Nicola Wealth supports a wide range of causes through partnerships and individual donations. By actively promoting a culture of giving back, they created a strong commitment to social good through its various initiatives and dedication to empowering others to become impactful. In this episode, Teresa Virani, the Executive Director of Nicola Wealth, discusses the three main pillars of Nicola Wealth, the significance of corporate philanthropy, and the changes it has undergone. She emphasizes the importance of presenting a positive story to attract attention and donations for their cause and sheds light on how Nicola Wealth collaborates with the organizations it supports. Be inspired by her words to make a positive impact in the world and work towards a brighter future for all. Tune in to this episode with Teresa Virani and discover Nicola Wealth’s approach to giving back.
Listen to the podcast here
Nicola Wealth With Teresa Virani, Executive Director, Philanthropy
In this episode, we have Teresa Virani. Teresa is the Executive Director of Philanthropy at Nicola Wealth Management, where she’s responsible for bringing Nicola Wealth’s philanthropic vision to life. Her current focus lies in synergizing Nicola Wealth Private Giving Foundation, corporate giving, and philanthropic sponsorships, aiming to amplify that firm’s strategic charitable giving and social impact.
In our conversation, Teresa talks about the role of corporate philanthropy, how it’s changing, how Nicola Wealth looks to partner with organizations that it supports and moves closer to a world where no one is left behind. We also spend a fair bit of time talking about the importance of organizations telling a positive story to drive attention and donations to their cause. If you’re working with corporate donations, if you’re working with donors who have donor-advised funds, you’re going to want to listen to this great episode with Teresa Verani. Welcome, Teresa.
Teresa, it is great to have you on the Discovery Pod. I know you recently started in your new role, and we’ll get into that in a minute. Could you please tell our audience first about Nicola Wealth as an organization, who it does, and who you serve?
Nicola Wealth is an independent wealth management firm. It serves the needs of institutions and foundations, high-net-worth individuals, and families. Now, the firm manages over 15 billion in assets for clients across Canada. We have advisors in BC, Alberta, and Ontario. That’s what we do as an organization.
In terms of being a socially responsible organization, Nicola Wealth has been setting a very high bar for quite a long time. Where does this commitment to philanthropy stem from? How did it get started into the firm and what does it look like now?
It stems right from the beginning of the company. Nicola Wealth is deeply rooted in giving back and it does shape who we are. We’re committed to creating positive change in our communities. We want to be part of our communities. Whether that’s through corporate giving, our private giving foundation, or our sponsorships, one of our values is sharing the pie. It’s the cornerstone of who we are at Nicola. It’s built into how we run our business and how we contribute to our communities. It’s not something that we talk about. It is what we do and it is woven right into the fabric of the organization.
It is something that sets Nicola Wealth apart in that the commitment to giving back isn’t something off to the side or isn’t in addition to core business. It is integrated into that core business. Why don’t we talk a little bit about that now? Philanthropy at Nicola Wealth has three pillars. You’ve got the Private Giving Foundation, Nicola Wealth Gives Back, and sponsorships. Can you talk a little bit about each of those pillars and the role that they play?
The Nicola Wealth Private Giving Foundation is a separate registered charity. We manage donor advised funds, which are an increasingly popular way for individuals and families to give to charitable causes. It provides people with a tax-efficient, flexible, and efficient way to support the causes that they care about. You give into your donor-advised fund, and then you are able to give to charities as you go through your due diligence if you have set times that you want to give. That’s the Private Giving Foundation.
Nicola Wealth Gives Back. It’s staff-driven. It has a focus on social equity and wellbeing. We support charitable organizations and enables people to build sustainable lives. We align our resources with our values, and we are committed to affecting positive change through that group. It started grassroots as a committee of team members who wanted to fundraise together and give back together. Now, it’s grown into this committee that are able to make some pretty big changes and to make some big investments to partners.
Our third pillar is our sponsorship. We have philanthropic sponsorships and partnerships. We are always looking for ways that our giving back can lead to tangible and transformative changes. Building community is essential to our core values, as I said. What we’re trying to do is foster partnerships help our communities and advance their access to important resources. That’s something that we do through all of those three pillars.We always look for ways to give back that lead to tangible and transformative changes in building community. Click To Tweet
That’s quite a lot of activity all wrapped into one answer. It must keep you very busy during the day.
