Foundations and all kinds of charitable institutions are purpose-driven, collectively moving towards a single goal. But what solidifies organizations like this is the community built upon and around it. Douglas Nelson is joined by Andrea Dicks, President of Community Foundations of Canada, to share about her purpose driven work to create a more equitable future. She explains how they put equity at the center of their work and how community is the heart of the social profit sector. Andrea speaks openly and honestly about her leadership style, holding herself accountable, and learning, so that she and CFC can continue to build a future where everyone belongs.
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Community Foundations of Canada With Andrea Dicks
Our guest is Andrea Dicks. She is the President of Community Foundations of Canada. She is a vocal advocate for the role of community–driven solutions and a true champion for the sector. Welcome, Andrea. You said something in a conversation that we had that inspired me to think about our sector in a different way. I want to spend a little bit of time on that to start our conversation. You talk about Community Foundations of Canada or CFC being a purpose–driven organization. What is being a purpose–driven organization mean to you?
To me, the purpose is bigger than you, me and the organization. The purpose is about what is the change that you are seeking to make in the world and the influence that you were trying to have on the health and wellbeing of the lives of community members. To be an organization that is focused on that, means all of your decisions and actions are about that greater purpose. It might not be to serve your organization or to serve your leadership. It’s about the change that you want to make in a community or at least that’s what it is for CFC. Our purpose is the relentless pursuit of a future where everyone belongs. Every decision we make, every action we take, every partner that we make, every staff that we bring on board, we do so with that particular purpose in mind. That’s our North Star. That’s what we continually hold ourselves accountable to and hope that community holds us accountable to do the same.Foundation is a type of corporation. It's not the heart, community is. Click To Tweet
Inside your organization when you are working with the team, what does that accountability look like? What are those conversations feel like when you are making sure you are being purpose-driven?
Usually, those conversations come up in the sticky conversations, the ones that make you pause and ponder. The way that they show up is when we are in a conversation or in a partnership or in a situation in which we are asking ourselves, “Is this action? Will this initiative and decision lead to the relentless pursuit of a future where everyone belongs? Will it be counter or neutral to it?” Those are things that we are evaluating constantly. We are asking our team to do so. Our team asks the leadership that question as well.
As we are navigating with the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a space where we have been trying to lean into to ensure that the actions that we take are about that purpose. It is about building that future. That’s the keyword, the future where everyone belongs. It’s not just about this moment. It’s holding ourselves to that North Star so that we are moving in that direction. It shows up in our staff, in our board and in the types of conversations that we are having at a governance level. It shows up in the conversations we are having across the network of 191 community foundations. All decisions, actions and strategies can roll back to that one particular element. That’s how you hold yourself accountable.
Can you think of an example of something you either stopped doing or didn’t do because you had that stop and think a moment about the purpose?
There are many every day. It’s about information that you put on your website. It’s about processes that you create and whether or not those processes, let’s say grant–making processes, which community foundations do alongside CFC all the time. We ask ourselves, “Are we putting out into the world something that is accessible? Is it equitable? Are we designing it in a frame of mind that everyone has an equal opportunity or more importantly, equitable opportunity? Are we taking the easy road or the right road?” It shows up in the operationalization of what we put out into the world. From communications, grant–making to the learning institute programming that we do with community foundations, all of that sits in a place of how are we going to move this forward? How are we going to pursue this?
Mostly, we make those decisions, educate ourselves, continually learn and grow as an organization and as individuals. A lot of it comes down to conversations. A concrete example is we were part of the partners who were implementing the emergency community support fund. We were doing so in a way that prioritized equity and put it at the center of that initiative or we were trying to. I got a phone call one day from an executive director of a community foundation. I know him well. He said to me, “I am struggling on how to communicate to my board why this matters and I need your help.” What they are saying is, “We believe in equity. Do we have to take action for equity and not believing in it enough?”
It opened up this amazing conversation where he and I could have a dialogue about what it means to put that purpose into action, in this case, to put equity into the conversation. Not only put it into the conversation but put it into the actions and then empower him to have a conversation with his board in which he is bringing that message into the community. He is, hopefully, doing so in a way that might change some hearts and minds that had had a different perspective in advance of that conversation. That gets back to this purpose–driven organization and what that element is that you are weaving into your conversations and into your decisions.
