Granting wishes isn’t just about creating moments; it’s about igniting a lifetime of hope, one heartfelt dream at a time. Join us in exploring Make-A-Wish Canada with Christie Buono, the dedicated Chapter Director of BC & Yukon. In this episode, Christie shares her magical journey from the high-stakes world of sports marketing to the heartwarming and impactful field of social profit. Christie opens up about her experiences, the stories that have touched her heart, and the transformational work of Make-A-Wish Canada. You’ll hear how the organization brings joy and hope to children facing critical illnesses and how it impacts not only the wish recipients but their families and communities as well. Christie reminds us that sometimes, the most powerful moments of impact happen when we least expect them. Tune in, be moved, and discover how one individual’s commitment can make a world of difference.
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Make-A-Wish With Christie Buono, Chapter Director
In this episode, we have Christie Buono. Christie is the Chapter Director of BC and Yukon for Make-A-Wish Canada. In our conversation, she talks about her lifelong commitment to giving back to the community that she learned from her father, Wally Buono, a famous coach. He’s very famous with my parents, so my parents are going to tune in twice to this episode.
Christie talks about the great work that takes place at Make-A-Wish Canada, what it’s to come in as the leader of a 40-year startup, her perspective on making the transition from the private sector into our social profit sector, and what she’s learned over her year in her new role. If you’re interested in what it takes to go from starting out in our sector to leading an important organization, you’re going to be interested in my conversation with Christie Buono.
Welcome to The Discovery Pod, Christie.
Thank you so much. I’m grateful to be here.
It is good to have you here. I’m looking forward to learning more about your career and your journey in the social profit sector. Let’s start with your organization, Make-A-Wish Foundation. Many people probably believe that they know what it is, but what is it exactly and who does it serve?
At Make-A-Wish Canada, we grant life-changing wishes for kids facing critical illness. We’re excited. We’re celebrating 40 years. We actually started here in BC. We’ve granted up to 38,500 wishes in our 40-year span. It’s something we’re very proud of.
That’s great. Make-A-Wish has an interesting structural organization. It’s structured a little differently than many social profit organizations. Tell us a little bit about how it’s all put together.
We merged with another organization in 2019 called Children’s Wish. We merged under the Make-A-Wish umbrella and became one entity and a nationalized organization. We still wanted to make sure that we stayed connected with the local community. We do have thirteen chapters that serve Make-A-Wish Canada. I lead the BC & Yukon chapter and I’m very honored to be part of the organization.
How do all of the chapters connect and coordinate?
We are constantly working on processes. Sometimes you feel you’re building and flying the plane at the same time. We have a great CEO who leads us. Meaghan Stovel McKnight has done an excellent job at bringing in the right people and also including some of our legacy team. Collaboration is a big piece of our organization. We have a lot of Microsoft Teams and Outlook and try to streamline processes and build great initiatives across the country that can serve these kids.
Are there particular areas of the work that are the same across the country and some that are different or that differences jump out?
Every chapter is different. Certain initiatives serve different chapters, and some do better than others. You have to know your audience. You have to know the people that you’re serving. One thing that we created in 2023 that I’m proud of and I know the organization is, is our Women For Wishes Campaign. It’s something that we’ve actually collaborated with across the country. It’s 100 women that we partnered with from coast to coast to help us raise $1 million in 2023. I’m proud to say that in six months, we had 134 women sign up and raised over $1,064,000 which is incredible. That’s something we’re very proud of.You really have to know your audience. You have to know the people that you're serving. Click To Tweet
That is remarkable. You’re coming up on your first anniversary as Chapter Director, so you’ve got it all figured out now after a year?
What was the first month like? When you look back over this year, what do you wish you knew then that you know now?