Each of those pillars has their own teams porting each of them. The role that I’m coming into is, how do we bring all those different activities together and align them and be more strategic with our impact? That’s the exciting opportunity that I have ahead of me.
Tell a single story from many different chapters across the organization. It’s interesting. You’ve got a broad scope. Certainly, the donor-advised funds because it’s very broad in terms of the impact that those funds may support. A lot of social profit organizations are revisiting how they operate and rethinking the relationship between the donor and the funder. How does Nicola Wealth approach philanthropy and what role does it see itself in shaping that changing and giving landscape?
I think what we’re trying to do is come at it from a point of view that we need to rethink the traditional approach to philanthropy and embrace the new approach. Increasingly, the problems that we have in our world are pretty complex. We do see some different solutions in collaborative philanthropy. Looking at how we can work together with our clients, with our charitable partners, and come together to start tackling some of these big issues. I was at a film screening last night of the film, Uncharitable, which is an amazing and inspiring film. It throws light on some of the ways that the unfair standards we hold charities to in terms of overhead and things like that.
I think what we’re trying to do is lean heavily into trust-based philanthropy and build relationships with their charitable partners. They know what they’re doing. They know the work that they need to do way better than we could ever do. That’s not what we do for a living. Building out those partnerships and believing in their processes and the work that they’re doing, we track impact. It’s very much focusing on the impact that organizations are having rather than the details of how they’re spending their money.
When you say it like that, it seems obvious, but it’s not obvious for all donors. It’s certainly not a lot of corporate donors who are very much focused on inputs and less on outputs or outcomes for their corporate philanthropy. Where does that commitment to that trust-based philanthropy come from at Nicola Wealth? How did it get started?
I’m fairly new, so as I’ve come in, what I’ve seen is that real belief. We want to support the charities that we work with and we are building partnerships, we are building relationships. It’s embedded in. I wouldn’t say as yet that it’s a fully formalized practice that we have, but it’s something that we are trying to embrace. Part of our remit with the team is building out a framework of how we give, where we give, how we measure impact, and doing that due diligence and doing a lot of the heavy lifting ourselves. That’s something that we’re bringing into the work that we’re doing.
One of the other interests that trust-based philanthropy is a trend that we see across the sector and particularly led by community foundations. The other trend that seems to be driving a lot of giving or challenging a lot of giving is that urgency of the immediate need to address problems now versus the longer term, “How do we solve these problems down the road?” How does Nicola Wealth balance these two conflicting priorities of the need of now versus the long-term social solutions?
It’s definitely something that is an important balance. It’s something that we’re conscious of as we’re building out our roadmap. Even with 2023 and all the things that happened, UNHCR, more than 110 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide. This is an increasing, more and more humanitarian crisis around the world. One of the things we’re trying to figure out is how we balance the challenges people are facing now. How do we support people to be safe? How do we still make sure we’re working on the longer-term issues so that we can have long-lasting change?
We definitely don’t have the answers yet. I’m not sure. It pretty does, but it’s an area that we’re learning about at the moment and making sure that we’re conscious of that balance. There are immediate or urgent needs and we certainly don’t want to ignore those. We’re very active in supporting people in crisis. We also want to make sure we’re supporting some of those getting to the root causes of some of these issues that we face.
It’s not an either/or. It’s a both. Finding that balance of where you want to be, where you feel like you can make the biggest differences is a challenge for all donors and certainly for corporate donors who are wanting to have that meaningful impact and to have it represent the work that they do as a firm. There is a healthy tension there. Do you feel that tension in your role?
Yeah, obviously as humans, we’re always compelled to give. When you see somebody suffering, you want to help. There is that tension of the immediate need. I think part of what we’re doing right now is getting clear on where we give, how we give, and what our impact goals are. Once we have that framework built out, it will be much clearer for us in terms of how we respond, when we respond, and how we act.
That clarity of purpose goes a long way for guiding you through that. One of the other balances we’re seeing in a lot of corporate funding, which I think is fascinating from the perspective of the organizations that are applying for funding or seeking that funding, is that tension between trust-based philanthropy, you know best, the very reasonable commitment to, we want to measure the outcomes of the giving that we’re making. How do you measure and assess the impact of the gifts or the investments that you make?
