Skip to main content

Care International Canada With Barbara Grantham, CEO

By April 30th, 2024No Comments26 min read
Home » Care International Canada With Barbara Grantham, CEO

Discovery Pod | Barbara Grantham | Care International Canada

Leading internationally is a whole new ball game! Barbara Grantham, CEO of Care Canada, is back on the show to discuss the challenges and rewards of transitioning from leading a regional organization to a global one. Barbara reflects on the evolution of her role, emphasizing the shift from local to international leadership and the complexities therein. She shares insights into Care Canada’s origins, its mission to empower women globally, and the dynamic landscape of humanitarian work. In a world fraught with challenges, Barbara navigates discussions on risk management, cybersecurity, and safeguarding, shedding light on the multifaceted responsibilities of leading a global NGO. With transparency and resilience, Barbara embodies a commitment to nurturing future leaders, ensuring the enduring impact of Care Canada and the sector as a whole.

Listen to the podcast here


Care International Canada With Barbara Grantham, CEO

On this episode, we have Barbara Grantham, CEO and President of CARE Canada. This is Barb’s second time on the Discovery Pod. The first time was a few years ago when she was serving as the CEO of the Vancouver General Hospital and UBC Hospital Foundation. A lot has changed in those years. She talks a lot about the difference between leading an international organization versus leading an important regional provincial organization as she did at VGH UBC Hospital Foundation.

I want all of our readers to take special note of how she frames her message and talks about Care Canada’s work. You’ll hear the phrase, “This is all local,” and what that means for international aid development and Care Canada in general. Barbara is very candid about how being a CEO has changed over her time in the role at a couple of organizations and gives great advice for leaders looking to step into that role in the next months or years to come. Please enjoy this very special conversation with a friend and a mentor, Barb Grantham.

Welcome back, Barbara.

Thank you, Doug. It’s wonderful to be back.

Care Canada

We’ve only had a handful of guests on the show more than once, and you will join that list. I’m looking forward to that. I suspect our conversation is going to be very different than it was when you were CEO of the Vancouver General Hospital Foundation years ago. Since then, you’ve taken on the role of CEO and President of CARE Canada. For those of our readers who aren’t familiar with CARE Canada, tell us about the organization, its mission, and who it serves.

Sure, but before I do that, can I just ask, is this like Saturday Night Live where if you do five times you get a jacket?

We don’t have a five-timer yet. You’re in the running.

Two timers? Bad metaphor. Let’s move on. CARE’s origins, it’s a really neat origin story. CARE started as an American organization in the aftermath of World War II when there were millions of starving, mostly women and children across Western and Central Europe. The American military had a plethora of leftover non-perishable supplies from the war that had been provided to their military service people.

They wanted to distribute those non-perishables. It was things like sugar, butter, chocolate, hair brushes, deodorant, toothpaste. They wanted to distribute it to the populations across Western Europe, but they were busy rebuilding Europe. They went to a consortium of American charities and said, “If we give you all of these goods, would you distribute them for us?”

This consortium of American charities looked at each other and said, “Okay.” The word humanitarianism wasn’t even really in the language at that point. They did and they put these non-perishable things into boxes and packages, and they called them CARE Packages. CARE stood for Cooperative American Relief in Europe. I still, every year, get one or two letters at Christmas time from elderly Canadians who were children in Europe who received one of those CARE packages on their doorstep with their mother.

Through the years, CARE began to respond to more and more humanitarian crises. It began to form entities in other countries beyond the state. CARE Canada, CARE UK, Australia, and most of Europe now have a CARE entity that raises money and funds to support CARE’s work around the world. It no longer stands for Cooperative American Relief in Europe, it stands for Cooperative Assistance and Relief Everywhere and there are 22 members of CARE.

There’s a fun fact that you can entertain your friends with at your next dinner party. There are 22 members of CARE. We work in about 100 to 110 countries in any given year. The organization has moved from not only being a humanitarian response organization but also doing a lot of work in the long-term endeavor of development, particularly with a focus on gender equality.