I tell this to a lot of people who are transitioning roles. Take some time to rest. Take some time to come prepared with an open mind and fresh energy. I think it was good timing. I was able to come in. I was able to see things clearly. I was given autonomy by my regional VP to come in and assess things. For me, it was about spending time with the people in the chapter who’s been there. I can’t come in and assume I know everything. You have to spend some time listening and figuring out what matters to them. Where are their strengths? Where are some of the operating plans that are not serving us? Understanding that what helped in the past may not help us for our future. Not being afraid to make those decisions and moving forward there.
As someone who’s so deeply connected to sport both through family and professionally, I’m curious, in stepping in as a new leader of the chapter, how did you approach working with the team there and assessing both the team and what you can accomplish together?
I’ve been fortunate to grow up in a family with two strong leaders, my mom and my dad, assessing teams and being in sports myself at a very high level. You are as good as the people around you. For me, it’s about finding motivated and high-performing team members who want to go the extra mile and who want to be there, but also understanding where their strengths are. Trying to dig deep and learn about what motivates them and where they want to grow, spending time coaching them. People know that I speak in sports metaphors all the time, but I do use a lot of my sports analogies in how I lead the team. We are as good as we work as a unit, and that’s where we get the most success. It’s not about me. It’s not about the individual. It’s about us as a collective group.
As a new leader, you can come in, you say that, and I’m sure it’s quite effective. Maybe they don’t apply it specifically to your current organization, but not everybody responds to the “We’re all in this together” message. As a leader, how do you make space for everyone on your team to play the role where they’re going to add the most value?
The most important thing for me is finding people who are true to themselves. I try to lead. I’m very people-centric. I try to lead authentically. I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily the most polished person, but I lead with my heart. I lead by example. I want people to be different. I want them to come and bring their unique experiences. I want them to bring their ideas forward.
We may not always decide to go with that route, but I want to create a psychologically safe space where they can share where they want to go in some of their ideas. Sometimes as leaders, we’re not on the ground. We’re not hearing what certain communities want or certain families want. Being cognizant of spending time listening, and then allowing people the freedom to be themselves, knowing that we’re all moving towards the same common goal.
You have a very interesting background both professionally and personally. Your father, Wally Buono is a recognized figure in the sports world, but he is also well-known for his work in the community and for supporting many causes. You may know my parents are great fans of the Calgary Saint Peter’s and cheered along with him for many years. They wanted me to mention that while we were having this conversation.
I appreciate the support, and I know he would too.
Thanks, mom and dad. Growing up in not only the football life but also in that community service life, can you talk a little bit about your first memories of giving back and the values that got instilled in you as you grew up with your father who’s so involved in the community?
My dad grew up in very humble beginnings, so he doesn’t take anything for granted. For us, it was always about doing things as a family. My mom set the bar high. If we want to see my dad and we want to be involved, then we got to be involved and all in. That was the same thing with the community initiatives. My biggest memory growing up is an organization called Samaritan’s Purse, where they had Operation Christmas Child.
We were able to pick an age group as each of us kids. We would go out and buy the gifts, buy the needs for these children, wrap them up as a family, and then send them off to the kids in need. Being able to watch your parents give back in big ways and small ways was something that landed with me. I’ve always wanted to make a positive and meaningful impact that’s measurable and meaningful to me.
You’re certainly doing that through your work now, and you’ve done it through your work previously. You started your career working in sports marketing and did that for a number of years, and then moved into the social profit sector. I’m curious about what you learned during the times in professional sports that you’re able to apply to the work that you do on a daily basis in the social profit sector.
I say this all the time for people who are building teams. Don’t be afraid to look outside the nonprofit space because there are a lot of transferable skills. One of the things that I’m proud of is building relationships that stand the test of time. Whether you’re in a nonprofit or for-profit space and you’re dealing with clients, they’re not transactional people. They want to build a relationship with you. They want you to get to know them. They want you to understand what matters to them and go the extra mile. That’s something that I’ve always prided myself on.Don't be afraid to look outside the nonprofit space because there's a lot of transferable skills. Click To Tweet
It’s something that I’ve adopted in the nonprofit space too. It’s something I preach to the team too. There are ways that we can differentiate ourselves based on the work we do, but also how we treat the donors, the volunteers, the families, and the Wish kids. Going above and beyond is something that I’ve worked hard with. I get my work ethic from my dad, so that’s something that I transferred. You want to be the hardest working for me. When you’re fueled by passion and connected to causes that are meaningful for you, that’s a natural fit.
