Created by the Houssian family in 2005, The Houssian Foundation in Vancouver is one of the few private foundations publicly involved in trust-based philanthropy. Douglas Nelson chats with Executive Director Mira Oreck, who talks about the process and legalities of acquiring grants and the major lessons they learned along the way that made them a better organization. She talks about the foundation’s three portfolios and how they help raise awareness about society’s most pressing issues, particularly gender justice. Mira also shares insights about the negative stories and the common challenges surrounding the social profit sector.
Listen to the podcast here
The Houssian Foundation With Mira Oreck, Executive Director
In this episode, we have Mira Oreck. She is the Executive Director of The Houssian Foundation based in Vancouver, British Columbia. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to get inside the mind of an important family foundation funder, what it’s like to hear firsthand the strategies, tactics, and concepts that are applied daily at a large family foundation, you’re going to want to read this.
Mira shares the foundation’s commitment to advancing gender equality, mental sustainability, and community resilience to grant-making and impact investing. She talks about the journey that the foundation has been on and, as a call to action for other foundations, to join them in a new way of looking at the work of the philanthropic sector in general. Please enjoy my conversation with Mira Oreck.
Thanks for having me.
Mira, it is so great to have you on the show. We’re looking forward to diving into your story and the story of the organization that you represent. First, can you tell her audience a little bit about The Houssian Foundation, what it is, what its mission is, and who you serve?
Thanks so much. I’m here as the Executive Director of The Houssian Foundation, which is a local foundation based in Vancouver on the unceded territory of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh people. It is a foundation that has existed for many years. However, a few years ago, the family decided that they wanted to grow the foundation and professionalize it. I’ve been in this world for a few years. I’m the first executive director of the foundation.
It’s governed by two generations of the Houssian family and we focus primarily on three areas. We have two larger portfolios focused on the environment specific to BC. We have a gender equality portfolio that’s national and has a small international component. We also have a smaller community-based portfolio that’s focused on Metro Vancouver and the Sea-to-Sky.
The Houssian Foundation is one of the few private foundations that is publicly stated or is actively been involved in trust-based philanthropy. This has been something we’ve seen a lot in community foundations and it’s an active part of the Community Foundation Movement. How does that apply to your work at The Houssian Foundation?
I’m in the very fortunate position of having a board that is interested in this kind of approach to philanthropy and also that isn’t trying to turn an old ship. Many family foundations, even community foundations or corporate foundations, were set up at a time when philanthropy was more centered on itself or had a different relationship to their partners. However, because we only professionalized a few years ago, we were in a position to respond to where the sector was at.
Also, the nonprofit sector, for a very long time, has been calling out philanthropy about the challenges of the way that business has been done. We chose to respond to that and based a lot of our initial policies on the movement toward trust-based philanthropy. I can talk about how I feel like we’ve made progress on that and where there’s more progress to go.
I am curious about that because that is a big step for a lot of foundations. We’ve worked with a number of private foundations and family foundations through our work here at The Discovery Group with very good intentions around sharing power and supporting equity in the community. We want to do trust-based philanthropy, but we want to be able to direct it a little bit. That little bit varies depending on the foundation. What was the process or the learning curve like with the same foundation as you moved along this trust-based philanthropy journey?
First of all, I feel like it’s important to state right off the bat that you could only be so trust-based when the power dynamic is what it is. We hold the funds and others are asking for it. There’s an implicit power dynamic at play. What we’re trying to do is make this better and reduce harm. That’s, in my view, the floor and everything about that is important but still, the very nature of philanthropy challenges concepts of equity.
For the board, which is two generations of the family, it made a lot of sense. The board in and of themselves have expertise in certain areas that we work in, but apart from our chair, we are not deeply steeped in the nonprofit sector and do not spend decades on all the issues that we work on. In the same way that they wanted to have the foundation professionally run, we want to seek the expertise of those who are closest to the work at hand to help direct the work.
One of the first things that we determined was the idea of giving general operating funds and saying, “You need an engine to run the organization. We’re going to give you money and you figure out how best to put it to use for the mission of your work.” Multi-year general operating funds are something we hope many more foundations begin to provide, and they are. We’re responding to others who led before us.
Progress and success in funding the general operating funds or operating costs of a lot of these organizations is not a smooth road. Some work better than others. How have you taken stock along the way with those grants that have been successful and those that maybe were an opportunity for learning?
When I started, there had been a history of granting for fifteen years, but there was no formal grant agreement. I felt that there was no mistake. There was no wrong grant. What we were looking to do was learn with our partners about how we wanted to be in a relationship together. We look at budgets, but we don’t base grants on how much administration and what percentages. We look at the impact of the work. That’s all done in a relational way.