Our job is to provide resources to create opportunities for women to lead wherever they live by ensuring that they’re safe, that they’re healthy and have choices over their lives, and that they can earn a dignified livelihood for their families. We know that when women lead in the communities where they live, everyone has a better quality of life.

When women lead in the communities where they live, everyone has a better quality of life. Click To Tweet

That’s an incredible origin story and then evolution to the pertinent issues. Can you talk a little bit more specifically about the role that CARE Canada plays in that consortium?

As I said, CARE is a global confederation, much like the large international NGOs that many of us would know the names of. We’ve got a global remit annually, a revenue of around $1.2 billion to $1.3 billion. We employ about 13,000 people around the world. That’s as a global confederation. CARE Canada is, as I said, one of the 22 voting members of the confederation.

We raise here in Canada through institutional funders, private philanthropy, and corporate partners in the area of the range of $60 million to $70 million a year. The vast majority of that is deployed, usually on a rolling average, we work in partnership in about 35 of the countries in any given year where CARE operates. Most of our work has tended to focus over the years, partly for historical reasons, and partly for humanitarian response imperatives. Most of our work has focused on Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

Leading An Organization Of Scale

You’re describing an organization with really remarkable scope and scale. I think that’s probably far more than certainly a casual Canadian or even those of us who are in the sector understand about the role of CARE. Coming in as the CEO, were you fully prepared for the scale of the work that CARE Canada represents and does every day?

No, that’s the simple answer. No. I knew about CARE. I was a donor actually to CARE before I joined. I had a really good friend in Vancouver, Martha Piper, who’s a very wonderful leader in Vancouver and has mentored many women, including me over the years. Martha had been on the board of CARE and had invited many of us in her friend circle to join the organization as supporters, champions, and financial supporters.

I was part of that tribe and I had a wonderful seven and a half years at the VGH and UBC Hospital Foundation. I was looking for a change. I was looking for something that would be quite different from the more BC-focused career that I’d had. I was ready to see if I could move more into a national conversation around a public policy issue or even an international one.

I certainly never expected something of the scope and scale of this but as the invitation became more serious. As the dating proceeded with the board and the recruitment, it became, I think for me, as a leader, as someone who looks for a constellation of circumstances where I think I add value as a leader and where most importantly, the core mission of CARE in terms of lifting the capabilities of women girls. For me as a feminist, as a mother, as a daughter, and as a sister, that was important.

I think that it’s funny you call it a dating process because certainly, you have led other organizations. You were a very much in-demand CEO as you were leaving BGH and UBC Hospital Foundation. I’m sure you had quite a lot of choice. What was it that ultimately made you say yes to taking on this role?

I knew I didn’t want to do the same thing that I’d already done. I had lots of amazing opportunities that were pretty much in that part of the larger NGO ecosystem that was more similar to what I’d already done. I knew, as I said, that I was at a certain age and stage of life, and there were only going to be so many more kicks at the can for me. I knew I wanted a different challenge to see if I could make a different impact in the world.

As I said, I look for where I add value as a CEO in an event diagram where three things come together. The first is a pretty crunchy public policy discourse and conversation where I can be a contributor. The second is an organization that has fundamentally strong bones and is ready for a pivot in terms of its strategy and openness to change and innovation and the third is that philanthropy is an important part of the ecosystem of that organization. If I find those three things, along with a mission alignment and my own values, then for me, that’s always been a pretty good recipe for success.

I think that’s a great piece of advice for leaders to reflect on, for leadership challenges that they’re taking on, whether it’s at the CEO level or another level of an organization. What is it that is in your experience, what is it in your commitment, what is it in your expertise that’s going to allow you to add value to that organization?

I think that the Venn diagram is something that we can pull out and share with others who are reading this. One of the things you didn’t mention there, Barb, was timing. Timing wasn’t one of them. You started as CEO and president of CARE Canada on April 1st, 2020. We often ask leaders what it was like that first day when they walked through the door. I suspect it wasn’t April 1st, 2020 that you walked through the door. Take us back to those first few months. What was it like as the new leader in another city, leading this organization from the outside coming in and everybody’s out of the office?

