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Valerie McMurtry, Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada

Conversations is a new series created by Offord Group to profile leaders in the charitable sector. We work with clients that impress us with their compassion, innovation and commitment to make the world a better place and we want to share their stories with you.

Val McMurtry, Eternal Optimist
President & CEO, Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada

Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada is dedicated to improving the lives of children and youth involved in the child welfare system. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, they launched a matching-gift opportunity to directly support youth who have aged out of care.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic seemed to hit Canada almost overnight. How long did it take you and your team to coalesce around a strategy?

Not long! We decided that youth (between the ages of 18-29) who have “aged out” of the child welfare system would be our top priority in the earliest days of the pandemic. Though Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada is concerned about a lot of other issues in the child welfare system, we realized that supporting youth who have transitioned out of government care (foster care, kin care and other) into adult life is an area of strength for us and one where we would be able to make a direct contribution. There is no other national charity working on behalf of this extremely vulnerable population of young people.

By day two, we began mobilizing our COVID-19 Crisis Support Fund. This was our response to the urgent calls we were receiving from the young people we serve, asking how they could access help. This was very motivating for us.

The Foundation’s pre-existing national programs that support youth aged 18-29 included scholarships for post-secondary education and a partnership with Telus’ Mobility for Good™, which distributes free data and phone plans in five provinces for youth who have aged out of the system. These programs put us in touch with 6,000 youth.

We know that most of them are struggling on many levels, including financial and housing stability, and mental health. Our COVID-19 Youth Support Fund will provide emergency funding of up to $1,000 per youth during the crisis. Our team has worked around the clock to be able to respond quickly.

There are 33 people on our team and right away the Operations team helped get everyone set up to work from home. The stage of life of our team has been important in our ability to respond to this crisis and the opportunity to have a relevant program offering. I’ve been in my role for seven years and our team leaders have also been in their roles for a long time. We really understand our work and we really understand each other, so we trust one another and also have experience in delivering results together. I’m very grateful to all of them for their experience, their leadership, and their ability to work together remotely.

We knew we needed to be relevant in the crisis and were able to mobilize quickly. We are proud of our ability to be so agile. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good” is being said by leaders around the world and it helped us maintain focus and gave us the courage to move quickly and accept some risk.

 

Now that is has been a couple of weeks, how is it going?

We set a goal early on to raise $5 million to distribute to youth. Our first source of support was our current donors, as well as provincial and federal governments. In the history of our Foundation, we haven’t had a funding relationship with any level of government, but this is leading to positive conversations.

We had some initial conversations with people who know us best. In the first few weeks we raised $700,000.

We had just started approaching donors when I got a call in the middle of an afternoon from Past Board Chair Sue Storey. She left me the most beautiful message about how she believes in our team and wants to help. She put up a really significant matching gift to support the peer-to-peer fundraising efforts that are being led by Board Member Aaron Zifkin, Managing Director of Lyft. It was one of those wins that reminds me just how many amazing donors and community leaders are out there.

We are also reviewing our annual plan to see which programs will be interrupted by the crisis. This means we are speaking to our funders to see if we can reallocate their support. So far, our funders have been amazing and supportive of how we are trying to respond, and they have been flexible with how we plan to respond in the next few weeks.

We went live and launched the portal for funding applications to youth in early April. We did this knowing we had received only a portion of the necessary funds, but we didn’t want to wait to start helping as many youth as possible. Within 48 hours we had over 1,900 applications, which validated the urgent need and that we were doing something important.

Our team is urgently processing this large volume of applications and is increasing fundraising efforts to raise more money from donors so we can expand the program to meet the needs for financial support that these young people have. In the short term, we have put applications on hold. Additionally, as of mid-April, we have begun direct distributions to youth across Canada.

This has been galvanizing for our team. Even though we are all challenged with our own personal lives, it has been meaningful to be involved in something that is relevant in the face of the crisis.

 

How are you thinking about the long-term with your team and your efforts beyond the COVID-19 crisis?

I’m in this business because I’m an eternal optimist. I am optimistic in the long-term for our Foundation. We are doing new things that we haven’t tested before – like understanding how to be an effective team while working remotely and knowing how fast we can get things off the ground if we’re really trying. Having strong processes is important but there is a way for us to learn from this to be more effective and give more urgency to our work on a regular basis.

Personally, I think one thing I’m really proud of is that people are seeing our Foundation in a positive way. It is starting new conversations with different stakeholders, including government. If we can deliver on these things in a timely way, we are going to prove ourselves as a leader in the work we are trying to produce and deliver on. These are all positive for where we go.

I’ve been in this business long enough to have weathered other financial crises, like the 2008 recession.  The impact of that crisis lasted several years. I think donors will continue to be amazing, but I know that this impact is real on people’s wealth, so I do expect a decline in charitable giving overall. We are hearing that everyone wants to do something – whether it is delivering meals or donating to charity, but as we recover beyond this, there will likely be a longer-term impact on the entire sector. Leading philanthropists will give to charities but perhaps they may give to fewer campaigns.

Donors that are funding out of their income may need to cut charitable giving from their budgets. With the government stepping in so strongly, I anticipate that businesses will be feeling this for a long time. Our gala is scheduled for November and we are starting to talk about the pressures that event will bring, particularly from corporate supporters. We are hearing from companies that there is a safety concern of sending their leadership to buy a table at a gala and some concern that there will be a reigning in of spending by companies.

Although I am an optimist, I’m not naïve. We are all in this together and we need to learn from each other.