Although no one could have predicted the immensity of the crisis brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, the social profit sector is in many ways inherently geared towards responding to situations like this. This is especially true for United Way of the Lower Mainland, which has made moves to decentralize its operations and involve the community more. Michael McKnight, the organization’s CEO, talks with Douglas Nelson about how United Way is coping with the challenges being faced by the sector in this unique crisis and makes reflections about what the post-pandemic world would be like for the sector. He also talks about the ongoing partnership between United Way and three of the biggest organizations in the sector in Vancouver in an unprecedented collaborative effort to pool massive resources in response to the crisis.
Listen to the podcast here:
United Way Of The Lower Mainland With Michael McKnight
We have a special episode, looking at how the social sector is responding to and recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Our guest is Michael McKnight. He’s the CEO of the United Way of the Lower Mainland. He holds the distinction of being the first repeat guest on the show. Welcome, Mike.
It was a good year for a lot of organizations. People’s plans were in places, budgets were protected, results were coming in, then the world changed. When did you realize you needed to change at the United Way and do something to respond to COVID-19?
Interestingly or fortunately, this was a direction United Way was going in terms of thinking the United Way’s value proposition. As we talked about, it meant that United Way was taking a stronger leadership role in mobilizing the community, neighbors and citizens to help each other. When this crisis hit, it was less about making a substantive change to respond as it was the challenge of mobilizing even more people in a faster period of time to do slightly different things. I think our success is coming from the fact that we were aligning ourselves in this direction anyway. It has allowed us to be able to step up and utilize a lot of the people in processes and organizational assets we’ve been putting in place over the last years.
It does not play well, but you are able to respond quickly because it matched your strategy and your new value proposition. How did you decide what to do? Who did you consult?
That’s a bit of a complicated question. The easiest answer is, we responded to opportunities that we saw to make a difference. We responded to offers of assistance to respond. We were able to put those things together in ways that made sense to the needs of people across the Lower Mainland. The United Ways is fortunate. This is our 90th anniversary here in the Lower Mainland. We’ve got decades of relationships with organizations that offer to step up and help. For example, I was able to get BCAA and their trucks that are on the road for assistance to help pick up and deliver a large quantity of soup to a food kitchen at neighborhood houses in Vancouver. That became a very easy mobilization of resources because our history is strong and deep with organizations like BCAA that we were able to make it happen.
We’ve been quite fortunate in the number of people in organizations who stepped up. Because we’re working closely in neighborhoods with individual citizens, we’ve been able to keep track of what those needs are whether it’s seniors, who are self-isolating or have mobility issues, who need assistance with groceries or prescriptions, walking the dog, friendly check-ins. We know who a lot of those people are and have known that for the past couple of years. It’s been easier to check in with them and determine what unique needs they might need or might have during this time.
When you did that check-in, were there things that you were surprised about or were they out of the realm of your normal activities?
I’ll give you one. I don’t know what spectrum it lies on, sad or happy depending on what moment at a time they look at it. We were able to help citizens in a community in Surrey set up a telephone tree. People who were willing to reach out to vulnerable neighbors using the phone or another device to check in on them. One woman who had volunteered to be part of this tree was checking in on an elderly individual and she hadn’t heard from him after the three calls. She ended up calling 911, who was able to enter the gentleman’s home and found him collapsed on the floor from malnutrition. He hadn’t been out to get groceries in five days.
He hadn’t normally been comfortable asking for assistance. When he was told not to go shopping by his healthcare worker because of the risks, he took that literally and had collapsed. The first responders were able to find him in time. It probably won’t be unique in these times, where we can find these particularly vulnerable. I think we’re only going to see an increase in vulnerable people as time goes on. Agencies by themselves won’t be able to respond to all of these challenges and we need each other to step up and help. That’s been our perspective on how can United Way mobilize people to help each other during this particularly unique crisis.
