting wildlife, promoting locally-led conservation, and empowering communities to create a more just and sustainable future. We are addressing some of the most pressing issues that are facing our planet, like climate change, biodiversity loss, environment, and equity. The institute is part of Dr. Goodall’s legacy.
Our work is to carry out our founder’s mission to inspire hope, encourage compassion, and promote a deeper understanding that everything in the natural world, including humans, out of species and environment are all interconnected. For those who know Dr. Goodall’s work, we often get, “Aren’t you the chimps organization? Isn’t that the chimp lady?” Partially true. Chimpanzee protection and great apes conservation is a cornerstone of our programs in Sub-Saharan Africa but we’re so much more.
As Dr. Goodall’s message has evolved from her early start in 1960, her message is continuously to be relevant now. We also take a holistic approach. We combine science, relationships, storytelling, and policy to create a positive community-centered ecosystem that benefits animals, people, and the environment. In Canada, it also means engaging with taking the lens and perspective of our indigenous-led partners as they look at conservation through a very holistic lens and supporting and amplifying their voices.
When you mention a lot of the work that’s community-led, my head went to thinking about the work that the institute does in Canada and what that means around reconciliation and decolonization. That’s something that you and your colleague have invested a lot of energy in learning and exploring. How does that show up in the work of the institute?
It’s one of the biggest learning components and a journey in terms of learning how to do this work. We’ve spent a lot of energy looking at what decolonization looks like as a non-indigenous organization for the Jane Goodall Institute and how we show in this space. How that shows up in our work is by listening to our partners and learning from our mistakes. As we were starting to do this work with all the great intentions, we were trying to get out there and say, “This is what we should do.”
Over time, we learned to take a pause and listen to our partners. What is it that they want to do? What is it that we can add value? Showing up is changing the way we approach implementing programs and centering the voices of these indigenous-led organizations as much as we can. We’re still learning a lot. There are still things that we need to continue to do but that’s the biggest piece in terms of how we’re showing up. It’s not putting ourselves in there as like, “This is what we do,” but how we co-create something with our partners.
I remember the interviews we’ve had and our work here at the Discovery group with a number of organizations that are working with indigenous communities across Canada. It’s the instinct and instruction to listen first. One of the challenging things for a number of organizations is to listen and implement or act on what you’ve heard. Can you think of an example where you’ve changed your strategy or the work you’ve done as a result of those conversations?
One of the lessons that we have learned was in terms of putting together a program. One of our tasks is to try and get funding and resources to fund these programs. One thing that we’ve heard from our partners is, “You bring us in and your ‘partners’ but where do we fit in in terms of even at a proposal development?” Not once do we want to implement or bring them in but right from even thinking about a potential initiative. Where are we in that picture?
We’ve listened to a partner and are trying to look at proposal development to make it so that it’s a co-creation. Even being proactively going out to partners and saying, “What are some of the things that you want to get funding for and the things most valuable to you?” Instead of putting a template already that they have to fit in, we are trying to adapt and be that bridge between donor requirements and other external factors that may not have a relationship with indigenous partners building that bridge.
It is one of the things that the institute is known for, its engagement in community and certainly in Sub-Saharan Africa in working with chimpanzees as the visual the people have. I know you do. The institute around the world works with a lot of different communities that hyper-focus on community engagement and staying aligned globally as a network of organizations around the world. How do you balance those two things, a global perspective with local action?
It is something that we have many calls with our global families on. I’ve been on a number of global calls. It’s looking at having that common vision. We have an iconic founder and leader that provides that beacon. That’s a North Star. That’s what we’re trying to shoot for. Within that, we’re trying to carve out space for autonomy. A program that engages with young people in Canada may look very different than one in Singapore or France.Jane Goodall Institute Canada has an iconic founder and leader who provides that beacon and North Star we're trying to shoot for. Click To Tweet
It’s having that common vision but giving enough space for each chapter to find its voice so that we can apply those core principles. When it comes to implementing projects in our countries, that is in the right context. We feel like we cannot talk about sustainability and conservation in the Canadian context without addressing decolonization and reconciliation with indigenous peoples who have been doing the lens for thousands of years. That’s our context, which may not be the same in other countries. It’s a constant negotiation and dialogue. Quite frankly, sharing best practices. That’s one way we’ve been trying to get better at.
