The Community-Based Research Centre (CBRC) is a nonprofit charitable organization that promotes the health of the gay community through research and intervention development. Douglas Nelson’s guest for this episode is Jody Jollimore, the Executive Director at CBRC. Jody faced several challenges in taking over the organization and building it to scale, especially during the pandemic. What kept the organization strong and intact through the ups and downs? Jody says it all boils down to believing in the work. Workers at CBRC don’t work for the sake of the paycheck but because it impacts them and their loved ones personally. Tune in and learn from Jody’s challenges and experiences in managing and reorganizing a nonprofit research centre.
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Community-Based Research Centre With Jody Jollimore
Our guest is Jody Jollimore. He’s the Executive Director of Community-Based Research Centre here in Vancouver and we’re thrilled to have him as a guest on the show. Welcome, Jody.
I wanted to have you on for a while because there’s a lot we’re going to get into about building an organization after taking over from founders, building for scale, and all of the adjustments your organization has made through the pandemic. Before we get started, it’s helpful if you tell our audience a little bit about CBRC and what your role is in the community?
Community-Based Research Centre or CBRC is an organization that promotes the health of Two-Spirit, queer, and trans people through research and intervention development. Sometimes, I describe our work as the gay lobby. We spend a lot of time with decision-makers, public policy developers, and analysts to look at problems that impact our community then we try to bring in community-based research to inform their decision-making.
As an organization, you’ve certainly expanded your focus from your beginnings, but tell us a little bit more about how the organization got started?
I like to describe CBRC as a pop-and-pop organization. We were founded by a gay couple in 1999, and these were two guys, Rick Marchand and Terry Trussler who’d been around the HIV movement and lost a lot of friends. We got together with some other survivors from that time to create Community-Based Research Centre. We were established to meet a need or fill a gap. For a long time, the government not only tried to ignore us, sometimes, they actively tried to erase gay men, queer, and trans people. CBRC develops research from the community that would benefit the community. 1999 was our humble beginnings. Over time, the organization developed a strong foundation. In 2017, we received significant investments from the federal government through the Public Health Agency of Canada and that allowed us to scale up almost all of our programs and services across the country.
It’s been consistent growth for the organization over the years. How did you get involved and when did you come to be part of the CBRC story?
I am a product of the CBRC’s capacity-building programs in some way. I started working in community health in Montreal when I was doing my undergrad there and then it was a for youth, bi youth organization. We were a very queer-friendly org. We were one of the first organizations in the country that were prescribing hormones for trans youth. Quite a progressive organization for the time then I moved to Vancouver and I got involved with was what was called Gayway. That became a health initiative for men, a standalone organization which was a queer health organization for men in Vancouver.
Once again, a community health peer-driven. That was my trajectory. A couple of the board members were also the pop-and-pop Rick and Terry that I mentioned. They ran the Community-Based Research Centre. At that time, it was a very small organization. This was a pre-public health agency investment but they were supporting health initiatives for men by ensuring that we, as an organization, are doing frontline work had the information and data we needed on our community so that we could go back to decision-makers and we could use that in funding proposals. I have a long relationship in Community-Based Research Centre including being a graduate of one of their youth programs.
One of my favorite things on this show is having founders come on and talk about their organizations. I almost always ask them, “If you had to do it all over again, would you do it?” To date, eight of the people have said no and one has said yes. I think your founders would be in that yes category because they’ve navigated the transition from founder to professionalized staff. Take us back to when that happened, how you approached it as a staff member, and how you’ve managed to maintain the relationship with the founders since then.
I should note that I consider my situation extremely fortunate. A lot of executive directors are hired into an organization when there’s a change in leadership or there’s more of a crisis either financially or the vision of the organization. I inherited an organization that was at the beginning of significant growth and a new funding cycle. This is to give credit to our founders, rarely do people apply for large brands and then leave an organization rather they stick around to spend those grants. That makes sense. You have the vision you would stick around, whereas our founders had the foresight to recognize it was a good time to change leadership while still maintaining a presence in the organization. That allowed for capacity building and a new generation of queer health and gay men’s health advocates to come into the organization when we were on an upswing. It was an exciting time and it was a great time to be recruiting. I have to give that to their credit. They were willing to let go of the reigns at a very exciting time.
[bctt tweet=”When you have your vision, stick to it! ” via=”no”]
That speaks very well to their vision and their commitment to the mission of the organization. Was there ever a moment where you thought we need to sit down and talk this through how this is going to work and how did that conversation go?
