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The Leaders

Charitable emergency mindset

Nov 26, 2020

Melanie Thomas, HBA '11, Senior Director, Emerging Opportunities, Community Foundations of Canada talks about the rapid response required to meet the needs of those hit hardest by COVID-19.


This year has created an emergency mindset for charities. Just ask Melanie Thomas, HBA '11, Senior Director, Emerging Opportunities, Community Foundations of Canada about the rapid response required to meet the needs of those hit hardest by COVID-19. In this episode, Melanie talks about implementing a nationwide emergency assistance program in only 9 business days. Anyone who wants to learn more about the relentless pace of the rewarding work in the charitable space should tune in.

Resources and links:

  • To find out more information, resources, or connect with your local community foundation to find out the pressing needs in your community, please visit:
  • To learn more about how COVID-19 is impacting the charitable and nonprofit sector in Canada, please visit:
  • To learn more about how COVID-19 is impacting the nonprofit sector in Ontario, please visit:


Insights and wisdom lie within every business decision. Welcome to the Leaders by Ivey podcast, where we discover hidden narratives and unlock key learnings for our own leadership and career journeys. Hey! I'm Matt Quinn, if you're looking to lead and the non for profit sector and want to hear about all of the amazing benefits of this, you need to stay tuned. This time on the Leaders by Ivey podcast we’re joined by Melanie Thomas, an HBA’11 and senior director of emerging opportunities for the Community Foundations of Canada. I hope that you enjoy and take away all of the many ways that you can get involved. Thanks so much for taking the time to join us today, Melanie. Could you maybe, for those that haven't had a chance to meet you or check out your bio on Instagram, tell us a little bit about yourself and what's your connection with Ivey? Yeah happy to first of all, just thank you, someone for having me, such an honor to come back and to talk to my alma matter, and so my name is Melanie Thomas. I graduated from Ivey as an HBA’11, which time is ticking. I think I’m very close to my tenure, which is wild. After Ivey, I finished my business and then I went directly to law and so I’m definitely fulfilling the millennial stereotype of flipping through industries. So I got my license was called to the bar and Ontario, and then I immediately went into banking and I did that for a few years, while doing some work overseas and international development, and then I landed in philanthropy and Canada, and so I just love new opportunities, and so my role right now is kind of my dream job. I'm in charge of a emerging opportunities, so every day just looking at things, we've never done before and try to see how we can scale them and create more social impact. But my personal life, I love traveling. You know this is not the time of life where you get to do that. So, I just dream about traveling love, salsa dancing and connecting with friends. So yeah, that's a little bit who I am. Now I want to come back to something because you kind of glossed over it , so originally law and then banking and then international development. There's got to be a theme here. You mentioned that sometimes it's a generational thing to want to try a bunch of new things. What has led you to want to try all these different things to land where you are today? You know it sounds very sporadic and I can't say that I had planned every move ahead of time, but when I was a kid my parents took me to India, which is kind of my motherland, and it was at seven. I was first exposed to what poverty can look like, and so as a kid that always just impacted my thinking and you know what's my role, what am I going to do about it? I've seen something you can't just forget what you've seen and so actually coming to business school is a very intentional decision to say. I'm not sure how that's going to play out and more of an international or social space. But I think that there's some really tangible skills that I can get from business. I can apply there and then, similarly in law, and so I’ve been kind of bouncing in my career so far between very corporate work and then very social work, and until I landed in philanthropy, which is a kind of beautiful in between where you’re dealing with money. You know philanthropy their kind of backbone is money but you're doing with a mindset of impact. So it was a weird roller coaster of a career so far and I’m sure they'll be somewhere twist and turns ahead. But it was kind of planted years ago. And the path doesn't have to be one that's straight from one connection to the next: for those that are listening, that have that same mindset and are experiencing the same thing you know, a bit of a calling and knowing that its building skills towards that calling, what helped you as you transition from different roles, but you know with a clear you know it seems like there's a clear thread of wanting to give back, what advice do you give to students or others that are, you know, maybe struggling with that? How did you manage it? Yeah, you know what Ivey, one of the best program I was a part of, that really was central to my experience at Ivey was the Leader project and it was this immediate way that I could, you know, be learning as a student but immediately apply it in to work with small enterprises in eastern Europe and to consult and to teach, and so I love that kind of mixing of what seems like two separate worlds, that they aren't. And so, you know my advice is students: just say yes, like as opportunities come up, even if they don't pay, if somehow, you can squeeze your finances to make it work, say yes to opportunities that will push you. Say