As you say, a story that supports the move that your organization is taken to be in community and connected directly with citizens. It is a very sad story for that gentleman, but I’m glad to hear that he got the help that he needed. Beyond that one specific example, what have you done as an organization to respond to the pandemic?
There have been a number of different initiatives. The first one was a call from Kevin McCort at the Vancouver Foundation with a request to participate in a collaborative fund with Vancity in the City of Vancouver. The four organizations got together and created a pool of funds to help organizations that have seen a significant increase in demand, a corresponding drop in revenue and get out around. At this point, we are around $4 million into those agencies. The demand is a lot higher, but between the organizations, we were able to put in, raise it and bring in a few other players to do the table with donations, a joint fund that we’ve been working collaboratively to get out into the community. We hope that more funds will be added to that fund over time.
We’ve worked with our Seniors Advocate in British Columbia, Isobel Mackenzie and bc211, which is a 24-hour resource referral call center and website that United Way established across North America, but we establish the one here in British Columbia. With a program that the Ministry of Health funds through United Way called Better at Home, which is an ongoing support service for seniors. We knew that the vulnerability of seniors would be even higher, so anybody can call bc211 and volunteer or call bc211 if you’re a senior. Let them know what help you need and the United Way will work with seniors’ organizations around the province to make sure that that senior gets helped. That was the second one.
[bctt tweet=”Agencies by themselves won’t be able to respond to all calls for assistance. We need to step up and help each other.” via=”no”]
The third one we’re launching is an expansion of that program to any vulnerable person. Anybody can go to our website if they want to volunteer or need assistance and we will make sure that we match people with needs to people willing to help in a safe, vetted, supported process. We’ve got a collaborative fundraising initiative with the United Way’s Local Love in a Global Crisis campaign. We were thrilled. We got a $50,000 donor the first day we launched that website. Money has been continuing to come in and so we’re collaborating on that. The federal government announced a $9 million contribution to the United Way to support seniors. We’re working through the details on how that will be used by United Way across the country, which is a lot of great things. At the same time, I get emails every day from organizations that are desperate for funds to keep their doors open. It’s a difficult thing to say that, “We don’t have the funds to support every organization in the community yet.” There’s a lot of desperation out there that’s difficult to respond to on a daily basis. It’s heart-wrenching to say no.
Unfortunately, you have to say no to some of those, but the ones that you are able to help, it sounds like you’re making a positive contribution. You mentioned bc211, who has a relatively new CEO, Irene Chanin. She’s a friend of the show and I spoke with her. She mentioned that this has been quite a baptism by fire for her in the new role.
We’ve been the sole funder of bc211 up until the provincial governments stepped in to provide additional funding to get the service out to all British Colombians. We’ve worked quite closely with both Irene and the organization for many years. The information with rural service is particularly important anytime, but its value is enhanced and Irene has got great leadership capability. It’s been a trying time to have to respond to increase volumes for support and information. She’s done a great job in a short period of time to make sure bc211 is positioned to handle all requests for information.
You mentioned that you’re moving forward on four areas in particular. How did you tell your board or how did you engage your board as the organization accelerated and pivoted to meet the need?
I’ve got a great board from the point of view of they know when to lead in with the expertise that they have. They know when to lead out when they recognize that the staff at the United Way have the community expertise that’s required at a time like this. I’ve been keeping them up to date on everything we’re doing. The only response I’ve got is, “Let us know where we can help.” They’ve been supportive in getting out of the way and making sure that we’re fully capable of responding to needs in a very responsive and tailored way. I don’t think you could ask more from the board at a time like this than to let you do what your organization is meant to do.
That’s a great description of an engaged board that knows its role. Your organization and many other organizations have built in the capacity to respond to times of crisis. While we may not have been predicting pandemic, the need to respond when the community needs us is a fundamental part of the social profit sector. You’ve built that capacity into your organization. How has your team responded to this? You’ve planned for it. You understood this may happen one day. It arrives and you push go. How does the team respond?