Are there times when you learn from what you hear? The Canadian context is unique. One of the things that I’ve learned in working in the sector for my whole career is we are all unique and that is what makes us the same. There’s a lot that we can learn from others. In those calls, when you’re hearing what’s happening in France or Singapore and the other examples that you used, are there things that you take from that and apply to the Canadian context?
One of the common threads that we can say is, “That worked in another country.” Sometimes, a country would be like, “We have these amazing events happening in our country,” whatever country that is. This is more like fundraising and public outreach. We are partnering with other NGOs in a country who are also focused on this event happening in that particular country and piggybacking on that because there’s already a lot of attention to it, and then trying to collaborate with other efforts that are happening that are on a joint campaign.
These are some of the things that we’re like, “That’s something we can also apply in Canada.” For the biodiversity conference, COP15 happened in Montreal. It was happening out of the backyard so we sent a youth delegation but we then listened to all the other chapters in terms of what they feel are the key messages when it comes to diversity that we want to put forward. We formed a working group and collected all these ideas. We came up with a statement that the Jane Goodall Institute in Canada was the one who presented it because it was happening in Canada but it was an effort globally.
That’s a great example. You hinted that a couple of times. You mentioned that iconic founder that you have, Dr. Jane Goodall. We’ve spoken with other leaders of organizations that have a famous living CEO. We had Farah Mohamed who’s the CEO of Prince’s Trust. There’s a tremendous benefit to that but there’s also some responsibilities and other things that come with that as well. What’s your experience been leading an organization with a highly recognizable founder who’s the face of the institute?
There are like anything else, pros and cons. It’s a double-edged sword. The amazing thing about having a founder who is so iconic is name recognition. I’m also trying not to get too absorbed with that because it’s so easy. I can tell you from those precious moments that we got to spend with Dr. Goodall when she was in Canada. It’s hard not to be starstruck because she is so iconic and inspiring. Although I have a team that I’m leading at the institute here. When I’m in her presence, I’m still learning new things from her.
It’s taking those moments where you have a living iconic figure and being able to use those opportunities to amplify current messages that are also the work of an institute because her platform is so much bigger. I find that it’s an opportunity for other organizations that may not have this iconic figure. At the same time, one of the things that we’re trying to drive home is Dr. Goodall’s amazing iconic work that she does. Her legacy is beyond herself. She’s the one who founded the institute. There is a reason why the work of the institute is so important.Take those moments where you have a living iconic figure and use those opportunities to amplify current messages. Click To Tweet
Continuously needing to separate the icon from the institute while linking it is almost like an oxymoron but in some ways, the name of the organization bears her name. At the same time, there’s a work of the institute that happens 24/7, day in and day out, even when Dr. Goodall’s not in Canada. That’s the challenge to get people to understand what the institute does and why that is important, as people have this natural fascination with Jane the person versus the institute, the body of work.
I’ve had the opportunity to meet Dr. Goodall a couple of times. She has an aura of a famous, I don’t know if it’s a religious figure, a rockstar, or a combination of both but the quiet strength that comes across is very compelling charisma. She’s amazing. She can’t be everywhere so the work of the institute has to be well beyond her as well. It must be an advantage when you have the opportunity to have her in Canada for fundraising and engagement.
It’s funny they say she can’t be everywhere, which is true but in some strange way, she does seem to be everywhere. She still travels, post-COVID, 300 days a year. She’s back to that schedule. In a very real sense, she’s in a lot of places. What’s amazing is that we have been able to tap into that. She’s still very much aware of her relevance in the world with some of the issues that you talk about. It’s not just about research back in 1960. Although, that’s groundbreaking.