yes to working with people that you can learn from like see it as a part of the investment like our paying tuition right like just as much as you can. I know I say that and it's not easy to do, and working for free and a summer very little finances is not an easy thing to say yes to, but the payoffs on what I learned from those experiences that were outside the box, you know contribute to the rest of my career for sure. It's cool that the Leader project is still ongoing, even in the midst of COVID challenges, right now I know that they're planning some blended and online initiatives right as we speak. So that's cool that you that you did that, while you're at Ivey and it still is a great opportunity for students to get involved. Now I want to go to the next thing, can you tell us a little bit more about you? You know you mentioned philanthropy and some of the work that you're doing. Could you talk a little bit about the organization? Yeah, so I work with Community Foundations of Canada, and so you may or may not have heard of us, but we are a national network of 191 community foundations. So, if the question is: what's the community foundations we, you know community foundations are philanthropic organizations, they direct grants, investments, leadership towards community initiatives, and so across country we have more than 90% of Canadian communities have access to a community foundation. Collectively our network manages over six billion dollars and it's a boots on the ground type of network, so our community foundations, they have community in the name. They know their communities. They know what the needs are. They work with partners locally to serve, and so at the national level my role is, is to look for opportunities. Things we've never done before. To say how can we scale impact and usually but at a national level? And how is that shifted? You know with the last year being what it is. You know you've mentioned traveling before an opportunity to go to different communities. You know how was the organization shifted? How are you spotting opportunities that lie within you know challenging times yeah, so you know like many organizations, regardless of your industry as the pandemic hit, we had to say: okay. Well, we were working in all of these projects. What are we pausing? What are we pivoting and what are you proceeding with, and so some things how to go on pause and some are still on pause, but as we are, you know working with community foundations who are working directly with charities and non profits. We just immediately heard the need right as COVID hit, you know those who were in vulnerable context before COVID. It just got worse, and so, if you think of home shelters had to start limiting its capacity or turning people away, persons with disabilities didn't have the same access to programs and services and some were in isolated circumstances and the list goes on and on, and so that really became okay well, we're community foundations. How do we respond to the needs to the community? And a lot of my work with you know, with team members was doing the advocacy piece at the beginning, saying hey government, federal, provincial, municipal – this is the need, it's so great, and what we saw before COVID is in a much more dire position now. I want to go back to those meetings because many of us listening and myself included. I've had to have some of those meetings where we talked about, what are we going to do moving forward and those are exciting and fun lots of opportunities, but then there's the difficult conversations around, what are we going to stop doing? And that must be hard for you in that position wanting to give back and that's the core good of the organization? How did you manage those conversations internally and do you have any tips for those going through that tough conversation about having to cut things? You know, how did you manage it? It wasn't easy and I feel like it's not a one-time decision. It's a question you keep asking yourselves as the weeks proceed. Are we still pausing this? Are we still a bit to proceed with this? So we continue to pivot this, and so you know, thankfully I had my team internally to talk through okay, how do we see this folding out? What new priorities have popped up in the meantime, and so you know we rarely work in isolation, and so we work with many partners and so part of it was calling partners and saying how are you doing? What are you seeing? We are working on this project, we both put it on the shelf for now or should you take the lead or should I take the lead, and so it's relationship management right in the midst of limited capacity? So not a one and done, it's a constant communication, because things are changing so rapidly. For the things that you are able to continue doing, can you talk about it? You know some of the things that you're most proud of are excited about moving forward? Yeah I mean for my work, because I was really in this exploratory model and some of them are, they were on pause and now they're in the pivot piece, but my work really shifted on that advocacy piece of government saying, “there is this dire need”, “we need to act now”. Communities, charities, non-profits are trying to serve those who are in the most vulnerable context, and so I did get a call from the government of Canada saying we're going to create a 305 million dollar emergency community support fund, and we'd like Community Foundations of Canada, along with United Way and Red Cross, to implement this, and so that has taken over my year. 2020 is definitely defined by that work of saying you know from when I got the call, and when we signed the agreement with government, we had nine business days to go from words on a paper to implementing a nation-wide program that got money to charities and non-profits serving those in vulnerable contexts. How