I can’t give them enough kudos for how they’ve responded. I think the measurement of how we do is in the fact that you could plan for all of this somehow maybe, but you never know how it’s going to roll out. The ability of a staff group to adapt to the challenges that are in front of them, the needs that are in front of them is stronger than a robust plan. With all good intentions, people are off doing stuff and not necessarily in the most coordinated way and sometimes we trip over ourselves. I’d rather have that than be bogged down in the process and not be able to respond in a timely way. It was interesting because we have this one initiative launching, a platform that allows us to match people in need with volunteers.
A bunch of those have popped up organically around, which is great. At the same time, I don’t think these organic ones have thought through some of the risks associated with matching vulnerable people with for example unscreened volunteers. Being the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada, I’m experienced in liability in the risk mitigation that comes with that responsibility of matching vulnerable people with others. I give full credit in that we weren’t in that business necessarily either in the same way, but we’ve been able to get a platform up. We’re vetting all the volunteers. They all get 24-hour turnaround, criminal record check, and the staff has been able to design a system in less than a week that gets the help to the people who needed in a very safe and responsible way. I’m proud of the team for being able to respond to something that we couldn’t have planned for. At the end of the day, in a way that will be effective for our community.
One of the other initiatives you mentioned was the partnership with the Vancouver Foundation. You’ve got a call from Kevin McCort and said, “Let’s do this.” Tell us a little bit more about what that partnership is and how it works.
It’s evolving. I know anytime you get multiple organizations around the table, particularly in a crisis situation, I don’t think anybody has the ability to think through all the nuances of the partnership. It was a way for a significant granting organization, the Vancouver Vancity, Vancouver Foundation, the United Way, who I’ve experienced in granting have access to limited but some resources more so than many charities in this city. We came to a quick agreement to put funds in. The Vancity and Vancouver Foundation were able to put in $1 million upfront. We were able to put in $500,000 and other funds have come from different sources. It was great to see that we could get quick approval to take money that was not planned for this particular type of work, get the joint decision-making process up and running, and get the money into the community. Within two weeks, this all came together and checks were going out to organizations. It’s a testament to the leadership of those organizations.
How long would you say it would have taken those four organizations to negotiate that absent to crisis?
We’ll say three weeks.
We all have our own mandates. We all have our own priorities. We, in the sector, always talk about collaboration, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t come as easily as we like to think it does. We’ve co-funded things with the Vancouver Foundation before. We worked collaboratively with the City of Vancouver on many different levels, but I don’t think all four organizations have never come together to do something jointly in the past. It hasn’t happened in the past and we were able to do it in two weeks. I think it shows you what urgency can do when you’ve got good-intentioned organizations.
The importance of collaboration in the sector is something people talk a lot about. With what we see through our work with The Discovery Group working with the organizations is that collaboration comes best from organizations that are partnering and collaborating from a position of strength and where you’ve got a very equal partnership. That’s where great things can happen to advance both missions or mutual missions. When you have imperfect partnerships or power imbalances in those partnerships, those collaborations get difficult.
I had been in a vulnerable collaboration for a number of years from the point of view of, there was a real trend by funders to demand collaboration. I have had people debate me on it, but in my mind, collaboration is a tool or a means to an outcome. It’s not the outcome itself. When a funder demands collaboration as an additional funding, they put that collaboration as the required outcome instead of the actual change or impact it’s going to make on a particular population. This collaboration made sense in the moment because we knew communities and granting processes very well. We had the resources to make it happen. That collaboration became a bit of a natural. When it’s forced, it usually doesn’t work well, but when there’s that natural synergy, whether we all have the same power. The Vancouver Foundation is a pretty powerful organization, but even if there was a power imbalance at that table, I don’t think it showed up in any way, shape or form.
[bctt tweet=”The ability of a staff group to adopt to challenges in front of them is much stronger than a robust plan.” via=”no”]
The enormity of the crisis you’re responding to likely helps people look past any of those things that may otherwise be in the middle of the table.
Credit to everybody involved.
