Making that shift from the corporate sector to the social profit sector can be surprising, especially when you’re already an accomplished leader. Mark Breslauer, the CEO of the United Way of Greater Victoria, did exactly that and in this episode, he shares with host, Douglas Nelson the transitional piece that attracted him to make that move. He talks about how it is working with donors, a volunteer board of directors, and his team. UWGV is a leader, influencer, and difference-maker in the lives of people living on Vancouver Island. Mark lets us in on the behind the scenes of what they do and how he is leading the change in his organization, especially with the current COVID-19 situation.
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United Way Of Greater Victoria With Mark Breslauer
Our guest is Mark Breslauer. He is the CEO of the United Way of Greater Victoria. He’s a good friend of the Discovery Group and we’re pleased to have him on the show. Welcome, Mark.
Thanks a lot, Doug.
As an accomplished leader in the corporate sector, you made the leap to the social profit sector a few years ago when you took on the CEO role. Tell us what that transition has been like. What did you find initially when you came through the doors of the United Way?
The initial thinking was probably through the process of due diligence and joining. There are all kinds of generalities associated with for-profit, profit and anticipating this. Part of this came to light during my research and my experience, and that is both perceived in a real wild difference in the sectors. A big attraction for me was a long-time interest in this brand and support for United Way, back to my big corporate days with a multinational based in Calgary that’s a big supporter of United Way, and right through to different communities I’ve lived in. It’s a national and international brand for that matter. I was aware of it doing good work.
An attractant for me as a long-time strategist, marketing and overall operations was about this well-recognized brand but not necessarily well understood. A transitional piece and an attractant was how do we elevate this brand with tight resources? That was, first and foremost, the good work and understanding the community more. When I joined, I had been living on the island for a few years with an interesting vantage point into medium and smaller businesses primarily. I was doing a fair bit of B2B and brand digitization. The long-winded answer to some degree to tell you is there were some real commonalities in things I’ve done, the initiatives I’ve driven, and a big demand or a requirement for change that was clear. These areas have been rather constant throughout my career.Slower to come, slower to be able to affect that change. Click To Tweet
Mark, was there a moment in the early days in the job where you realized that this is different than the corporate roles that you had in the past?
One might think that scarcity of resources would be the most obvious. Despite some big names with perceived deep pockets, I’ve been fairly constrained and have been resourceful throughout my career. That might be the most obvious. For me, the moments came with the ability to change. For this organization, there was certainly a desire there in terms of flexibility and nimbleness. We have many partners doing phenomenal work and many agencies. It’s certainly the ability to see it and to then leverage the change. That was the biggest moment for me, slower to come and slower to be able to affect that change. Within this organization, we’re certainly one of the smallest in terms of both top-line and team members. Change is always a challenge, more so within the sector.
When I talk to other leaders who’ve made the transition from the corporate world to the social profit sector, one of the things that often comes up is both the resistance to change and the underlying complexity of a lot of the organizations. You mentioned the number of partners that your organization works with. Needing to build that consensus and building those partnerships, how did you find that in your new world?
It’s mixed. The experience certainly was one of openness. It’s a tough fundraising environment out there. Your audience would be well aware of that. In a tough market, embracing that concept that we need to be different should have been somewhat universal. The results are the results and that was probably the most interesting or varied response for me with all the partners. It’s not because they hadn’t necessarily experienced it before, but they weren’t necessarily open to the concept that a little bit of this is what we do. I’d be remiss if I said that applied here because it may have certainly applied in private enterprise. There seem to be other mechanisms, whether it was a driving principle ownership or someone that could affect that change or awareness. It starts there, the acceptance and the awareness to the chain, and that was slower to come. It varies, but great many of that head down that this is the work we do and very good work it is right across the sector.
Not only is the donor community changing its view and donors are changing how they’re giving to organizations both pre-COVID and during, but the United Way is going through a significant change right across the country. You’ve done a lot to lead that change in your organization. How have you balanced that changing the donor community with the changing United Way to bring that into a cohesive whole and to tell a United story?
We’re keeping in touch with some of the best practitioners across the United Way network. We’re fortunate in that regard. That said, our raison d’être is local. It is about local communities. It is the ability to understand initiatives that are impactful in making a difference in communities that can be applied locally in the Greater Victoria area. On the one hand, it’s keeping a price to general research, whether it might be a Discovery Group podcast. It could be any number of potential sources out there. The United Way network is strong. There is a solid community of information sharing best practices. The donors are a fantastic source. By any stretch, I’m not a professional fundraiser. I could say I was a professional revenue generator over the course of my career. It is a similar experience. To me, the donor and the customer can be intermingled. Donors have been key in helping directly rather than, “It’s that time, come support the cause and co-creation,” which is real. What are your areas of interest? What are your ideas? How do we apply your business experience and success into something that can work here in this community to make it different?
Have the answers you’re hearing from donors and your community partners changed as we’ve been going through this COVID pandemic?
I would say so. Over the course of time and not having been in this field for a great length of time, but watching a business, there are big challenges out there from resonating with a changing demographic, lifestyles, but a more youthful band. We call it in age or in spirit. It’s certainly one of the areas that are changing and to stay in touch with. With that, another is digitization, not just from a business efficiency standpoint, but from the customer-donor experience standpoint. These are topical, resources, how to finance. We don’t necessarily need to be the absolute leading edge by any stretch. We are a mid-sized to smaller United Way with X amount of resources. It’s how to bring the appeal with X amount of resources.
The specific question on donors, in some cases, they haven’t fully articulated what they’re looking for. They’ll know when they see it. A big opportunity has been to make the offering or the appeal as tangible as possible. Rather than a generic, “We support community,” it’s “We specifically would love you to be a part of creating something on this specific initiative that will help these many seniors or this many children in this capacity.”