do you do that in nine days? What was the key? What enabled you to get like, you said from the paper to implementing so quickly? Yeah, we had to get really crystal clear on what were the principals as we work right, because there's so many pieces to this, so what are the key principles? So we focus in on two: the first one is this is emergency funding so just because we've done something in a certain way before it has to be with an emergency mindset, which means it cannot take very long and it has be done virtually because all of us are working from our homes. The second one was around equity. We know, even in the early days of COVID, we saw it and its, you know, and it's the evidence shows now of how COVID impacted those disproportionately, and so how do we create an equitable framework in that way we do this so that those users are at the center that comes from how the applications formed that comes from how we create awareness that that comes from how decisions are made. And so you know once we kind of created those key principles of emergency and equity, we needed a team. So there was like three of us working on in early days, and you know I just felt like I created these to-do this, and I felt like this mountain of work, program design of creating awareness of on boarding community foundations, of government relations and, and, and, and, and. Every day I was like, we've only moved a pebble. We've probably got one thing off the list, and so our team of three within days, turned into a team of eighteen- and you know this diversity of experience and skill-sets technology, design, storytelling, community engagement, and it was just incredible to see what that team came together, how the program unfolded. I want to, you mentioned that the United Way is also a big part of you know the implementation here. In a recent conversation with Corrin Peters, she works for major league baseball, the Tampa Bay Ray. She talked about how different organizations work together. Can you talk about from your example, how did you work with some of the other organizations to make this happen? So we were working so closely with United Way, (inaudible) Canada and Canada Red Cross, and you know all of us had different agreements with government, but collectively we were implementing the 350 million dollar community support funds. And it's interesting because I go back to that relationship building, you you're trying to implement a bond with partners you've never actually met, and you don't have the benefit of saying, “let's go for coffee”, “let's have lunch”, “let get to know each other”, “let's build that trust”, but you know it was an amazing experience of how really three strangers and three strangers of teams can come together and say, “well we're going to create a unified front, we're going to do this together”. So our teams were talking at least on a weekly basis, if not every day, as we were making our individual plans and processes and to communicate to the public as a united front. So I think that was such a key gym that came out of this process is how, even in a virtual context, even with people you never met how you really can work together to deliver something at a national scale. You talk about communication, you talk about the regularity of the communication. You've got a common mission between the different organizations. Was there anything else that stood out as okay, this was a key to getting this to work. Was it one meeting, was there a tool that you used to make this happen? Yeah, I would say you know, having a level of trust and transparency and leaning into both of those and those go hand in hand. It's hard to be transparent, if there's not trust and without trust, how we're going to get to transparency, and so you know between us, saying we're just going to we're going to talk to each other honestly about what's working well, what's not working and when things aren't working, maybe you know one of us can help the other around the table and so really being diligent to say we're going to set a meeting at least once a week. It’s in our calendar still, to say we're just going to give updates and also here's my cell phone number so call me any time and we can work it through and so that type of level just goes from kind of walking., and you know when we talk about partnerships a lot, but you know real partnership is that you're actually walking a lock step together, and so I’m not sure how you do that without trust, transparency and constant communication? Is there anything looking back that you would have done slightly different, or a lesson learned through? You know this rapid implementation and lots of partners and not to mention a huge geographic region. You know, as you say that question, I think I think we make about ten little pivots a day like it's just a constant, because it's emergency mindset is, you know you make a plan and by the time, the weeks that something changed in terms of realities, but so there's just kind of this mindset saying we're going to constantly on our toes willing to pivot on our decisions and our implementation. But if I take a step back, you know some of the key learnings and changes that we had made. So one if I go back to the key principle of equity, and so we have this firm belief that organizations that represent the community serve are better equipped to serve them. So, if I take an example of food hampers food security was a big issue across the country because of COVID, and so you say: okay. Well, we know that this low-income community needs food hampers, but it matters what's in the hamper and it's the community. That's part of that. You know the organization, that's part of that community. That knows you know I’m east Indian, so I’m going to want curry. You know that's going to make me feel like home. It's not just any food to fill my