You among others in the sector, your position is unique. Your position is near the center of the community response to the pandemic, hearing from organizations that are struggling to do their good work and deliver on their important missions, advancing your own organization, delivering on your own mission and bringing people and organizations together. Is there a story or a person that has been particularly meaningful for you as you’ve been coordinating and responding to this?
Maybe that’s the silver lining in this. There isn’t one but there are dozens. Often, you could look to one person and say, “He or she stepped up. They were the leader in this particular scenario,” but there are the ministers who are in front of us on television every day. The first responders, you can’t say enough about them. Many of us try to acknowledge at 7:00 every night. At the same time, you think about all those people who work in grocery stores and at pharmacies, who have faced adverse working conditions beyond what their job description would ever have imagined. Yet, every day they show up to do their shift and make sure that those of us who are lined up to get the necessities of life that we need. I’m glad in a way that it’s not one person. It seems to be many people across many communities who are stepping up to make a difference. The bigger silver lining if we could ever establish it is to carry this momentum and change perspective on what our roles are beyond this crisis into the day-to-day fabric of how we live. Would that be a phenomenal change in the history of our society?
It is with all of the reading and the scrolling, many of us are doing these days. The phrase that keeps jumping out at me is, “Everything’s going to be different,” or “Nothing will be the same when we’re through this.” At the beginning of the crisis, I was thinking, “How do we know that maybe we’ll get through this and it’ll be like a power outage and we’ll go on afterward?” The longer we get into this, I’m coming around to your way of thinking or certainly your way of looking into the future. I’m hoping that this represents a significant change in how we view the community, the role of the social profit sector, and the role of philanthropy or people who may be able to contribute in making a difference in the lives of their fellow citizens.
Even how we view consumption. We don’t need everything right away. We don’t need the amount of things we thought we always needed. We were looking casually through all the bad news and you’ll see the little snippet of information like the waterways around Venice are crystal clear or smog levels drop. I don’t know if it’s my way of thinking, but I do believe it’s my way of hoping because I’m a little more cynical and then thinking that we’re going to learn enough from this. If we did, it would change how we interact. It would change how we look at our world. It would change how we look at our future. It could instill a sense of self-responsibility that we’ve probably lost over the last number of decades.
Hope is what it’s going to take because if we’re going to imagine a change or how we want to be different in the future, we have to imagine what that’s going to look like. We’re living it these days, but being aware that we want to take it forward out of this pandemic crisis is important. You speak gruffly sometimes, but I don’t know many people who would call you cynical.
I could give you a long list. That aside, I do worry about the charitable sector in this country. I cannot see a scenario where many organizations don’t cease to exist after this. I can’t see a way out for organizations that have been on a shoestring for so long. I’ve heard the argument for many years that we needed some consolidation. I probably would agree with that to a certain extent, but there will be a lot of organizations that do not have the capacity to get through this and come out the other side. The saddest part will be that the clients of those services who can’t find that same service somewhere else. That will be the true loss in our community.
We had the conversation that the world around the social profit sector is changing faster than the sector itself. It was a slow-moving calamity for the sector that was coming in and those pressures were becoming apparent even as far back as February. In a world before pandemic, we saw these things moving and pressuring the sector. The rapid nature of the change that we’re going through will have that profound impact of consolidating, eliminating, but also there will be organizations that will be stronger coming through this. It will be a different social profit sector. In many ways, it may be healthier.
A small example, the one you use yourself, is instead of talking about charities, you talk about social profit. Those organizations that have held on to their reason for being their mission doggedly despite changes around them are the ones that I think will probably not come back. Those organizations that can look at their vision and mission and understand how it applies to today’s society, I think are the ones that will come out stronger. Those who can think about ways of sustainability beyond the next event that they’re going to run. You can look at the intellectual property, you can look at the creativity that they harness every day, and figure out how to monetize that in a way that’s a values-driven and aligned with their mission, but can help them deliver the things that are core to the organization. Those who can change rapidly, adopt, innovative and entrepreneurial kinds of ways of doing business are the ones that will make the biggest contribution going forward.