One thing that is part of what we’re doing at the moment is building out an evaluation framework that we can use. One of the principles of trust-based philanthropy is not that you don’t do due diligence, but that you do it yourself. There are a lot of resources available. The focus, as I said, is not on overhead and where people are spending money on. That’s not a tool that I personally believe is a valuable one. I think it’s more around measuring that impact. Working with our partners, asking them what their goals are, checking in with them on what the progress that they’re making towards those goals, and making sure that they’re sharing their learnings along the way.
We all learn from the things that work and we also learn from the things that don’t work. Building trust-based is already becoming an overly used term. At the event, someone was talking about relationship-based partnership, so it’s evolving and language is one of those things, but I think that we’re in the early stages of building out that evaluation framework.
We want to make sure that what we are focusing on is there’s a lot of information available we can find out how. We need to do our due diligence. We need to make sure that where we’re giving is appropriate and that we’ve done all of that work in advance, but it’s not putting unnecessary burdens on charities to report back on metrics that we deem to be important. I think we would only partner with people that we’ve done enough research and we feel good about the fact that this is the impact they’re having and that aligns with what we’re trying to do.
The way you phrase that is powerful. Trust-based philanthropy is not less rigorous in some way. It’s where the burden of doing the due diligence rest is shifting to more on the funder side than it has traditionally been in letting those who know how to do their work and serve their purpose, spend more time doing that.
It’s one of those things that seems so obvious when you say it. When you talk to colleagues or others in the corporate philanthropic space, what do you hear as a pushback against that?
The pushback is, how do you do that in a scalable way? I think it’s not easy to go. You couldn’t go that deep on every single charity. There are 86,000 charities in Canada, so that’s not something that you’re able to do. I think it’s starting with getting clear about what we’re trying to do, understanding the issues, getting a deeper understanding of what the problem is and what some realistic solutions might be. I think the only thing is how scalable is that? I don’t think I’ve heard anybody as yet again five months in, but I haven’t had anyone other than, “How do you scale that kind of a model?” You wouldn’t go that deep. It’s when we’re looking at those deeper charitable partnerships where we’re building those relationships.
It’s been interesting to watch that change in corporate philanthropy in Canada. It’s been led a lot by corporate foundations and financial services have played a leading role. I think it is that connection to donor-advised funds that many financial services firms have as a part of their offering because they’re hearing directly from donors what they’re interested in and what’s motivating them. It does tend to be more on outcome and more about purpose, less on the inputs or the overhead.
I want to shift and talk a little bit about you for a moment, if we could. You have the dream job. Having grown up in this sector, the idea of when fundraisers sit together, usually after an exhausting gala or after an event, or “We were successful in that campaign.” You know what, one day I want to have a job where I’m giving away the money rather than collecting the money. You’ve got it. You’ve got the dream job. What initially drew you to this role at Nicola Wealth?
A number of things, but the opportunity itself. I think the opportunity to look at this and build a blueprint alongside the organization. The organization itself, as I said, truly does live its values and that’s something that is important to me personally. The company and the way that exists in the world was a very exciting draw. I think it’s that opportunity to look at issues and come together as a group or as a community, and look at how we might be able to come together and solve these problems. When you are coming from the non-profit sector, you are solving one part of a problem. This is an opportunity to broaden out the scope of what we can do, so we can look at youth at risk as one of our giving pillars.
How do we look at youth at risk in a way that which partners will we collaborate with to address? There’s that continuum of care throughout so that you are able to tackle that challenge in a broader way. That is the excitement and being able to build out over time. I’m excited to build out a cool experience for our clients where people can feel the impact of their giving and have a meaningful experience because it should be a joyful experience.
This is the good part. You’re able to make a way to make a difference. What have you learned about yourself? You mentioned you’ve been in the role about five months now. What has that learning trajectory been for you as a professional in this role?