Maybe I should go back to December of 2019, what we now loosely jokingly call The Before Times. That was signed. I had signed on to commit to CARE in mid-December of 2019. My last day in my previous role was December 31st, and I walked out on New Year’s Eve full of tears and feeling that I had just an incredible blessing to be part of that team. I wasn’t starting at CARE ostensibly until April the 1st.

I had this three-month gap where I was going to do all the things like brush up on my French, clean out the basement, clean out my computer, take my dad on a trip, and ski on weekdays. Those sorts of things. I was going to get an apartment in Ottawa and walk in on that first day, maybe in a new outfit, like the Energizer bunny, and say, hi, I see 120 people on the team.

January was fine. February started to get a little bit weird. I was moving through my checklist, but it’s definitely slowed down in February. By early March, the world was just changing. By the day you wake up every morning thinking, “What’s going to happen today?” It all changed during the March 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th periods.

I was obviously in Vancouver. I was not in an apartment in Ottawa. I was not at the office in Ottawa. I was in my home office in Vancouver in the basement with my dog like everyone else. On April 1st, I sat there looking at a screen with 120 tiny little faces on it, there’s no book called How to Start as a CEO in the Middle of a Global Pandemic.

How am I going to meet these people? How am I going to get to know them? We had to do some very creative things in those early days, but we were all in the same boat. We were all making it up as we went along, learning and failing and learning and succeeding. We’ve all made it through to the other side.

Discovery Pod | Barbara Grantham | Care International Canada

Care International Canada: We had to do some very creative things in those early days, but we were all in the same boat. We were making it up as we went along and failing, learning, and succeeding.


Navigating The Pandemic

We’ve had several leaders who started near the beginning of the pandemic, but no one’s like at the beginning like you did. I’m curious about the challenge you face, it’s very experienced as a professional, you’ve been CEO before, and this was a different sector that you’re moving into. This is a different organization than you’ve led before. I’m sure you anticipated having a bit of a learning curve and learning from the team because you were coming into that role. That would have been different as you’re earning the culture through Zoom. How did you approach that?

I had a couple of things working in my favor. One was the team had prepared an incredible onboarding experience for me. I honestly look back and it was by far the best, most comprehensive, most thoughtfully curated, and designed onboarding I’ve ever had. Bar none. That’s an organizational strength here.

We hear that all the time from new hires is the quality of our onboarding experience but obviously, that was my first time. Those first two months, I couldn’t travel. I couldn’t go meet our teams around the world. I couldn’t go and see the work and the team managed to take a traditional onboard and morph it into something that was a much more virtual experience, but very meaningful, nonetheless.

I still meet people sometimes and I have not met them in person until this time, because we’ve all come through that. That was the first. I think the second thing was there was a moment of opportunity. I think all of us gave each other more room in that time. We gave our leaders more room, we gave our boards more room, and we leaned differently. We were all leaning in and learning as we were going along. There was a remarkable malleability in the organization that I still marvel at when I look back.

That malleability, that resilience, that coming together that you’re describing there, how does that impact the work that’s happening today? Everybody went through this experience. Some organizations experienced it very differently than others, many with far more negative consequences. The weight of those six months or those 12 months still weighs heavy on many organizations, but there are those silver linings and you’ve identified a couple. What still is with you? What are the advantages? What have you been able to bring forward as an organization out of that force coming together?

The question if I can is maybe even a little bit bigger than that. I’m not sure as a global organization, we were all just doing our very best to respond in the moment, whether it was a Canadian-focused NGO or a very locally focused or globally focused. We were all just patching together and doing the best that we could but certainly within the ecosystem of the international NGOs that CARE operates within, and I would include in that the larger rubric of UN agencies and so on.

There’s a pretty clear understanding now four years on, I think, that without us realizing it at the time, that was a pivot shift. We didn’t know it. It wasn’t apparent for quite some time, but the balance point, the tipping point, there’s always a broad pendulum swing in the endeavor of international development and humanitarian work.