That sets the stage for conservation and our understanding of animals and primates in a significant way. Her message and what she’s talking to us about, as we’re looking at strategy and what institution we should focus on, her voice is present. Anytime I have a chance to speak with her, it’s a gift. I treasure that. It energizes all of us when she does show up.
It’s a role and work that requires a lot of energy. One of the things that jumped out in preparing for our conversation and learning more about the institute was the issues you’re dealing with are so complex, interrelated, and gnarly issues. How do you communicate and keep the message clear, succinct, and simple when you’re talking about something that is so enormous and complex?
I can honestly say that it’s something that we grapple with day in and day out, especially when I speak with our marketing and cons staff. In the world of social media, where it’s a soundbite, we need to compete for attention for so many people and get the message out very succinctly. The blurb that I mentioned at the start of the episode is not a five-second message. It is complex.
Our audience and stakeholders are beginning to get that the message is these issues require a nuanced approach. As complex as they are, we are showing up to not water down that complexity because that’s not what’s required to solve the issues. It’s probably breaking it down to the community, which is very much Dr. Goodall’s message too though.
When you break it down, every individual matters. That’s her famous line. Every individual has a role to play. It’s up to us to decide what role that would be and what impact it will have. We’d rather be talking to a youth who wants to do whatever you are thinking of a program to our partners in Sub-Saharan Africa facing a very pressing issue such as zoonotic diseases.
We are saying that individually, there’s still a role for us to play. That’s how we make it so that it doesn’t become hopeless. The problem is so big and there are actions. Each action, big and small, does matter. The incremental steps as we look at a bigger picture with a losing side are small wins and we need to celebrate as well.
That fits so well with the concept of the institute that we talked about, the local action with the global alignment around the purpose of the organization. It is something we’ve seen happening over 2022. It’s that idea that complexity is a feature of our message. It is not a problem with our message, instead of trying to break it down and make it fit on a T-shirt.
It’s usually board members and their inner work that says, “We need to make it fit on a T-shirt.” That’s not helpful. Making it complex and with a feature of the message that you’re sharing across Canada and through the work of the institute, how is that resonating with people when you’re having those conversations and not trying to dumb it down or make it simple?
Storytelling and imagery are very powerful. One of the messages that we often would say at the institute and with Jane herself is painting the picture like a tapestry in terms of the ecosystem. One threat is connected to another. If you pull one, it’s going to unravel everything. Having the right imagery and telling the stories where we are telling the stories of our partners who are doing the work gives examples of solving or attacking issues head-on. That gives something people concrete to hang on to and something that does not become like a slogan or something that’s simple.
In those stories, when you unpack them, it’s where some people would ask us, “What does gender equality have to do with conservation?” We’ll tell a story. One of our staff in the DRC, her perspective on gender equality does matter because women at the front line are dealing with so many environmental issues. They are the advocates for us in our partnerships. They’ll be the first ones to make the idea work in the community.
These are all peeling back the onion but it’s having that story out that’s compelling and that invites a conversation. It’s like a multi-tier approach. They are people that you try first to get the message out to but we hope that these stakeholders eventually will get to know us. We have more than ten seconds to get the message across. There will be other opportunities when they have more questions or they ask me about something. We’re peeling back the onions, seeing how these things are all woven, and then painting that big picture piece by piece.
It is such an important step in environmental movement but across the social profit sector, to tell those big stories and talk about how interrelated so many of these issues are. One of the things you and your colleagues do so well is connect those big stories to the individual actions that individuals can take themselves. You don’t need to know all of the details or be able to paint that picture yourself but there are things that you can do.
I’m curious about the process of the big picture to individual action. How do you determine those actions that you’re going to have? Determine your call to action for people either their movement behavior and they’re going to do something in the community or their fundraising behavior and they’re going to make a gift. How do you connect those two?