There’s no grant reporting that’s written. I don’t ask for quantifiable numbers. We do one learning call a year, myself and the ED or the CEO of the organization. Together, we learn about the impact of the work. We ask for feedback as founders. What can we do better? We ask specifically about the way that the work is shining, where it’s struggling, and how we can better support. Those are the kinds of questions that we’re asking. We’re not looking for how many meals were served.
I’m curious how you have learned to uphold your end of that once-a-year learning conversation because I assume that there’s been some wisdom gained along the way over the last few years.
They’re my favorite weeks of the year by far. I do them a couple of times a year because we have a couple of different grant cycles a year. They’re great conversations. They’re about an hour and a half long. I’ve learned not to do them in person because I tend to socialize way too much and it’s hard to not just want to talk. We send the questions in advance. We’ve adapted the questions over time and we get feedback from our grantee. They did one.
The grantee said, “I don’t like the question about where we faltered or not met our goals because every day, we provide these services. We’re meeting our goals.” It’s their feedback. When we’re at the point where our grantee partners are giving us honest feedback in that way, I feel like we’re making progress. I will say that when I started to do these, they were less common and there was a gender dynamic at play. Typically, women love them and often ask if they could share their screens and provide graphs for me.
When I said, “No. That’s not what I’m looking for,” that was hard for people. I’ve had to say, “You have to be at a desk for these calls and not out for a walk.” I want to be casual, but they’re still accountable. There’s been things. I’ve also learned about how to report back to my board and how to be accountable to the grantee partners and share what we’ve learned. There’s been a lot of learning along the way.
Thank you for sharing that. I don’t have any graphs to show you, but certainly with the number of executive directors and CEOs that we work with, a few names and faces came to mind when you shared that.
On philanthropy, it’s on the founders as much as it is on EDs because the philanthropic sector has demanded and required that for so long that I understand people want to feel they’re accountable and doing well with the funds. I don’t say it in a diminishing way. It’s another culture shift.
Staying in that realm of gender, The Houssian Foundation has been a real leader when it comes to gender justice and it’s a big part of the work that you’re leading. Can you talk a little bit about the initiatives that you’ve been involved with and how you’ve led in this area?
I commend the Houssian family for having a gender justice portfolio. It’s something I’m proud of. I would say it’s the area of work that I find the most humbling. There are so few philanthropic foundations in Canada that explicitly have a gender justice portfolio, including community foundations. Also, because we have these two very different portfolios that should be intersecting but aren’t entirely of the environment and gender equality, I’m able to observe the differences.
Not a lot of money goes to climate work in Canada, but significantly less goes to gender equality. When you look at what are the issues that are worsening over time, many of them are related to gender justice. What we fund primarily is feminist movements. That means supporting the organizations that are doing work on the ground year-round that are able to respond to issues as they emerge.Not a lot of money goes to climate work in Canada, but significantly less goes to gender equality. Many worsening issues over time are often related to gender justice. Click To Tweet
That’s everything from the care economy. We fund some of the universal childcare work. We fund reproductive justice organizations. At this time, we’re very aware that reproductive rights and access are not to be taken for granted. We fund women’s leadership. We have funded a fair bit of work against gender-based violence. We fund some LGBTQIA2S organizations and work.
It’s quite a diverse portfolio. As I said, this portfolio has a small International component. We are one and only Canadian funders of FRIDA, the Young Feminist Fund, and the Urgent Action Fund, which is a rapid response funder of the equality fund. I’m quite proud of this emerging portfolio.
It is remarkable. The Houssian Foundation stands out as a funder in this area. We had the executive director of Planned Parenthood Toronto on as a guest. One of the challenges that she shared was the challenge of finding that consistent funding for the work that they’re doing on a day-to-day basis. Also, there is a response to crisis or response to headlines that drives revenue that supports them for a while, but there are long stretches where those funds aren’t available and it is a scramble.
We fund the equivalent in BC options. Largely, they’re doing the work of the government. They’re providing services on behalf of all of us. They’re unable to do a lot of the more nimble work of advocating for the issues that they’re providing services for. What we hope our funding does is enable them to also work to change policy. Seeing the free contraception policy change in BC was a big success that we hope is replicated across the country.
It was a big news story and we were working with a couple of organizations that were involved in those conversations at the time. Two weeks before it’s announced, it’s controversial and delicate. When it was announced, “Obviously, this is what we’re doing. Everybody else should do it,” to me, it underscored the reality that there isn’t enough attention on these issues as it relates to gender equality in our sector. When steps can be made that are obvious in hindsight but revolutionary when they were first taken, it says to me we’ve got a gap in where we’re spending our time and focus in the social profit sector
Also, who’s around the table and who’s been around the table. That’s changing. I would argue that most gender justice work is obvious once it’s implemented because it addresses basic needs.