belly, but actually how do you know the cultural nuances and those who you are serving, and so we know that, but when we launched on May 19th and we're already in the market. We're not asking that question, how do we know? We know who they're serving, we don't know who the organizations are, and so you know that was a piece that it's really hard to make a substantial change like that once we're already launched, but it's the right thing to do: it's going to lead to better decision making, and so you know a few weeks in we made a pivot. Update our application form, update our resources. We went with some new messaging to say we're going to prioritize organizations that represent the community as they serve, and so I think, keeping that equitable mindset in the details, like an application for, like a decision-making matrix matters, and so that's just one yeah one piece that we really had a pivot post launch. Now with so much challenge and change happening so quickly, you know, as a leader, it's always important to sit back and reflect on the good that you've done and share that with your team. Can you think of you know any stories of a vulnerable group or a person? That's given you feedback that makes go like this. This is why I do this. Have you had any of those moments that you be that you could share with us yeah? It's definitely like the gold mine of this job is hearing the most incredible stories of how communities are serving one another in the midst of a global pandemic and for the team, because it was like long days sleepless night, early mornings, weekends. You know if you know my Ivey days,  I compared it to the 48 hour report that just kept going. You know to do that, you have to sometime say why I’m you know I’m so exhausted and so that (inaudible) to the, why and the whole team really rallied over, why are we doing this? What is a critical funding that the communities need? So a couple of examples in Lethbridge Alberta there is a project, that's helping prisoners who are being released from prison early because of COVID to have transitional housing because as they get released early a lot of them don't have a place to go so they end up homeless or in shelters and so there's a program to help them transition. In Surrey BC there's a project to help women who are homeless are at risk to know about how to protect themselves around coronavirus, to get them PPE, to get them groceries, basic needs. There were camps that were redesigned for children so that they could be outside, but to do it safely. There are stories of individuals who were deaf and blind and living in isolation, and you know in their day to day that they need to touch. They need to touch, go to communicate with the world and being unable to do that, having them have a support person to work with them and kind of navigate these new realities. So, the stories are coast to coast to coast of just incredible ways organizations and communities are pivoting to respond. You know digging deeper into some of those stories and those are both great to hear it's enlightening. It's something that we don't often see in our day-to-day life and sitting here in London. You know how has COVID impacted those that were already having you know very challenging times. Can you maybe dig into that a little bit more because that's something that our audience should know about, and you know then the follow up is how can we get involved? How can we help make a difference? Absolutely you know in the last couple weeks, I’ve been engaging virtually with about two hundred organizations across the country, specifically from black indigenous and other racialized communities, and as we go back to that question on equity, how do we support organizations that represent the community as they serve? So many racialized communities, the organizations that serve them are grass roots, and when your grass roots organization, you are often left out of funding opportunities, you don't have the churnable status, you don't even have non-profit status. So, as I heard from these communities right across the country tell of the great needs of their community. The racism towards Asian communities across the country because of COVID. The you know, unwilling to go to local businesses or restaurants because of systemic racism and we know that racialized communities are getting hit harder and then the systems not built in a way that they can access funding, and so you know that piece hit hard it hit really personal. I was, I still constantly I’m thinking about okay well, what can we do? That's a more long term piece. So what can we do specifically in this program to make pivots and to help those organizations and there's a variety of kind of changes that we made to help, but we know that that's not going to solve it, and so where could we lead our voice into our relationship with partners and government and other stakeholders? And so, you know, I would say to anyone listening if there are communities that you know of that you can offer funding to that are grass roots, that you can offer any services to help them. Those groups are in need that they are showing up as much as they can in incredible ways to serve, but they are often left out of our funding structures. Where can we go to get more information like what's your organizations website? What are some blogs or resources that a listener can go and say, I want to learn more about this, because I want to get involved, what would you suggest?  