It depends on the purpose of the call to action. We have some global campaigns that are focusing on some of our core issues with dealing with such as illegal wildlife trafficking. We have a campaign called Forever Wild. That implemented a number of chapters around. Those are more centered on our core messages campaigns and calls. When it comes to community actions and individual actions, that is the beauty of our youth program called Roots and Shoots.
The whole idea of it is that you decide what the action is, as long as the action is looking at animals, people, and the environment. It addresses those issues in any community, be it a public school, a suburb of Toronto, or a rural area in the North end of Saskatchewan. Those actions could be very different. Our message is that it’s okay because they’re locally led.
We’re encouraging them to think of the interconnectedness of these things and how they act. If you do one thing, how does it impact the others? Map and understand their community. That’s the beauty of it. You choose what action that speaks to you. That gives the communities and the individuals that agency. They own that project.
Agency leads to hope or hope leads to agency. They work well together. I want to talk a little bit about you. You’ve joined the organization in 2016. What was it that brought you to the work of the Jane Goodall Institute?
I’ve been working in sustainable development and a lot of answers are in Africa for over two decades. My academic background was in environment and development but up to the point of joining Jane Goodall Institute, it was more on community development, sustainable development, and international cooperation. I’ve always felt the need to incorporate a more holistic environmental piece and a conservation piece.
When the opportunity came up at the Jane Goodall Institute, I saw a job posting. Ironically, I took a year off sabbatical at that time. I happened to be in an elephant sanctuary doing a volunteer stint in Thailand when the opportunity came up. I felt the worlds were aligning. It’s meant to be so I put my name in the hat. This was where my mental space was at the time, shifting in terms of work. I’m still doing that global focus. I am shifting it more to align my passion for the environment as well as community development. The stars aligned at that moment when I got the call.
What a great first line in an interview, “I’m in an elephant sanctuary in Thailand.”
That was interesting because the CEO at the time was trying to call me and my phone wasn’t working. She finally sent me an email. I would have been slightly out of range. I was holding up my phone at the highest point at the sanctuary, trying to get a signal to connect home, when I saw the email. I quickly replied, “You can’t reach me because I’m in the North of Thailand but I will be back in the urban center in two weeks. Can we connect then?”
In 2022, you became the CEO. One of the things that is always fascinating to me in our sector is when you have people who have that mission, training, and expertise that come from the program side of organizations to do that work and they move into the CEO role. It works very well for most people but it is a very different role. What did you find were the differences in moving from your previous role as you became a CEO?
As cliché as it sounds, I don’t know what I don’t know. That was my first year. I started a lot of conversations with my team on that, particularly teams outside of the programs, fundraising, marketing, and finance teams. I leaned on them to educate me and set the preamble like, “Sorry if I’d be asking maybe what’s seemingly a stupid question. Honestly, I don’t know what I don’t know.” I’m going to ask and also open up the space to say, “Feel free to tell me even if I haven’t asked a question. If there’s something you think I should know, please inform me.”
In any learning curve, that’s the biggest change. I knew our programs inside and our mission but there’s this whole other aspect from fundraising to marketing. In finance, I knew quite a bit about needing to do the programs but still, there are lots of things I didn’t know on the finance part. It’s to start from step one again and be okay that I don’t have all the answers. One of the things I’m learning in my role is that it’s okay that I don’t have all the answers. I just need to know the people who have the answers and make sure they’re on my team. Luckily for me, they are.
Adding that level of fundraising and involvement in fundraising is a big step. How did you approach that? Were you nervous about being the face of the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada?
Yes, in terms of the anxiety about what that could mean and going back to knowing something well for a couple of decades to starting something that I don’t know as well. My team has told me that as well. Speak what you’re passionate about, be it in front of a donor or a stakeholder. It will resonate if it’s authentic. That’s how I’ve tried to approach it. Being on stage with Jane is always nerve-wracking.