In the work that you do, being relationship-focused and human-focused is critically important in our work here at the Discovery Group. We’re with leaders who are relationship-focused primarily because of the sector that we’re all in collectively. There are some that do focus on the transaction, that hard quantifiable measurement. I think there’s room for both in leadership in our sector. How do you balance that quality of relationship versus the more quantitative measures of the work that you do at your current organization or in your past roles?
Probably no surprise, I’m very competitive. Although we have 13 chapters in the region, I want to be number 1. Part of that is you are measured by numbers. Understanding that that’s part of your role and aligning yourself with people who want to support you and also want to support your organization is critical. What I tell the team is, “At the end of the day, I want you to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and be proud of the work that you’ve done. Have you put everything into it? Have you done the best that you could in terms of representing the organization and representing yourself? Have you done the asks?”Aligning yourself with people who want to support you and also want to support your organization is critical. Click To Tweet
If you can look at yourself and say, “I did the best that I could,” whether we hit the targets or not, that’s important to me. Are we moving in the right direction? For me, a big thing is celebrating the wins. Nonprofit is a grind, just like sales in any sort of for-profit, it’s a grind. Whether you like it or not, that’s part of the nature. Again, growing up in a sports family, my mom and our family celebrated the small wins. You have a lot of losing when you’re in a football family, so you have to find wins and celebrate those things. I tried to incorporate that with the team. Celebrating those milestones and celebrating the wins helps keep us going.
Your team is not just the staff members that are a part of your chapter at Make-A-Wish Canada, it’s also a significant number of volunteers. One of the things that we’ve heard from many organizations, certainly it’s been talked about on earlier editions of The Discovery Pod, is this trend towards lesser volunteerism and the decrease in the number of volunteers and the amount of hours that volunteers can contribute. Are you seeing that in your organization? How are you addressing the challenges that present for Make-A-Wish Canada?
I’d be lying to you if we didn’t see that. I’m proud of the organization because we are doing a revamp of bringing in new pieces and new leaders to support our volunteer programs and trying to put pieces in place to get people back and involved. Sometimes that’s getting out in the community yourselves and letting them know that there are opportunities.
For us as a group, we’re essentially a 40-year startup, which is exciting for me. We’re trying to get out in the community as much as possible, connect with those people, and give them an avenue to volunteer where they can. Also, finding what matters to them in the volunteer space. Sometimes it’s with Wish families. Sometimes it’s at events. Sometimes it’s administrative stuff. Having that one-to-one contact and building relationships with people within your region goes a long way.
Personalizing that experience for volunteers as much as possible. I’m going to bite on something you said. What are the characteristics of a 40-year startup?
I love it. I didn’t think I was as entrepreneurial as I thought. This whole work-from-home thing, I was like, “No way. I’d never want to do that.” We do a hybrid model, which I love. A 40-year startup is you’re building the plane and flying it at the same time. You have to be agile. You have to be flexible. You have to be strategic in the direction that you’re going and understand that sometimes processes need to be put in place, and sometimes you have to pivot. I think having the flexibility and the leadership of also having ownership in your chapters of the direction you want to go, but then everyone reaching that common goal. It’s wild, but I absolutely love it. I think we work very fast but also we work smart. That’s the most important thing.
One of the characteristics that I think of when I think of a startup is an organization that doesn’t have the, “We’ve tried that before” or “This is the way we always do it.” I’m sure in any organization that’s been around for 40 years, there are some elements of that. As a new leader who’s dynamic and competitive, how do you react or how do you deal with it when you hear “That’s not the way we do it here” or “We tried that once before and it didn’t work?”
