People First HR Services

‘Legacy of dreams’ Winnipeg Foundation staff given freedom to help build stronger community

John McFerran

The Winnipeg Foundation started in 1921 with a $100,000 donation from a man who said he owed his good fortune to living in the city and wanted it to benefit from the gains he had made. Three years later, the foundation received its second donation. It was for $15.

“That second gift was much different from the first, but it was the one that really set the base for our values as an accessible community foundation in which everyone can participate in building a better future,” says Richard Frost, CEO of The Winnipeg Foundation.

“People who contribute to an endowment fund are not only thinking about today. They are committed to providing for the well-being of people in the community for years to come.”

Canada’s first established and second-largest community foundation, The Winnipeg Foundation continues the legacy started nearly 90 years ago. Without staging a large campaign, it receives an average of $1 million to $2 million in monthly contributions. Last year, it invested close to $21 million in grants to fund 670 community projects.

“We inherited this incredible ‘legacy of dreams’ and it’s what we continue to be about,” Frost says. “Our ability to impact the community is because of the generosity of donors throughout our history and because we understand that the work we’re doing today will have an impact far beyond our lifetime.”

Q: What are you able to offer people attracted to work for the foundation?

A: When we are recruiting people, we tell them that above all, the work they do will have a meaningful impact on their community. They will have a sense of connectivity and a direct influence on the expenditure of money towards worthwhile projects. Every position within our organization is designed to give ownership to the person in it, so whether they take responsibility for a specific program or an element of our process, they have an opportunity to honour the legacy and build a stronger community for the future. One of the best qualities our employees can have is the ability to self-direct. We want them to understand our policies and priorities so that they can exercise diligence in making grants and opening funds, but at the same time, they need to exude confidence and show good judgment so they can make decisions and speak freely with people in the community. There are many factors enriching the work here, but it really comes down to the unique opportunity to have an influence on the community in which you live.

Q: While being connected to the community must be gratifying, does it present challenges?

A: Absolutely. Community groups frequently invite our people to attend events or conduct site visits. But at the same time, there is an equal need for our people to be in the office to manage 2,200 trust funds and give due diligence to processing 25 to 40 grants per week. We constantly juggle the need to maintain our presence in the community with having the capacity to manage funds, secure new funding and review new projects. Everyone within our operation tries to strike the right balance: Is today a day I should attend that event or should I be at my desk? As the CEO, I can’t give people direction on those daily decisions. Even the board can’t do that. We’ve got to trust our staff and the systems we have in place so they can confidently make their own judgment calls while still ensuring we meet all our commitments.

Q: What other challenges are there in running your organization?

A: Although we have been very fortunate in terms of the support we’ve received, there are still plenty of challenges in running an organization like this. There is never really enough money to do all the things that we’d like to do.

Keeping up with technology is another struggle. In many respects, our nearest competitors are banks that have a lot more money to spend than we do, so by comparison, it is difficult for us to stay as on top of the latest technology. From a public profile perspective, there are also some challenges as much of the work we do in the community is pretty quiet and therefore, not well recognized. For instance, we probably invest between $2 million to $3 million every five years in child development (daycare) centres — yet, if you interviewed 1,000 Winnipeggers today, very few would be able to identify us as a major investor in this area.

Q: How do you manage to retain good people inside a smaller organization?

A: I regularly receive unsolicited compliments about how great our staff is — and to me, that means we’ve attracted good people and we have successfully invested in them to be the face of our organization. As a result of this, along with the fact our people are fulfilled by the work they are doing, we have a very high retention rate. We only have 25 people on our staff, so while we cannot provide the same career paths as a larger company, we are able to support every employee’s individual learning plan and strengthen their ability to do their job better. In some cases, this can be done through internal cross-training; in others, it is by providing external opportunities. We recently had someone return from a training course in Banff and currently have someone enrolled in a program at New York University. When our people are able to learn and grow, it helps our whole organization to move towards the future.

Q: Some find that working with a board is restricting, others find it reassuring. What has been your experience?

A: The Winnipeg Foundation has been blessed with a very strong board of directors. One of the unique things about our board is that members are diligently chosen by an appointment committee and then typically serve three four-year terms. The reason 12 years is the norm is because our members build a base of knowledge as broad as their exposure in the community. A consistent board also instills confidence with donors. If you’re going to entrust $1,000 or $10,000 to us, you want to know that it is being well looked after. Our board is exceptional in that their stewardship is not only limited to financial management, they also ensure that funds are allocated in a meaningful way. Although our board is not involved in our day-to-day operations, I encourage an open policy — any board member can speak to any staff member at any time and vice versa. Because they influence our direction and understand certain issues best, staff members often participate in board or committee meetings. This promotes candor across the organization.

Q: What do you think is the key to sustainability for a 90-year-old organization?

A: I would say that it is the vision of our donors and the long-term thinking of our board that has kept us true to our core values. I came to this organization 12 years ago from working in municipal government where quite often, the furthest ahead you needed to plan was tomorrow’s newspaper. By the very nature of our business, The Winnipeg Foundation does not think short term and that has helped us remain sustainable. For example, we just came through an extraordinary period of financial turbulence triggered by the market meltdown. As a heavily invested organization, we were affected by the uncertainty as much or more than most, and yet because of our values and long-term planning, we remained remarkably stable during the crisis. In fact, our grants actually increased in keeping with our long-established policy to generate predictable community support. Even if you throw the worst recession in 50 years at us, we know that we’re still going to be here to invest in the community and to build a stronger philanthropic environment. Understanding our business has allowed us to stay the course.

— With reporting by Barbara Chabai

John McFerran, PhD, F. CHRP, is founder and president of People First HR Services Ltd. For more information, visit www.peoplefirsthr.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 5, 2010 I1