One of the things that’s clear if anyone’s been following the work of CFC, your purpose has been field–tested a lot over 2020. Your organization is perhaps one of the leading examples of how the social profit sector has responded to the pandemic. I want you to go back and walk us through what that call to action was when you realized as President of CFC three months into your role, not new to the organization when you knew that CFC needed to step up in a different way.
There are so many things that I hope I never forget. I hope that there are different elements in my memory box several years down the way. To answer your question, when I think about January and February 2020, I think about community foundations doing amazing work. Locally, being part of local change. Nationally, we were partnering and collaborating on a variety of initiatives. Initiatives that put youth voices at the leadership table, that are preparing the social profit sector for social finance and that are about gender equality and raising the voices of all genders. That was amazing work. The middle of March 2020 hit. In the middle of March 2020, we witnessed community foundations, the social profit sector pause, take a deep breath and start to pivot. Community foundations, in particular, pivoted what they were doing, how they were doing it, when they were doing it, where they were doing it, all of the things.
To be able to pivot what you are already doing is incredible and such a privilege to be in a situation in which you can do that recognizing many were not. To answer a call, in this case the government says, “We need you to help us do more and to not only say, “We are here. We have this incredible network of community foundations who are all willing to step forward,” but to also then say, “Not only are we going to be leaning into supporting the community, standing by the community, standing up for community during this moment with your support, we are going to do it ourselves.” I had a conversation where someone said to me, “When I hear the word community foundation, we often think that the word foundation is the most important thing. It’s not community.” I loved that because that’s what we’ve learned is foundation is a type of corporation. It’s not the heart, community is. That’s what I thought and witnessed. I recognized it but more importantly, the network of community foundations and the broader social purpose sector, recognized it.
One of the things that you talk a lot about at CFC is the movement of community foundations is a creative way of moving past that old model of the good and gray community foundation to a movement for social change. I’m curious, over 2020 you mentioned putting equity at the center of the pandemic response or trying to. How much of that has been about brokering with the most willing partners? How much of it has been about showing the way and saying, “This is the way it must be.”
It’s both. It’s never so binary to say that it’s this or that. We are dealing with people. In part, it’s compelling people and helping people have hard conversations. Sometimes those conversations are with themselves. My co–leader wrote this beautiful piece last June talking about “Are we looking in the mirror”. That was specific to philanthropy, which in some situations, gets this reputation that it’s all the good stuff. Philanthropy is changing because it needs change because it has not been all the good stuff. It has been perpetuating inequities. It has been built on doing so in many cases. While we cannot change that past, what we can do is change our future and what we are doing.
That’s where the movement is coming. There’s that saying, meet people where they are at. We do a little bit of that but we talk about sometimes you got to nudge. Sometimes you got to shove. That’s what we are all doing. We are all trying to figure out how we are going to show up in a world that is fundamentally different than it was in February of 2020. That has been hard but let’s hold on to hope that all of this has changed us for the better. I have to hope that it does. Those are the conversations where we are seeing people turn their eye to in that we can do difficult work, hard things and honest things. That’s our responsibility. That will lead to changing to that future where everyone belongs.
It’s one thing to sit in a position and convene a conversation to say, “This is important. We should talk about this.” That’s something that community foundations, historically, would have been the place where a lot of those conversations would happen. Isolation and loneliness have been a topic that community foundations have taken on. The community foundations across Canada, now around the world, use vital signs as a way of talking about the health of their communities. CFC has pushed beyond convening to saying, “Let’s have a conversation about this. We need to have a different conversation about what philanthropy, community, equity is.” As a leader in that movement and one of the people that’s been pushing those conversations, how have you experienced that change from, “Let’s talk about it,” to, “We need to move from talking about it to doing something about it.”
There are two things that come to mind. First, I try to be honest with who I am, the way that I grew up, the privilege of how I grew up and how that has led me on a path to have such an opportunity to be part of these conversations now. That’s a responsibility I take seriously and I’m grateful for. I was the executive director of a community foundation. Now I’m in the role that I am at, at CFC. Eleven and a half years of being part of a movement changes you for the better. It has given me this amazing platform to have conversations and to be a facilitator of those conversations. I don’t get it right every single time in the same way that philanthropy doesn’t get it right every single time nor would anyone. You keep showing up and you listen when people give you feedback and shift how you do things as you evolve and grow.