Specifically in my chapter, people have been open to change and eager to try new things. I’ve been trying to think strategically and showcase that innovation isn’t a scary thing, it’s actually exciting. Also giving them the space of, “The first year, there’s a few things. Let’s try.” You come into a plan that’s already been in place. I came in Q2, and you have to respect what was put in at the time, and then evaluate if that’s helpful for you to move into your future.
Keeping that open dialogue and transparency amongst the team of, “Is this working? Are we getting as much as we can out of this? Are there other areas we can focus our time and energy on?” I’ve appreciated the team that I’m working with because change is not easy. Sometimes it can be a little bit unnerving, but they’re trusting me and they’re starting to see the results of the direction that we’re going.
As we’ve talked about you spent some years in sports marketing with the BC Lions, then you spent some time at BC Women’s Foundation, and now, at Make-A-Wish Canada. I’m curious what the differences were or whether there are differences between a significant institutional organization like BC Women’s Foundation compared to Make-A-Wish Canada, which is seemingly more grassroots and more volunteer-led.
I’m not sure I would agree that it is grassroots. I think there are components of that, but I think being a nationalized organization, we want to be a strong contender for the health charity spaces. We have big goals. We want to raise $100 million within our strategic plan. We want to grant our wishes and we want to be awesome. That means rolling out new systems and processes for the organization as a whole. Healthcare fundraising taught me so much there. I’ve never done healthcare fundraising before. I figured that if I could do healthcare fundraising, I could do anything because women’s health is not a niche. There is a full spectrum of what women’s health is.
I appreciate the opportunity that I got there. I grew within the organization. I built a department in our community partnerships, which was what I was brought in for, and then eventually led the marketing for the foundation. Some of the things that I learned there and we built there, I have applied to the chapter here. I want to bring some of those levels of excellence to the Make-A-Wish department and our chapter. I appreciate that our leadership is forward-thinking. They’re not stuck in the past. Yes, you want to assess and you want to respect where the organizations come from, but you’re not afraid to try new things and be a little bit more innovative. That excites me.
That’s exciting. It sounds like you’re exactly at the right spot.
It’s interesting because moving from profit to non-profit sports, which I knew, I could talk football until I’m blue in the face, and then you move into an organization where you have no idea. You don’t have as many resources. I feel like I was in a very different place from when I started women’s to where I started Make-A-Wish. Being able to come in with a clear mind and clear heart, and to be able to build some great momentum within our chapter is something I’m very proud of and I’m excited to continue.
It’s an interesting thing, an organization like Make-A-Wish. I’m interested in how you answer this or how you correct my perception of this. It’s an organization where people think they know exactly what it is. We know what it is. It’s a single one-time event where a child in their family goes to Disneyland, meets a sports hero or entertainer, and has a wonderful time as a part of a critical illness that the child in that family is managing. That’s the end of it. It’s a nice experience. Can you talk a little bit about what it means in a family and what it means for your organization to fulfill a wish?
One of the things that I have heard more and more as I get to know the families that we serve is critical illness doesn’t just affect these kids. It affects the families. It affects their communities. The research that we’re doing is not nice to have. It’s a need to have, and be able to give these kids joy, hope, and opportunity for them to essentially fight for. It’s the memories that you can’t quantify. People assume that Make-A-Wish Canada is about children with terminal illnesses but it’s actually working with kids with critical illness.
Unfortunately, we do have kids who do pass away, which is very difficult, and kids who thrive after their wishes. Those stories blow me away on both sides of how the power of a wish has changed their life and the trajectory of the family’s life. It’s been an incredible ride. It’s been an incredible organization to see the work that we do. One of the things that I’ve appreciated about the organization is it isn’t just a one-time transaction. When these kids get referred, we have an incredible mission team across the country that sits down with these kids. They get to the core of what these kids want and try to create something that’s meaningful for them.