Jane is so wonderful that she would calm my nerves. I remember my first time being on stage with her. Afterward, she said, “See? It’s like having a conversation.” It’s her casual approach to it and she’s done it billions of times. She’s such a pro but being able to be a mirror, reflecting off her energy, and going with that flow has helped in terms of presenting that face for the institute. For a lot of people, it’s authenticity. It works on me. When I see someone authentic, I hope I’m doing the same in terms of what I’m telling donors and explaining what we do.
It’s certainly coming through in our conversation very well. Over the course of these years, you’ve been going through that process. Do you have any advice for people who may be on the program side of their organization and may have hopes of one day making that transition to being the CEO or the executive director?
One of the important lessons I’ve learned is to make that leap into a more senior or leadership role. You have to think of putting the hat on the organization and not just your subject matter expertise. That’s what we discuss with a leadership team as well. Everyone’s there or gets to that table because they bring that expertise from whichever side of your organization.Make that leap into a more senior or leadership role. Put the hat on the organization and not just your subject matter expertise. Click To Tweet
At the leadership level, we need to transcend that and need to think across. If you’re in programs, it’s not just thinking about what’s best for programs. Programs are the core in terms of the mission of what we do but what do you bring to the table that will also help with fundraising, communicating that message, and helping me and some of our fiduciary demands? Have that mindset that is not just about your department. Think more holistically about, “How can I be a team player across those departments?” It’s something I’m continuously learning.
I like that framing of it, a holistic approach across the departments. We often see one of the traps for leaders making that transition, whether they come from fundraising or a program. When they move into the senior leadership role, they want to prove that they’re good at what they were good at/ They’re like, “Here’s my chance to show.”
In my case, I grew up as a fundraiser. When I first had an organization leadership role, in my first three months, I wanted to prove that I was a good fundraiser until someone tapped me on the shoulders like, “We know you’re good at that. That’s why you have this job. Do this job. Don’t worry about anything.” Being able to be comfortable with all of the ambiguity, the learning, and the not knowing that comes with those roles can be challenging.
If you’re learning and trusting your team, that would be the other thing. If you come from a program, you may want to say, “I know how to do that job,” but assuming that there will be somebody else doing that job. In your case, I’m sure you hired a good fundraiser to do the day-to-day fundraising as you take on the leadership role.
That’s the thing about allowing space for the people who are subject matter experts on that. That’s their main job. They’re allowing that space to be there as a resource and support but giving the agency to do what they do best. Some of it is getting out of the way a bit as well and knowing when to insert. For me, it is a relatively new role. I don’t mean to insert but it’s me saying, “Can I sit in on this meeting to understand what fundraising or marketing comes or anything that’s happening outside of where my comfort zone in programs is?”
Hopefully, no one said no to you when you asked that question.
Unless they have a secret meeting without me. The team has been fantastic and supportive.
As we’re coming nearly to the end of our conversation, my favorite question to ask our guests and the leaders in their sector is a simple one. What are you looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to having a team that continuously learns and learns how to support each other. I have two kids that are in university. In hindsight, what I didn’t take advantage of during my university years was learning for the sake of learning. What I’m looking forward to is learning. As for the organization and me as a leader, I’m excited about that and I’m looking forward to that. Continuously having that growth mindset, that we are learning as an organization, and all the leaders within the organization should have that mindset is what I look forward to the most because that’s when you discover new things and different ways of doing things.
You are able to connect things that haven’t been connected before. That’s great. Before you go, could you tell our audience where they can learn more about the Jane Goodall Institute?
You can find all of our information on our website, which is JaneGoodall.ca. If you go on there, you find out information about Jane, our next events, how you can get involved, and sign up for a newsletter to get updates.
Bella, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us on the show.
Thank you, Douglas. It has been wonderful speaking with you. You have great questions.