There have been many people who have helped me to do that over the last eleven and a half years and probably more so over the last several months. That’s a good thing. I also think that at CFC, we have done a lot of asking questions. In 2019, we gathered in Victoria for a three-day conference that was called All In. It was built on a question of what we are all in for. Coming up on June 2nd to 4th, 2021, we have All In 2021. This time, it isn’t a question. It’s a statement. We are going to be all in. Over the course of three days, we have a journey that we are taking community foundations on from all around the world about being ready, brave and beginning.
That’s the part I’m most excited about. I’m excited about all of it but that beginning, that is action. There is only so much discussion you can do. There are only so many conversations and questions that you can ask without also taking action. Still keep asking questions and talking about it but start somewhere. At least you’re going to be moving in a direction. That’s the thing about a movement also is you are in motion. We need to be in motion. That motion is towards a world that is different than the one that we have been in.
You mentioned being in the movement for eleven years and you said he couldn’t help but be this energized. I have leaders who have been in a movement or an organization for a long time. Enthusiastic change–makers wouldn’t aptly describe them. Having had the opportunity to work with you and your colleagues a little bit, there is little cynicism. In fact, I detected no cynicism in how your organization approaches the conversations that you are having and the change you are seeking to make. On an individual level, how do you hold on to that spirit of positivity that’s radiating through this conversation? How do you hold onto that positivity in the face of some difficult questions, real resistance to not only the conversations you are wanting people to have but that these conversations should take place at all?
I get to talk to community foundation leaders and other leaders across the social profit sector regularly. Sometimes those questions are about a particular topic or a subject or a program or a problem or an opportunity. Sometimes they are conversations where we are talking like people, talking about life. Often what I hear is this toggling that is happening. When people start talking about the toggling between the present and the future, bravery and courage, right and easy, positivity and negativity, all of that, I feel that too all the time. I feel myself toggling. That toggling can leave you in a place of uncertainty or at least leaves me in a place of uncertainty.
That uncertainty has expanded quite a bit because of where we are at, what we are talking about, the work that we are doing and the change that we want to seek. That could become overwhelming like how do you stay optimistic in this place of uncertainty? The uncertainty is a signal. It’s sometimes loud and quiet but it’s a signal that you are feeling and contemplating these things. You are evolving and changing. Any signal like that, even on the days when it’s dark or particularly hard, I keep thinking about the responsibility I have to recognize that it’s a privilege for me.
How do you support colleagues, teammates, board members who sometimes get their toggle switch caught in the wrong direction of that? I would imagine that everybody switches back and forth or experiences this differently. Some people are much more open to change and are much more curious about what the future looks like. Some people are fearful of what the future might be. How do you encourage that future–forward focus?
Sometimes it’s hard and can be exasperating. There is a lot of time over the pandemics. I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I’m taking some courses. There are many writers who talk about looking at a situation from a different place. In the situation of a hard conversation where maybe someone is stuck at one end of the tunnel. I tried two things. I think about putting myself in their shoes and recognizing that I probably don’t have some perspective on everything that’s been happening to them in their day, week and life. I think about nudges. I’m not necessarily a fan of incremental change. I’m impatient. However, when it comes to people, incremental change is good. I see it in the people who are part of the work that we are connected to where there were some tough conversations. Through being human and asking different questions, changing perspectives in terms of how you enter the conversation like how I enter the conversation, I can’t change how someone else enters it but I can change how I do. It works sometimes, not all the time.
You mentioned your impatience. How do you balance that impatience that you are feeling, that urgency with that need to meet people where they are, see the transformation and incremental change when we are talking about people? How do you stop yourself when a nudge could be a shove but it probably isn’t the right time?
I don’t know is the answer. I don’t get it right. I fumble a lot. I get better when a strategic nudge is strategic. My own personal impatience, sometimes I’m not good at navigating that. After you push your way through in situations where you should have sat in some patience, you start to recognize the reactions in yourself and can navigate those with the support of an incredible team. That’s probably the magic of CFC and what is supporting me in my leadership. That is the team. It is the people who work at CFC who are so wonderful. They bring compassion, expertise and kindness to their work every single day. It’s them. They helped me to do that. It’s the network of community foundations that is the biggest network that I connect with. They ask great questions. They nudge us. They nudge me. That’s good. It comes back to people. I need to think about that more in terms of how experience, judgment, compassion and good impatience all come together within people.