When I think of your organization that’s gone through such a tremendous amount of change and innovation over the last couple of years to move from being a centralized organization to one that is more distributed in the community, your team and your board have been through a lot of changes. You’ve had a couple of years to get used to this pressure to decentralize and be connected to individuals to innovate and organizations that haven’t been through that don’t have that muscle memory and are learning this for the first time.
Muscle memory, I think reducing their adversity to risk. It’s easy to validate the things that we’ve always done because they were meaningful at one point in time to somebody. The biggest hurdle is trying something new in most social profit or charitable organizations. It is a difficult process for an organization, particularly a charitable organization to go through. Most boards, either consciously or not, feel they’re there to protect the organization. Rightly or wrongly, they’re there to protect the organization. That protection often manifests itself as safe, conservative or risk mitigation. Those are the wrong ways to protect an organization. Encouraging innovation, risk and learning and change is the best way to show responsibility and do deliver on your mandate as a board and as a senior staff.
One of the hardest things I found in undergoing the change process that we are going through or went or are continuing to go through the United Way is being okay with some people won’t accept it and move on. We’re used to taking care of everybody, including our own people in this. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t take care of you, but we can’t let some people who disagree stop the evolution that we need to fulfill the role that we’ve been generously given in our society. It sounds cliché, but we’re going to need some increasingly bold leadership in the sector to deliver on the role we have.
That’s where I am encouraged by the types of partnerships you described between the province through the bc211 and the partnership that you had with Vancity, the City of Vancouver, Vancouver Foundation and the United Way Lower Mainland that bringing together those organizations that are important in the community to respond as one. It sends a powerful message of the urgency that we’re facing. I think it also gives a lot of hope to people who are in need of those services that maybe didn’t need them before, but certainly and urgently in need of them nowadays.
I think the next big evolution and one that we’ve been on the doorstep for the last few years is the recognition by the business sector that they have a role to play in the wellbeing of communities. Their customers, market and employees all rely on a healthy community to be successful. We started a Social Purpose Institute for companies that wanted to define what their purpose was about a few years ago and we’ve had pretty good uptake. The next evolution and what companies will see coming out of this, I hope, is that there is a role beyond that profitability and shareholder value that they’ll recognize as well. This pandemic, we see the province, Vancity, United Way, Vancouver Foundation and other partners. I watch the news and I see companies changing their production from something to a Personal protection Equipment that are most needed. That’s the society that will be the next evolution where we can disrupt supply chains and we can disrupt manufacturing to collectively work towards that strong community.
[bctt tweet=”Collaboration comes best from organizations that are collaborating from a position of strength.” via=”no”]
It is something to look forward to as we deal with the reality of the pandemic. As we’re going through this and as you’re run off your feet, how are you looking after yourself and those closest to you?
I’m nowhere near in the same situation that many of the people in the front lines are. I’m less worried about that and I’m worried about our staff being able to deliver for the people. What I’ve encouraged our staff to do as we’re all working remotely and staring at screens is put that screen down. Get outside and practicing safe social distancing and all the things that public health is suggesting we do, but recognizing the need for exercise, fresh air and movement, time to reflect that’s not in front of a screen. I’m trying to practice that. To be honest, on occasion, I open a good bottle of wine.
I think quite a few people have been doing that over the last couple of weeks. Mike, I want to thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to join us, to share your experience and your thinking about the sector and what this pandemic is going to mean for us in the future. Thank you to you and your team for all that you’re doing to make our community a better and safer place.
I appreciate that and I’ll pass it on to the team. Thank you so much.
- United Way of the Lower Mainland
Better at Home
- Local Love in a Global Crisis
- Vancouver Foundation
- Social Purpose Institute
About Michael McKnight
Experienced Chief Executive Officer with a demonstrated history of working in the not-for-profit industry. Strong business development professional skilled in Nonprofit Organizations, Fundraising, Public speaking, Leadership Development, Strategic Planning, and Program Development.