There’s a pendulum swing over time between the humanitarian part, the coal face, the crises, the Middle East, Afghanistan, the food crisis in East Africa, and an earthquake in Turkey, name your situation and the long-term development work that’s required to give communities and the people who live in those communities, independence and good healthy living.

That pendulum was very much moved in the development side of the continuum, if I can put it that way, pre-2020. It has now swung very dramatically the other way back into more of the humanitarian work. We see that in terms of the balance of the portfolio that we have here and virtually every other organization in this endeavor. We see it in the discourse. You’re a well-literate person and when you look at the news, it’s different.

The number of crises is they just fall upon one another. Those crises used to happen every 18 months. Now they’re happening every 18 weeks. How we position ourselves, how we sit as an organization, how we prepare ourselves, how we recover after a humanitarian response and be ready for the next one. All of that has changed because we live now in a world that is far less predictable, far more unstable, and ironically in the mix of that, the work that we do has never been more needed than ever.

Discovery Pod | Barbara Grantham | Care International Canada

Care International Canada: How we sit as an organization and how we recover after a humanitarian response and get ready for the next one has changed because we live now in a world that is far less predictable and far more unstable.


From Local To International

Your work and your team are at the vanguard of a lot of that work. As you’re talking about that and listening to your answer there, I’m interested in understanding some of the similarities and differences that you’ve seen moving from leading a regional or local, hospital foundation, a very significant organization, very prominent, to the issues like the ones you just described that you deal with at CARE Canada. It’s different conversations with donors and different conversations with boards, I’m sure, but gives our listeners a little bit of insight into how you approach the differences in the conversations you need to have.

I think the differences are probably a little more apparent. How we have a conversation for an endeavor like a hospital foundation, a community foundation, or a social services organization is usually, it’s pretty place-oriented. There’s a sense of calling on the donors or the supporters’ love of that place and their desire to see that place.

I use that term very loosely or that population to thrive. I think that’s what calls board members into that endeavor and service volunteers, and governance volunteers. You hear that in staff all the time as well. There’s a love of making what’s more immediately around you better, whether it’s a place, a population, or a particular cause.

The shift to the international sphere is harder because how people are called to support this work is different, Doug. It takes more time, quite frankly, as a leader and as a staff person to explain things. There are all kinds of things that people read in the paper or hear on a podcast, and they want to know from you, how accurate is that?

How does that sit against the experience and what your organization is seeing, hearing, and doing? There’s a translator role, if I can put it that way that is far less important in a local context because people have the immediacy of feeling it and touching it and knowing it themselves. Coming to conclusions themselves. Those would be some of the similarities and differences.

I’m interested, as you describe it, because one of the things we often say to clients is, don’t try to educate and fundraise in the same conversation. Let me tell you why this is important. Consider a gift and it doesn’t work very effectively, but what you’re describing there is a situation where you really can’t fundraise until you’ve been educated. You’re probably separating those conversations because you raise a lot of money and you’re very good at it but it is a different process for building the relationship and the awareness with donors.

It’s a different process. They have there are different points of verification for those donors but mostly I guess it’s about two things. One, it’s about helping them to see that even though, I hear people say, “Thank you so much, but we support local charities.” I hear that and I used to be one of those local charities. I used to lead one of those. I’ve led several of them.

What I say to people is, “This is all local.” All of us, I believe have a responsibility to the communities where we live and to the global community of which we are all a part. I hope that in your thinking about that as a donor, you can think about your role in addition to being a supporter of your local work so that the global responsibility that all of us have can come to the fore in some way as well.

This is all local. All of us have a responsibility to the communities where we live and to the global community of which we are all a part of. Click To Tweet

I love it. I bet that works well. Sometimes when it works, it works well.

Sometimes but the hard thing, I shouldn’t say the hard thing. The interesting thing is I’ve had such fascinating conversations with potential donors because they do want to know from me what I’m seeing, hearing, and understanding. I’m not an expert, but I read a lot. I sit at tables across our global organization where I’ve come to understand things.