There’s an opportunity to do a plug here for an organization like Community-Based Research Centre because our organization is peer lend because people here have lived experience. People here are impacted by the decisions we make in the work we do. It means that you get a value-add to everything. It means that people are punching time clocks and people aren’t doing this because they care about the paycheck per se. They’re doing it because they believe in the work and at the end of the day, it impacts them and their loved ones personally. That makes a difference as an organization. Bringing it back to the founders, they’re not thinking what’s best for me. They’re thinking what’s best for the movement, my community, and this organization because we all have a vested interest in seeing this work happen whether or not we’re involved in it or not. It makes a difference in our staffing, in our board, and certainly with our founders.
Thinking through that, what is best is an interesting lens. Certainly, we encourage boards to be looking at when we’re working with them. What is best and who is defining best often gets in the way when you’ve got some disagreement about what best is. How have you taken that what is best from the founders into your organization’s leadership as you’ve built out the team and expanded the programs?
We’re a community-based organization. There is a commitment to capacity building. I have a unique relationship with the founders. They are managers, not just mine, but many of us in the movement. Having that relationship is unique and extremely beneficial. It means that the transition from their leadership to mine has been smoother because we are already in line in many ways from a values perspective. There’s also a level of trust there. That said, I was a new executive director. I’d never been an executive director before out of this role and there was some hesitation around handing over the reins to somebody who has no executive leadership experience.
There was certain risks involved in that and we put safeguards in place. I had an executive committee that was made up of our founders which they transitioned into senior advisors and our board chair. Eventually, we expanded the executive committee to include the treasurer and the vice-chair as well to build some capacity for succession planning. We were meeting much more frequently, weekly then biweekly. With the executive committee, we meet once a month and we meet a week before our board meeting. They’re largely there as a support system for me. In the early days, it was very advisory. These days, it’s an opportunity for me to have a safe space to come and talk about some of the joys and frustration of being an executive director.
That’s something we hear a lot from people on the show and our clients, that being in these senior positions can be very lonely. I’m curious if there was a moment when you realize that your relationship with the executive committee had changed rather than the advisory making sure you kept things on the rails that you need to lead the organization. Do you remember when that switch started to occur?
I feel like it was a pretty natural transition over time. It was a year into my role when it became clear that I was succeeding. I had a successful evaluation at that point where the board had reviewed my performance as well as solicited feedback from our partners and the staff. There was a feeling around the executive committee that they were more secure in my leadership. I was feeling more secure in the leadership as well. We had a discussion about it where we discussed what the terms of reference would be for that executive committee moving forward.
One of the things I’ve noted as you’ve been talking is you keep coming back to the connection to community and mission. How has that connection to mission played out as the organization has grown? Is there an example, a story, or a person that you think about that embodies the mission of CRBC?
That is one of the challenges of our organizations. It’s our acronym. We get everything from CIBC to CBRC to CRBC. When I think about a great challenge, I think about renaming this organization while still trying to hold onto the roots. In terms of your question around what do I think embodies Community-Based Research Centre, I like to think how everything builds on each other here. We started with our research. It was community-based research and very quickly, we saw in the research that there was a need for a couple of things. What the research told us was that there was a real gap in knowledge for young gay men. Immediately, we piloted the leadership and sexual health education module here at the organization that we started offering in partnership with other community organizations.
Through that, we noticed that there were a couple of geeks every year in Totally OutRIGHT that wanted to know more about the data and analyze the data. We offered a module built on that that was specifically for young investigators who were interested in the numbers and wanting to spend more time working with our data. From these programs, other programs have developed around bi pop organizing, looking at various trans health initiatives, and things that are important to these groups of young queer people. It all builds off of each other. That is a testament to the community-based aspect but also the capacity building in a sector where we are a minority, Two-Spirit, queer, and trans people in this country.
There is a lack of capacity in young leaders perhaps even people who realize that these jobs exist. We had to go out, beat the bushes, find these young queer people, and then give them skills. We’ve seen it pay off in spades. We’ve seen our programs are helping now to staff queer and trans organizations. They’re going on to be policymakers, do their Master’s, PhDs, epidemiology, and they’re working for public health. By building that capacity among our population, eventually we’ll see the health outcomes change as well.
That is a very powerful model to see that working. It would be interesting to see how you keep track of all of the alumni that have been through your programs and organization and see the impact you’ve made in the community.