I would definitely recommend you know our website with an s dot ca, and so please visit there and you can find a map that shows a local community foundation in your area. So, talk to your local community foundations. They are in touch with non-profits, charities, qualified donators, qualified grass root organizations so be in touch with them as to you know how you can support locally, but I would also want a kind of industry level if you're interested in this topic, Imagine Canada has been doing credible reports and research on what is the current state in Canada. Ontario Non-profit Network, specifically to Ontario looking at how is COVID impacting non-profits, and so there is so much information out there. I think for us as individuals, it can feel overwhelming. I know I can feel overwhelmed thinking it a global pandemic. I can acknowledge that there are systemic barriers but what can I do? And so you know, I think we each of us have incredible spheres of influence. If COVID has shown us anything, it shows how individuals are interconnected, and so what can you do as an individual and your steer of influence. If you're a student, who's a classmate you haven't seen or heard from lately? Check in on them. That makes a difference. When you're looking at summer jobs ask the companies what they, what their work is around diversity and inclusion. If you’re a parent expose your kids, have discussions with them about the inequities in the world. You know when I was a kid my parents did that with me, and it made a profound impact in my life. If your a CEO, what platforms do you have? Whose voices do you amplify, who's at your decision-making table? You know the list goes on. So I think it's so important that we don't get caught up in, “there's this big problem and there's nothing I can do about it” when there's actually very tangible thing that we can do in our day to day. That's fantastic and a great list of resources. I want to go next to you know when you think about Ivey or business grads in general we think of entrepreneurship, big banks, maybe starting your own business. You know going back to your reasons for a pursuing a career in the not for profit. Talk about your reasons, but also almost talk to the current students or those thinking of a career change right now. Convince and talk to those great reasons for giving not for profit a real good hard look, because there are some amazing opportunities in the area. You know I’ll admit, so before being in this role full time and in this in this sector full-time, before I was in private practice, and after that I was, you know banking and so there's a perception that this non-profit charitable philanthropic sector is slow. You know you kind of go there to chill out at the end of your career. I have been amazed at the hustle, at the innovation. I think I have worked longer hours some days and I worked in the you know in the law firm, but just this impetus for change, and so it's a question of there's so many ways that you can give back. There are so many ways that you can use your skill sets. You might have studied to be a consultant or working consumer package goods or an investment banker, and that's some and there's so many things you can do from that role as well, but our skill sets are transferable and so in through volunteer time, through a career change, through mentorship. There are so many avenues for you to use what you learned, what you're learning to apply elsewhere and you know I’ll, say leaving the corporate world, so to pursue a job full time into a sector I was new to was a risk and it was a whole other podcast about the story about making that change. You know it's not all flower and daisies. If you want it, you want to make big changes in your life. It takes risks and it takes some sacrifice to make that happen. I'm so glad where I’ve landed. I feel extremely privilege in my day-to-day work and the people I get to work with, and it was worth the risk, but it took some real hustle and grind to figure out a pathway from law and banking over to philanthropy. You know the last thing I want to ask you is that you know Canada is known as a caring country. What I’m hearing from you is, there's always more that we can do. We can give back in so many ways. You know through our funds through our time, through our skills, sharing. What would you leave the listeners with you know? How would you motivate and push our listeners to get involved? You know, as I mentioned, we're known to be caring. Are we caring enough? How do you push the audience? What would you like to leave them with? Yeah I’ve been so inspired. You know, even before the launch, I was so inspired. I was hearing stories because our network is right across this country. I was hearing stories of how individuals showed up for their community and COVID is not over. Unfortunately and we know whenever there's a vaccine and whenever it's safe to give each other hugs they're still going to be lasting social economic impacts. And so, you know I push, I want to push any of you listening today to really look at your spears of influence and really look at those who may be excluded and find ways that an individual and corporate level to include them. Because you know, I am concerned that there are groups that are going to be left behind. But I think it's, your individual and corporate acts that we go from grouping left behind, to changing systems and in creating a Canada that we are proud and it's vibrant and it's sustainable and I inclusive. Melanie, thank you so much for taking the time to not only just share your journey but to share what you're seeing and what you're seeing in your job across Canada in communities, big and small. What I’m really hearing is that you know, as Ivey grads I’m an Ivey grad, we have had such a great up opportunity to learn to advance our skills and there are tons of opportunities for us to continue to make Canada a caring and giving country where communities don't overlook anybody. So, thank you so much for taking the time. Thank you for having me. This was an honor and a pleasure. Thanks again for being with us, and I hope you join us next time for the season to finale, be sure to rate review and subscribe, see you next time!