About two weeks ago, I was in a really interesting lunch meeting with a group of smart, smart, thoughtful women, financial supporters of ours. They started to ask me about some of the conflicts going on now in the world. What CARE is doing, who else is there and how does it all work? I found myself honestly quite spontaneously talking about well there’s an architecture of response to all of these things whether it’s Ukraine or Turkey or the Middle East and there’s a UN architecture or framework if I can put it that way.

Then the various international NGOs have tables and mechanisms for releasing and deploying funds, people, and resources. It’s quite codified and defined. I found myself talking about that. I didn’t even realize how much I actually knew or how much I’d learned. Maybe that’s a better way to put it. They looked at me and they said, “This has been fascinating.” “Like I had no idea.” “This makes me feel so much better that there’s this framework for how it all works.” I thought I’d had the extraordinary privilege of becoming much more familiar and literate in this. I have a long way to go, but it’s a complicated picture to paint for people. It takes time to tell that story.

Conversations With The Board

I’m curious how the differences, or what are the differences in the conversations you’re having with your board at CARE Canada compared to other organizations you’ve led.

These conversations are about global risk, but that means for us from a CARE Canada perspective. We spend a lot of time talking about, uh, global risk, and the strength and agility and nimbleness of the confederation to continue to be innovative and agile in rapidly changing times. We spend time as a board talking about the domestic political context because, like many of our brother and sister peer organizations, institutional funding from the government of Canada in particular is a significant source of our income.

With electoral cycles come changes in priorities, policies, in approaches and we all have to have that as understood on our radar. Then there are other much more practical things. I’ll give you two examples that were both very new to me. One is in the area of IT and cybersecurity. We’re all networked globally. You can have a breach because you’re part of a shared tenant in the UK, but it was someone’s laptop in Ethiopia that was hacked and the data breach hits you here.

That’s a whole other risk framework that most more domestically focused NGOs are less likely to face. I know there are hackers all over the world. I get that. The other one that I’ll offer up is safeguarding and that’s a broad term that means two things, that means keeping our staff safe globally. People are never deployed overseas without an incredibly rigorous framework of training, awareness raising, personal sign-off on risk, and a very robust framework of safety and security in CARE offices around the world.

The second element of safeguarding that’s just as important is ensuring the safeguarding of the people that we serve because, in many instances from a power perspective, they’re in vulnerable positions. There are situations in which that power is exploited in very unsavory ways. There’s a huge amount of rigor put in as an organization into training staff and into ensuring that that is all understood and in ensuring that our program participants are aware of the rights that they have as participants in our programs. I never had to confront that before I came to CARE.

That’s something that you’re thinking about on your first day as you start at CARE, I’d imagine. Barb, when I was new to being CEO some years ago you gave me very good advice you said, “Make sure that you’re always transparent when there are problems in the organization with your board. Make sure they know and if you’re surprising them, that’s a big risk to you as CEO. Your risk profile is now global, both with the consortium and with CARE Canada. How do you think through being that transparent and bringing your board along with that a risk profile and the challenges that the organization may be facing?

Make sure that you're always transparent when there's problems in the organization with your board. Make sure they know. If you're surprising them, that's a big risk to you as CEO. Click To Tweet

A couple of thoughts. One is what’s interesting to me, and I was just chatting about this with a colleague a couple of days ago, is I’m not sure. I’d be curious to get your reflections. I don’t know how many times in a year or in a board meeting cycle, 10 years ago, we would have even used the word risk. We didn’t have an enterprise risk framework. We didn’t have a risk appetite. We didn’t have a risk statement. We didn’t have a risk library. We just didn’t.

At the BC Cancer Foundation, we had one because we had a couple of directors who were very advanced in that. I just thought of it as things that might go wrong and with no more nuance than that. Let the conversation happen. Certainly, those types of conversations are very different around board tables today.

Very different. I think part of the notion or the adoption of understanding risk as an important part of the board’s job is not unique to CARE, it’s not unique to the international sphere of the NGO sector. I think many well-run organizations now have some form of talking about understanding and mitigating risk. In a global organization, it’s different.