We do have a couple of alumni groups and a lot of relationships and friendships have been built. We’ve been offering Totally OutRIGHT since 2005. It’s now replicated in many cities across the country. Sometimes, people find out to each other Totally OutRIGHT grads and there’s a moment of recognition there.
I want to spend a little time talking about you, a very humble, as a leader, on a day-to-day basis, but you’ve made it sound like you just happened to be in the right place at the right time to be the executive director. I know there was a lot more to it. The big grant from the federal government comes to the organization in 2017 and you know you need to expand the organization. How did you, as a new executive director, approach that expansion?
The good thing about grants is a lot of the work is prescribed once the grant comes in. We knew that we were going to need certain positions at the organization. The first thing that we had to do with staffing and a lot of time was spent on HR. As an organization, that went from having two and a half contractors to an organization that we now have. It’s well over twenty full-time employees across the country that we needed to put in place systems of payroll, benefits, employee contracts, and things like that. It was starting at the basics. Even though CBRC had been around since 1999, years after it was founded, we still didn’t have employees. We had to start off at that point. It was building an entire employment standard at the organization and that required some internal and external consulting. In some ways, when you’re building from the ground up, it’s exciting but it’s also daunting.
It was nothing that the organization had done before, but you didn’t have a choice so you had to figure it out. That’s a hallmark of a lot of significant growth for organizations in the social profit sector. It’s not a matter of 1, 2, or let’s put a 5-year plan in place to move from two and a half contractors to twenty full-time staff. It’s these big jumps that come from significant investments.
As was the case for us, we had to grow but you also have to deliver because your funder doesn’t necessarily pay you to grow. We’re going through hiring after hiring. I’ve had so many interviews in those first six months. We can’t take the track. We were staffing 11, 12 positions in the first six months that I was here. A lot of interview time but at the same time, you have to be deliberate because your funders is not paying you to hire. They’re paying you to put out information, translate knowledge, build networks, and advocate. They’re not paying you to hire. It was a bit of a juggling act where you spend half a day hiring and then the rest of the day, you would have to spend trying to perform and produce. It was a bit chaotic in the early days.
Did you ring a bell and say, “We’re into the next gear, We’re into the delivery stage,” or did you have time to even stop and recognize it?
No. There was a definite. Once we had our first ten staff, things became much easier because then you have some staff who are hiring and some who are focused on the deliverables. You could keep those balls in the air much easier.
I understand you’re moving into a phase of renewing this large national grant. Getting ready for that, you went through a process of organizational development or reorganization to make sure you had the right positions in place. What were the pressures you were feeling in order to make those changes? Walk us through the process that you undertook to affect those changes?
Our organization tripled. You can count our first year more quadrupled in size in about two years. We’ve been in a constant evolution of change since 2017. Often, the management techniques is trying to successfully manage all of the change. It’s much easier with the staff now. What we’re looking at as an organization is how do we meet the demands of others. As we’ve grown, we’re now a bigger organization and with that comes more expectations. We’re trying to manage that as well.
[bctt tweet=”Keep fine-tuning the work you’re currently doing. ” via=”no”]
Where are those expectations coming from? Is it the community or the connection to community that’s pushing you to ask and answer different questions?
In some ways, it’s community. In some ways, it’s funders. Sometimes, it’s internally. There’s such little done around Two-Spirit, queer, and trans work in this country that there’s no shortage of work and populations which require more attention with growth comes more expectations and more demands on the organization. Do you want to return to your earlier question? I don’t think I answered it. What was your last question around? I did have a proper answer for it.
It’s with organizational development. I know that you had to reposition your management team as you’re getting ready for the renewal and to address the expansion of the organization. What were the pressures that you were feeling that made you realize, “I need to make a change in how we’re operating?”
As we brought on new funding from different sources, it requires a change in the funding formula of how positions are funded and things like that. It was this constant evolution and growth. There weren’t real points where we shifted and said, “We have to stop staying status quo and we have to start changing and evolving again.” It’s been a pretty constant evolution. Therefore, we transitioned from getting through the hiring to we’ve got to move on to this next thing. It’s a great team that I’ve got and a hardworking, ambitious group.
Now that you’ve made that change, do you feel like you’ve built to that next stage of capacity for the next wave of expansion?