One of the things that I took away from the opportunity to work with you was whenever something was difficult, whenever an issue would come up that I have seen a lot of leaders shrink from you, you would physically lean towards the screen and want to be right in there. It comes through in our conversation. I have counted three times when you have described doing something difficult to get to. “It’s because of privilege, position and passion, I get to do this.” How do you think that shows up with the team that you lead? When the leader has that get–to mentality, what does it say about the organization? What does it allow the organization to do that it might otherwise not be able to do?To be able to pivot what you are doing is incredible and such a privilege to be in a situation that many cannot achieve. Click To Tweet
I’m conscious of leaning forward. A lot of my team also recognize that they worked for an organization and can contribute to an organization that respects their expertise, their experience that values them and that wants to be challenged by them. I hope that it is felt across our team. That’s the reason CFC is successful is that we have a team and a board that is rooted in believing in that purpose. Probably more importantly, believing in one another as being active contributors to that purpose.
As we come to the end of our conversation, Andrea, I have two questions I want to ask you. You have talked about that get–to mentality, driving conversations, not just convening them, bringing a large movement along with you and creating this positive force for social change. What drives you crazy about the sector? When are you at your most frustrated?
I get frustrated in situations when we do a lot of talking with not a lot of action. The second thing that frustrates me is when we are labeling something as changed but what we are doing is rearranging the deck of the status quo. That happens in a lot of spaces, particularly in philanthropy. It happens in different elements of philanthropy more so than others. It’s not only about the change we are trying to have in a community and not talking about what the change is but instead rearranging the status quo. It also happens in how we do our work. If we can have an honest conversation about how we do our work, why we need to change and what those actions are that will make it more equitable philanthropy in Canada. That is the conversation I would like to have.
If we can have a conversation about what a more equitable community experience for everyone is, that’s the conversation I want to have. In this repackaging or redistribution of the status quo, I get frustrated. I see others frustrated too. Part of my challenge to myself is how am I using this incredible privilege and platform that I have. How is my voice helping to perhaps quiet some other voices or move space so that other voices can come through?
The final question I want to ask you is, as we are recording this in the middle of may, there are lots of glimmers of hope on the horizon as it relates to the pandemic. You mentioned wanting to hold on to certain memories and certain learnings. As we move forward, hopefully, through the end of the pandemic, what do you think is most important for your leadership style? What have you learned as a leader through this pandemic that you want to make sure to take forward into the new world?
If I look back on 2021, what I’m hoping I will take away as a personal leadership element is that my voice got stronger. I don’t mean louder. I mean stronger, less wobbly in a few moments, more brave in a few others. My voice knows when it’s not my turn to speak.
That’s a wonderful place to end our conversation and begin the work of the world after the pandemic. Thank you so much for being on the show, sharing your leadership lessons and that get–to mentality.
About Andrea Dicks
Andrea joined Community Foundations of Canada (CFC) in 2015 as Vice President, before serving two years as Chief Operating Officer. She was named President by the CFC Board of Directors in January 2020. In addition to her work with CFC, Andrea brings 15 years of community and corporate philanthropy experience, including as the Founding Executive Director of the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough. She also served in leadership roles with the Rideau Hall Foundation, PwC Canada Foundation and the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Toronto and Central Ontario.
Working closely with Canada’s 191 community foundations, and fostering connection across the growing international community foundation network, Andrea is helping to strengthen philanthropy’s impact by being a vocal advocate for the role of community-driven solutions to pressing global challenges, from climate change to human rights and gender equality. She has played a central role in the launch of groundbreaking Canadian and international initiatives, including the Equality Fund, which is transforming how organizations and movements working to advance women’s rights and gender equality are supported. She has also played an important leadership role in strengthening Canada’s contributions to Agenda 2030 through her work on Alliance 2030, Canada’s Sustainable Development Goals platform, and through her recent nomination to the Board of Directors of the Waterloo Global Science Initiative.
Outside of her work with CFC, Andrea actively contributes to multiple voluntary sector organizations, including as a Board Member of the Kymar Foundation, and through the Universities Canada Social Impact Advisory Committee and the Equality Fund Philanthropic Advisory Committee.