The Houssian Foundation has been a leader in this area as we’ve said. One of the other things that jumped out at me in getting ready for our conversation was you do have those three clear areas that you shared. That is not always typical for family foundations to have three distinct areas that are consistently applied throughout the granting cycle over a period of years. As the first professional executive director of the foundation, what has that process been like to both develop those areas and to stick to those areas when I’m sure there are opportunities to grant in lots of areas outside of your chosen scope?
I want to respond quickly to your comment about leadership. I feel like we’re newer to this on gender justice and we’ve followed so many before us, particularly in the States but all over the world and in Canada as well. I wanted to make mention of that. Arriving at our strategic vision, as you can imagine, was not simple. I always say I commend the Houssians who are an amazing family and genuinely like each other. If I had to make these kinds of decisions with my siblings, I’d struggle.
It’s a privilege that they’re in, but it’s also not a simple position. It was a long process to even get to the point of determining that we wanted to have a strategy. It felt very important to me to have a strategy because if you don’t have a strategy, it’s very hard to appreciate any kind of impact. We went through about a year-long process. We worked with some consultants and spent a lot of time, not existential time on values but reflecting on where the Houssian had given the past. Also, what kind of areas of work they wanted to be working on.
Honestly, I think the areas will likely narrow over time. There will be not so much change, but as you get deeper into this work, you start to think about zooming in. Once you’re further zoomed in, you have a chance to have a greater impact on that, and that can both be on the issues themselves, looking at specifically the transportation sector or the building sector and climate. Also, it could be in the way that funding. One of the things we’re starting to explore is what it would look like to in any way democratize a family foundation and bring other decision-makers around the table. That can also change the way that your strategy is implemented. There is a lot of room to grow.
There’s a lot of attention being paid to all foundations, private foundations in particular across Canada with new regulations around disbursement quotas and those kinds of issues. How has The Houssian Foundation approached these changes in this new level of scrutiny for the sector in general?
It’s excellent, the distribution quota. First of all, The Houssian Foundation does look at the capital of its foundation and seeks to have a 100% impact. Whereas, many foundations are previously sitting on capital and imagining 3.5% of it being put to use and then investing it in ways that would harm the way they’ve put it to use. The Houssians as a board, before I arrived, made the decision that they wanted the investments of the foundation to be mission-aligned.
I give them a lot of credit for that and there’s been a lot of work on that from people who have been working with us on our investments. I feel very strongly about the importance of it both in terms of having impact investments but also looking at the investments overall. The increase from 3.5% to 5% helps to get at least a deeper impact in the community and, hopefully, in communities that haven’t previously been served by the philanthropic sector. That’s something that as we get deeper into our granting and our relationship to being professional funders, we’ll be able to start to analyze who is giving funds, too, and how they’re being applied.
The Houssian Foundation is among more than a handful of other organizations that are showing a path or walking the talk in terms of both professionalizing trust-based philanthropy and how you are managing the funds you have to invest for the foundation. Why do you think so many of the stories about our sector are negative about the foundations that aren’t getting things quite right or haven’t taken a deep look that your foundation?
There’s rightful attention on the philanthropic sector to be accountable to someone. I support that. Given the exasperation of inequality in Canada, it’s right for people to ask what are all these funds doing that are getting a tax break, how they are being used, and who they are given to. To not pay attention to that would be to not evolve the work.
The more that people demand transparency, the better the work is for everyone and the better the impact of it. I’m not making in any way excuses, but some of this is a capacity issue that there are foundations that don’t have staff and aren’t being published to whom they’re giving funds, but the data is all public and it should be. The more that foundations can offer that up for others to see, the better.
You talk about the scrutiny or the look at the philanthropic sector in general. When we look at the broader social profit sector, what are some of the common challenges that you’re hearing from your grantees?
In the past couple of years, we’ve heard a lot about the labor shortage and the challenges in wages. It’s both the challenges and the labor shortage overall and connected to that is how people are paid for the work that they do. There’s been some important analysis on that. In the climate sector, we see that interestingly because, for the first time in many years, governments are starting to pull people from First Nations. Also, the Canadian provincial and federal governments are starting to pull people from the nonprofit sector to apply their policy analysis to the major changes that are happening. However, the private sector is starting to pull some of from some our grantees like David Suzuki, Clean Energy Canada, and others to implement the policy. This is a good thing, but it means that salaries need to increase in the nonprofit sector in order to keep up with competitors.