The wishes don’t just happen tomorrow. Sometimes it’s a year or it’s two years. It all depends on the wish and the resources. We journey with them from start to finish. One thing I love is that relationship piece where there are wish families who come back and donate to us. They volunteer with us. They have kids who want to contribute to fundraising campaigns. We try to create a program where we can stay involved in the families and create a great source of alumni who support the work that we do and share their stories. I can share my experiences with Make-A-Wish, but hearing directly from the families and the kids, the impact that these wishes have had is transformational for sure.
Is there one wish in your time that has stood out as being that exemplar of what Make-A-Wish Canada is all about?
I’ll give you a wish that wasn’t necessarily with Make-A-Wish, but it was what inspired me to join Make-A-Wish. It was transformational in my life. As you mentioned, my dad was in football. He’s very famous for cutting Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson before he was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. People seem to think that we know him because there’s been exchanges on social media or whatnot. One day, my dad got a call from his old teammate from the Montreal Alouettes. He said, “My daughter is dying of terminal cancer and her dream is to meet Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. This was before Make-A-Wish wasn’t even on my radar. He said, “Is there anything you can do?”
My dad called me up because I helped him with his social media, his PR, and whatnot. I said, “You know what I mean? I have no idea. We’ve never been able to get ahold of him, but let’s put it out there in the social community and see what happens.” Long story short, we were able to get ahold of the production company. They came back saying, “We’d love to help. What do you need?” Dwayne was in the middle of filming, so the guy was busy. He committed to doing a five-minute personalized video for Kim at the time.
I was working back and forth with the family trying to get information about Kim, working with the production company. During that time, Kim’s health was declining quite rapidly. So much so that she was refusing to see people. If you’re dealing with people with critical illness and whatnot, that’s not a good sign. We knew we were running out of time. We finally received the video and he did an outstanding job. Just so personal, so candid, and very authentic. We were scrambling and trying to get this video to her. We finally were able to get her best friend to go in and show the video to Kim.
I’m emotional whenever I tell this story. She filmed Kim because I think they wanted for me to send it back to Dwayne. Just for a moment, Kim who was literally on her deathbed, was able to have joy and a momentary break from probes, prods, and hospitals. She was laughing and she watched it over and over again. It was so transformational for me. Unfortunately, three days later, Kim passed away. On the fourth day, this role became available and I was like, I feel like it was so serendipitous. The universe and Kim were guiding me to continue this work because I was so changed by that experience of being a small part of being able to provide her and her family memories and joy. That was something that inspired me.
Thanks for sharing that. That’s a powerful story. It makes clear the purpose of Make-A-Wish Canada and the great work that you and your colleagues do there. As we come to the end of our conversation, I’m curious. It’s my favorite question to ask leaders in our sector. Christie, what are you looking forward to?
The first year is always a bit of a whirlwind. I was telling my team when we had our first meeting of our fiscal of, “We are so more advanced now than where we were when I started.” I’m super excited to see how the community has responded. I’m so excited to see the incredible work that we’re doing across the country, the wishes that we’re granting, and the families that we’re having. I’m looking forward to continuing the momentum. There are things that we came in second or first in some of the initiatives across the country. I want to elevate that and get out and meet as many people as possible and help as many families as possible. I’m excited to continue the momentum because I know we’ve worked hard as an organization and a chapter to revamp a lot of things and hit the ground running for the new year.
Christie, it has been remarkable watching your growth as a leader in our sector. Anyone who follows you on LinkedIn and other social media knows that you’re very good at sharing your journey. I appreciate you sharing more of that journey with us here today. Before I let you go, can you tell our audience how they can learn more about Make-A-Wish Canada?
You can go to our website at MakeAWish.ca. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. I love meeting new people. I love sharing the work that we’re doing across the country. There are so many ways to get involved, whether you’re here in BC or all the way out in PEI. We’d love to partner with you in some ways, so feel free to reach out. Thank you guys so much for having me. It’s meaningful for me to be able to spend some time with you and share about the incredible work that we do and something that I’m very passionate about. It’s been a pleasure to be here.
It’s inspiring to hear your story. Thanks for being here.
Thanks so much.