I’m less concerned about expansion now. I’m more concerned about quality control. At some point, constant growth is an unrealistic expectation, nor does anybody want that. At this point, we’re happy with the size of the organization. We’re fine-tuning the work that we’re doing. That’s a different conversation than let’s go out and get more money, get more grants, and get more work to do. It’s more like, “Let’s put the brakes on new work and let’s look at how we can do more work with what we’re funded to do.” As an example, rather than going out and trying to find money for indigenous health work or trying to find money for BIPOC work. What we’re doing instead is looking at our programs and saying, “How can we do a better job of engaging these communities?” We need to start from scratch with that particular program and rebuild it but it’s less about looking for new work and more about trying to do our work better.
I appreciate that and value that approach. I hear time and time again, the organization is saying, “We need to grow so we need more.” We always say that more is not a strategy. You need to focus on that delivery which you’ve described so well. I want to take you back to something you said in our conversation. You said what allowed the transition from the founders to a professionalized organization was that it focused on the question of what is best. How have you maintained that focus on what is best as you’ve grown and as the demands on your organization continue to change?
We’re uniquely positioned because as a community-based research organization, there are a couple of values that ensure we are staying aligned with our communities of interest. One of them is evidence-based so we’d go out and we collect evidence whether or not it’s through informal consultation which is a funded part of the work we do or it’s through more formal surveys and data collection. We are uniquely positioned to take advantage of a lot of data about our community. That enables us to say, “We need to do more work over here or we need to start looking at suicide prevention more,” because we were able to use that. This is for non-profit community-based organizations. Knowing your audiences and understanding either population or communities that you’re trying to work with can help you focus on staying attuned to what’s important.
It’s something CBRC has done a good job of over the last few years. We’ve seen a number of organizations grow significantly over the years and struggled to maintain that connection to what made them so successful at the outset or what made them good. It has been hard to hold onto and it sounds like that’s been something you’ve been attuned to as the leader.
That’s not to say we don’t miss when our staff was small enough that we could all fit into one room. We wouldn’t be able to do that these days but pre-COVID when we could all get together, have a beer, and talk about an issue in a very informal way. It felt like the stakes were they weren’t as high. Sometimes, we miss those days and that feeling of dinner table and family organization. We’re still trying to maintain that culture. With growth and professionalizing that you mentioned, you can’t help but lose some of that. We’re trying our best to keep that in mind and to maintain it if possible.
As an organization that is known for bringing people and community together, that’s been challenged for you as it has for everyone. How has CBRC adapted to this living online and Zoom life environment as your summits and those sorts of things have been made virtual?
It’s been a challenge, especially for those of us extroverts who enjoy being in the company of other people. I point to our summit as an example, we have our annual summit in November. It’s usually an in-person event here in Vancouver. Our most successful summit was in 2019 and we had about 330 people attend that event. That was great for us. We had to go completely virtual in 2020 and we had more than 650 registrants. It’s almost double. We got people from places we wouldn’t normally and it was far more equitable in terms of who could attend. It didn’t mean you had to have a job in the sector to attend. That didn’t mean you had to have money to fly to Vancouver to attend. There’s a bit of a silver lining there. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to only in-person. I’m committed to going back to in-person, but we’ll maintain a virtual aspect to the summit because from an equity lens, it made the summit more accessible.
That’s really interesting to hear and that’s something that goes in the silver lining that we’re all looking for as we’re moving through this pandemic.
We’re always looking for silver linings.
Speaking of looking for things, as we come to the end of our conversation here, what are you most looking forward to as we enter what we hope to be the final stages of the pandemic and start with the grand reopening of society? What are you most optimistic about as an executive director?
Personally, I’m looking forward to some in-person meetings and being able to resume some trips to Ottawa and other provincial capitals to be able to talk to decision-makers. Zoom has its limitations so I am looking forward to being able to do that on a different level. As an organization, a lot of populations and communities in this country, COVID has underscored some of our vulnerabilities. I’m hoping that we take those lessons as we move forward. For an organization like mine that’s working largely in the public health realm, I remember our health minister saying back in July 2020 that she didn’t anticipate public health being the poor cousin anymore and our core sister or whatever the expression is. I remember thinking, that sounds optimistic, but I hope she’s right. I do hope that we learned from this. We learned that there is a connection between health and the economy and we can’t have one without the other. We’ve been saying that for a long time as an organization, and hopefully, that we’ll see that as a society moving forward.
Jody, thank you very much for being on the show. I want to remind all of our audience to take away from what drives so much of the work that’s happening at CBRC is that connection to mission, that focus on what is best for that mission. That’s a lesson that we can all take a lot from across the sector. Thank you for sharing that with us.
Thanks, Doug. Check out our website. We’re at CBRC.net.
Thank you for being on The Discovery Pod.
About Jody Jollimore