So far, the experience has been amazing personally. The organization I work with are passionate-driven people. Everyone cares about making a difference. It’s collaborative. I’m realizing what’s important to me by living it. Everyone’s has a very open-mind and everyone’s very curious. I’m learning so much every single day at the moment. I don’t have a traditional philanthropy background. I’ve worked in nonprofits, worked through with nonprofits. I think the benefit of that is that I do have a real understanding of what it’s like to be on that side and how it feels to be truly supported by a funder. It can be transformative when you are on that side of things.
I’m mostly excited and enjoying following the curiosity of developing that brute blueprint of how we give. There are some incredible organizations doing great things. We’re definitely in that learn-and-build phase, which I love spending time there and it’s inspiring to see what people are doing and the ways people are shifting their approaches and having a real impact.
It’s interesting because I know you started your career in the technology sector. I’m curious, as you moved into this role, you’re learning from leading in the private sector, what lessons are you taking from that or are you applying to your work at Nicola Wealth?
I started my career in print publishing when we didn’t even have email addresses. That’s where I’m at in my age. In my early career in marketing, I did a lot of market research. Still one of my favorite places to spend time. It’s not the British library anymore, but it was this beautiful blue room with a big dome. I would go and have to get books, sit on the library, and do my research.
That sounds great.
It was lovely. I enjoyed that experience. I’ve kept that discipline throughout my career and wherever I’ve been working or whatever I’m doing, first, making sure you have a deep understanding of the issues you’re trying to solve and the possibilities. It leads to a much more likely successful outcome. I think from tech, it’s also learning to balance that with being adaptable and that you don’t need to start with perfection. I think that were some of the best things I learned from that phase of my career. Embracing those design-thinking principles. You research, you design, you prototype, you test, and you iterate. Starting with good and moving from there. That’s something that I think is a great discipline that you’ve got to start somewhere, so just get going, and then test and move on.
Collaboration is another big one. I think that from the work that I’ve done and the places I’ve worked when you work together towards a common goal, that’s powerful. One of the conversations I keep hopping on about, but it was interesting was the distinction that we have between for-profit, nonprofit, and government. What would it look like if we blurred those lines a bit? I think it’s starting to happen already with impact investing and social enterprises as you mentioned. When we all come together and build solutions together, I think that’s such an interesting thought to explore and be curious about.When you work together towards a common goal, that's powerful. Click To Tweet
It’s one of the reasons why we use social profit because it talks about what the gain and the benefit of the work of the sector does in that traditional model. One of the things from my perspective having grown up in the sector is the social profit sector ends up doing all of the things that a private sector can’t do or wouldn’t do. There’s not an incentive for a for-profit organization to do. That’s fine. That’s not a criticism, it’s just there’s not there. Government can’t figure it out. It’s not simple enough or straightforward enough that a straightforward government program can solve it. The social profit sector then is left with the gnarliest, most challenging, and naughty issues in society and is often the least resourced.
Why aren’t they should be more efficient? They can’t select their problems or the challenges they’re trying to solve. They can’t select their clientele for the most part and the individuals that they’re working with. The answers are very rarely straightforward. It’s so encouraging to see different models forming around social enterprise or around impact investing to see what that might look like. I think there’ll be more models coming over the next few years. Hopefully, Nicola Wealth and the work that you’re doing will be a part of those new models and innovating those new models.
I want to go not back to the British library and the beautiful blue dome, but your experience in marketing and communications. One of the challenges we see a lot through our work here at the Discovery Group is organizations struggling to tell their story and to get it into a story that people can see their role in the solution that the organization’s proposing. That shows up in a lot of ways. I was speaking to a client who we said, “We’re working on your case.” We’re helping them with their case for support. They said, “It’s hard to get it into a simple story because what we do is complicated.”
What every organization does is complicated. If you lead with it’s complicated, it is one of those push words that says, “It’s complicated, you wouldn’t understand” or “It’s complicated, don’t expect us to make any progress.” Neither of those feelings, if you’re the donor, inspire you to give. That’s one example of a challenge. With your marketing communications expertise hat on, what are some of the mistakes that social profit organizations make when they’re trying to tell their story?