In the frontline services sector, which we fund a fair bit of, you see the trauma that people have been experiencing on the ground through the opioid crisis, gender-based violence, and COVID. The burnout is very high and the work is extremely challenging. The turnover is perpetual. There needs to be a deeper analysis of how much people are making and how well they’re supported in that work. We hear a lot about that.There needs to be a deeper analysis into how much people are making and how well they are supported. Click To Tweet
It’s such a frequent thing that we hear in working with organizations, especially social services organizations. It is wages, as you identified. It’s also the challenge of being on the emotionally traumatic edge of the consequences of a lot of factors. The pandemic is one that may have exacerbated things. We talk to a lot of executive directors and CEOs about, “How do I keep my team? At the same time, how do I protect my team and how do we deliver more services to more people who need them with a budget that’s flat?” There aren’t enough magic wands to go around. Your point about needing to spend more time focusing on the inherent structure of our sector is an important one.
Thanks to leaders like the Atkins Foundation and others, we started to explore and increase our grants to inflation or at least give a bump given the rise in inflation. That’s something that could be explored over time. If you think about someone who’s getting a $30,000 grant year after year, it means less over time. It depreciates. That’s an area that funders could look at as well.
I want to pivot a little bit away from the work of The Houssian Foundation and talk a little bit about your journey to being the executive director. It’s a very common thing for leaders in our sector to have started out on a very different path and then stumbled into the social profits sector. Based on your track record and your career history, I’m not sure which it is for you, but how did you come to being in the social profit sector? Is this something that you envisioned yourself as you set out?
I’m very heart-driven so I wouldn’t say that I sat out for one thing or another, and I mean that. I follow both the leadership that I’m called to and issues that I’m interested in working on. When I graduated from McGill many years ago, I moved to Washington, DC. I had gone to summer camp in the States and had a lot of American friends. I had this desire. I don’t know why.
I didn’t, at the time, identify as explicitly a political person but I moved to Washington, DC, and worked for Friends of the Earth. I was doing development work there. I was there over 9/11. It shaped my perspective of how and when policy moves and when it doesn’t. My career was varied. I came back and worked on the Great Bear Rainforest campaign. After that, I got involved in politics. I see the work that I’ve done as all connected and one issue moves into the other.
When I lived in New York, I spent some time working at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which you can imagine is a very different view of the philanthropic sector. It was good. It was an excellent one to have. I remember the time thinking. “This is great work. At another point in my career, I want to do it.” I was still very much wanting to work on the ground and I still miss working on the ground. When I left the previous office, I was looking for a different vantage point for similar work. I didn’t know the Houssians before I started this role. It’s been a great bit.
I imagine that the transition between advocacy and movement work into politics all flows together. What was it like in those first few days as you’re on the funding side of the table at The Houssian Foundation? Did it feel like an extension or were these new muscles that you needed to tune?
It’s both/and. When I lived in New York, so many people I knew went from movement and advocacy work to becoming funders because they were the experts in the work. Funders very much wanted that because you know who the players are. At the same time, it is different. You have to be conscious of the role you play as a funder. It was a little bit less different because I had come from a role in government where there is also a power dynamic, but it’s different. Working for a family foundation is its own thing. There has been lots of growth and I don’t, by any stretch, claim to be an expert in any of this. We are learning as we go and I hope I always am.
It would be boring if you just knew the answer. I can’t imagine how you could do this work and think you knew the answer. If you could go back and look back over your time at the foundation, is there something that you know now that you wish you had known then?
I would say one of the big learning for me in this work, which you don’t learn in politics, is that there’s a cadence to the work and that sometimes it can’t all happen all at once. When you’re trying to bring a set of you know group of people along together on an issue, you have to work at the pace of trust. That’s important because I work with a family. I would say that I had to learn that fairly quickly as we started, but it’s been an important learning for me to keep in mind along the way.
It is like that moving at the pace of trust, which as a funder is very true as well.
We’ve seen the ways that we’ve built trust and had to build trust over time.
Mira, you’ve had a lot of very senior and interesting experiences in your career. You’ve been there for a while now. When you’re having a hard day, who do you go to for advice?
I’m so lucky. I’ve had remarkable mentors throughout my career. I would say that these days, my board chair and I talk a lot. She’s both a friend and a mentor to me in different ways. Also, I go to people who work in different sectors who come from different vantage points. My husband has a different perspective than I do. My political mentors have very different perspectives. I try and go to people who will challenge me, and that’s been helpful.
As we come to the end of our conversation, I get to ask my favorite question, Mira, which is, what are you looking forward to?
I feel like the foundation, we’re just out of our infancy and I feel very excited for what’s to come in the years ahead because we’re going to do a lot more engagement work with our grantees. We want to think about the sectors that we’re working with and the ways that we can have an impact. We will likely grow. There’s a generational shift happening. There’s so much possibility that lies ahead. I feel honored to be in this role and to work with the grantees and the investment partners that we do. I’m very fortunate.
Before you go, tell our audience how they can learn more about the work at The Houssian Foundation.
Thank you, Mira, for being a part of the show.
Thanks so much for having me.