I’ve just given you a couple of examples of that And what I’ve come to understand is, is two things. One is you’re looking for a different kind of board member. I respect all board members but having folks around the table who really do understand those global dimensions of what we do and can quite quickly shift a conversation to that sphere with some agility and the ability to still stay around the table in the conversation, it’s just a different kind of board member than you would be looking for in a healthcare foundation or in a YMCA or whatever it might be.

The second is the way in which management, senior managers have had to step up our game big time because we’re being asked to develop these risk frameworks for our organizations that are if we’re doing our job right, they are robust, they are comprehensive, they are timely and they’re professionally done. I sure never had to do that when I started at the BGH Foundation. I did by the time I left. That was a pretty important evolution in the larger conversation. Now, if you can’t sit down and talk about that with a board, you’re not on the dance floor.

It’s a skillset. If you’re not the CFO of an organization before you become the CEO, you may not have exposure to those risks conversations before you’re the CEO. We work with several clients, particularly the ones who are first-time CEOs who are, it is an ice-cold dip in reality when you go to your first finance and audit committee or governance committee meeting and they are, “Let’s talk about the risk profile.” “Okay. I’m in, what are we talking about?”

What Drives Barbara

I appreciate you talking through some of the differences and similarities there. One of the things when your name comes up in conversations and it comes up in lots of conversations that I get to be a part of very favorably.

I’m not sure it’s true.

It is true and you have accomplished such a great deal in our sector and made a really meaningful impact on several organizations. We’ve talked about a couple of them today. There’s more than that. As you’re now past the newbie stage at CARE Canada, what drives you and how do you stay motivated to keep performing at the level that you do?

What drives me? I wasn’t expecting that question. Probably two things. One would be a general more generic answer and the other would be something a little bit more specific to CARE. In a general sense, I’ve spent my whole career in this sector. I could have like lots of us, I could have probably gone into the private sector. I certainly could have gone into the public sector. I found my tribe early on in my very first role at United Way.

I’ve stayed in that sector. I’ve had lots of opportunities to work with smart, thoughtful people in government and smart, thoughtful people in the private sector but this has been my professional home for a long time. I continue to believe that as a country, we cannot be successful around any of the many challenges that we face.

You just open up any website of any paper record, listen to any podcast, and you can list them off as well as I can. You have a long and illustrious client list. Those challenges both in the Canadian domestic context, in the continental context, in the global context, if anything, they’re more pressing than they maybe were 10 or 15 years ago.

I’m in the latter stages of my career as a paid professional and I’ve got some runway left and I still want to make sure that until that runway runs out, I’m doing everything that I can. I’ve shifted a little bit, I think, Doug, this is not about me. I hope it never has been about me but my number one task now at this juncture of my career is to populate this sector with as many talented future leaders as I possibly can.

As a mentor, as a coach, as an employer, as a board member, as a CEO with young, incredibly bright young women on our board, that’s my core job now, is to ensure the long-term success of this organization in this sector by ensuring that the leadership runway is solid and sustainable for the next 10 to 20 years.

Discovery Pod | Barbara Grantham | Care International Canada

Care International Canada: My core job is to ensure the long-term success of this organization in the sector by ensuring that the leadership runway is solid and sustainable for the next 10 to 20 years.


On the personal side, I’m the granddaughter of Hungarian Jews who came to Canada as refugees with two little girls, one of whom was my mother. This is a way of bringing my personal story full circle and doing something to ensure that when I wake up every morning, I think of that mother somewhere in the world with her daughter. My job is to do everything in my power for the 10 to 12 hours a day that I’m working to make that a better situation.

Barb, what are you looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to a time in which as a global community, we’re a more equal people in which we’ve truly come to terms with this climate crisis that is engulfing us by the day, in which our children are fed and clothed adequately, in which we’ve got a robust set of structures and frameworks to resolve conflicts peacefully. That’s the world I’d like to leave for my children.

We so appreciate the work that you do every day and your colleagues at CARE Canada. Thank you so much for being on the podcast.

Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.


Important Links