First of all, I think it is hard for charities to invest in their marketing and communications because of that external pressure from donors to keep. There’s a lot of criticism if you spend money there, but I agree with you that the most powerful thing you can do is lead with story and doing that well. Investing in that storytelling working with professionals who that’s their expertise. We all connect through stories and it can be powerful. Especially, it’s important to combine those stories with the global impact that you’re having. To your point, be clear, even if you do twelve things, what are you leading with or what’s the big outcome, what’s the big change? It’s important to be clear about what you do.
I also think that we have a real responsibility in the way that we tell these stories. Personally, what I don’t appreciate is when people victimize the people that they serve. It does feel quite exploitative when you kind of portray people in disempowered situations. It strips their dignity, their agency, and presents some solely as victims rather than people who have their own stories, strengths, and potential. It can oversimplify and generalize the problems. These are difficult and challenging circumstances. It can present that one-dimensional view.
Over time, it contributes as that long-term negative perception of communities that it represents. It reinforces stereotypes that aren’t helpful. There’s not this perpetual dependency. They’re not helpless. Some of the communities that nonprofits are serving are the most resilient and capable people that you’ll ever meet. When you talk about stories of strength and showing that resilience, showing the progress that your work’s having the positive impacts of your support communities working together, solution. Lead with the change and don’t focus on the suffering that’s current because it’s an unhelpful narrative. That’s personal.
Teresa, I couldn’t agree with you more on that. Our audience, take nothing else from conversation, I hope it’s what you outlined there. The other thing from the fundraiser side of the table, the idea that you’re going to lead with tragedy has an initial reaction. If you’re raising money for emergency response, it may work because it is a transaction. It’s a stimulus response. If you’re wanting to build a long-term relationship with your donors and you’re wanting them to support year over year, it becomes aversive. People don’t want to hear that story. It further marginalizes often the individuals or groups that are being spotlighted or profiled in those negative ways.
It ultimately works against donors contributing to those organizations. Maybe not this year, but by year 2 or year 3 or year 4 down the line, it’s harder to get those donors back. We see a strong correlation between our clients who are leading with those positive stories and donor retention. Donors giving more money year over year. Where we see organizations where they’ve used those stimulus response strategies. They have lower donor retention and their average gifts tend to be decreasing, not increasing. For all of the social reasons and the basic human respect reasons that you outlined, yes, and it doesn’t work.
Right, for more reason. If you needed any more reason, yes.
If your soul is numb, it also doesn’t work. I think in the role that you have now, you see and you will continue to see those organizations that are telling those uplifting stories and the different response that the donor-advised fund holders have to those kinds of donors, right?If your soul is numb, it also doesn't work. Click To Tweet
Yeah. We all want to make a positive difference with the money that we’re giving. I think that’s what people are looking for. That’s what we need to be reporting back. “When you donate this money, this is what happens. This is the change that it affects.” That’s what’s inspiring.
As we come to the end of our conversation, I get to ask you my favorite question. Teresa, what are you looking forward to?
So much. I do feel very lucky. The opportunity to evolve the way we’re doing philanthropy, doing that impact-focused approach, broadening what effective philanthropy looks like, which over time I hope will lead to more transformative, substantive change. I’m also excited to provide, like I mentioned, the rewarding donor experience to our clients where we can work with them to tailor more strategic philanthropic plans and align it with their goals and their aspirations for change. That I think is something that’s very exciting. We have some incredible clients that we get to work with.
One of the things I’m excited about is collaborative philanthropy. When we bring people together. There are so many examples of that already, but when we come together with charities, with our clients and ourselves, we can increase the impact that we all have and we can all learn from each other as well. That’s something I’m super excited about and the research lady in the library is also excited about building out the evaluation framework. I’m excited to have some new metrics for measuring that impact of our investments. Overall, it feels like an exciting time in this space and I think there’s a movement happening. I’m excited that we get to be part of it in re-imagining a more progressive and more impactful approach. That’s something that I am super excited about.
I’ll look forward to that too. That sounds great. Before I let you go, please tell us a little bit about how our audience can learn more about Nicola Wealth.
The best place to start if you want to learn more about Nico Nicola Wealth is to go to NicolaWealth.com. It gives an overview of what we do. There are some community impact stories. There’s a lot of stories that you can find on the website related to some of the work that we’re doing within philanthropy as well. It’s a great place to get the information.
Thank you very much for being on the Discovery Pod.
Thanks very much for having me.