That change that we’re seeing donors wanting to be more tactical or be more tangible like making a direct difference in the community plays well to the work of your organization, being as connected as you are to organizations into the work that’s happening. How has your organization been able to make that pivot to support the direct on the groundwork for meeting needs that have emerged as a result of this pandemic?
Through the pandemic’s initial onset, this forced some prioritization that arguably could have been there. That opportunity before was compounded and it became clear in a few areas. If I could cite the example of isolation and isolated seniors, in particular, this became a focus. Traditionally, this has been an area of great involvement and the systems by the United Way Greater Victoria and United Ways in general for that matter. We began to zero in on a specific program that evolved into what we call more than meals, which provided X amount of nutritious meals along with the opportunity to engaged companionship at a social distance, and some basic things right up front, what we might call the entry point. That was identifying and tabulating where these seniors are as a starting point. Many of them were indeed isolated and somewhat invisible in statistics and actual outreach. As we went through this process of a tangible how to build a program, once identified and working through agencies, our partners were on the ground. We’re an organization that in some cases, we don’t provide direct services. We’re in close collaboration with our agency partners. We can help shape impactful outcomes.In a tough market, embracing the concept that we need to be different should have been somewhat universal. Click To Tweet
What you fund makes a direct difference in the community when you’re working with and through those partners as well?
Perhaps bringing in some of my experience is always about, “What is our value add? Where can we monetize this for our role?” That has been apparent through our work here.
I would imagine, one of the big differences in the change from the corporate sector to the social profit sector is working with a volunteer board of directors who are mission committed and care a lot about the organization. In the case of the United Way, often, the board members are people that have been with the organization and around the United Way for many years. How have you found that working relationship with the board as a new first time CEO in the sector?
They’re highly committed. It’s certainly been a great pleasure. We have a diverse board in terms of backgrounds. Our geographic mandate is the Greater Victoria region and a number of municipalities into the Gulf Islands as well. We’ve been at it for many years. There’s been an evolution of those who have been in and around the cause. Community work for years and years with an interface and looking at different needs as we evolve. My approach, on the one hand, has been similar to other boards or advisory committees I’ve reported to in other sectors. That is a deal both as a collective but also understanding the individuals behind those boards and behind each person on this board, and finding the key areas of interest. Understanding them and the history, working together, and most importantly, understand the operating environment of where we’re going. It’s similar in some respects with the continuity on this board but it’s certainly a change. On the one hand, governance is governance.
What was the biggest surprise about working for a social profit board in your first couple of years? Was there a story or a moment that you could share where you’re like, “This is different?”
No one has said what was the biggest surprise moment. Maybe the biggest surprise as I reflect on that is there hasn’t been this massive disparity. It might be the issues. I’ve tried to maintain the perspective that it is all about the donor and the customer. I don’t think that’s cliché. I have trouble decoupling. Our mission and mandate are about the opportunity in our community. We need the funds. We need the support to deliver. For me, these fundamentals or that model where it starts with the customer has not changed.
I would say that many with whom I deal might not be as readily accepted. The fact that the issues are the same to deliver our product and service, which is community goods, requires donor support. It’s mission-critical. That donor support could be partnerships with the public sector, with private business, or with labor. It could cross the spectrum. That funding and that start point is the fuel that sets everything in motion. To answer you, the biggest surprise is that the issues are the same. As I get back to some of the changes and reflecting on an earlier question, I’m not sure that’s readily accepted by a number of people I work with. It may be that in a lot of people’s views, the community good in itself is enough, and I respect that. That’s what we do. That’s our value add. We need funding. We need donor and partnership support.
It takes leaders across the sector to realize and experience what you’ve shared, the need to be consistently focused on putting the donor at the center of things and connect that to the mission work, and then execute against that connection. That can be a challenge for some organizations. I often reflect when we get into deep work with some of our clients. We almost always at some point in the process have the realization, “This is resistance to change. Who knew that not everyone loves change?” It is important to organizations as they’re attempting to pivot through this pandemic, but many organizations are under pressure before that. I’m curious how you have approached coaching your team to see the pandemic and understand that you needed to do business differently. You’re moving into your campaign period. The workplace is a significant fundraiser for you. If workers aren’t in the workplace, that’s going to take some significant change. How have you worked with your leadership team to prepare for that?
I lead with an expression I’ve heard a little while back and it seems to remain relevant. That is, “No one likes change but a wet baby.” That’s change management for you. Accepting that premise, there’s probably a few more inclined to change than others but it was going to be different. The reality is that it is a challenging fundraising environment. For us, at the United Way Greater Victoria, one of the real opportunities was to better articulate our story. Here we have this reliable brand that’s been around for years. It’s not necessarily the easiest to articulate even internally. It’s specific to how to get leadership on board. In combination, in the end, the numbers are stagnating. This is not a term that is readily used. I’ve experienced in the sector a competitive life landscape. There are X amount of dollars and X amount of hearts and minds to win over out there. It has been a process to know the stakeholders, which is our team here, our partner groups that we work with, and the board. First, understand the perspective and then work on starting with the reality of the operating environment. That’s the business case.
We are seeing stagnating challenge opportunities to make revenue. How do we diversify? It has taken time, especially coming from out of the sector for a long time. Perhaps it exists now. The one from the private sector may not get it. Believe me, I have a lot to learn. A reasonably quick study is coming in any kind of change management scenario and new to the sector. I’ve experienced that a few times. They’re all different on the one hand because it has been different businesses. I’ve done things from manufacturing golf clubs to the international supply chain on selling generators and right through to this. It is immersing, understanding, listening a lot and building credibility. With every human interaction, it’s been one person at a time and ultimately been working as a collective. It’s listening. It is a balance between coming on in and running amok. At the same time, it’s coming in and brought in to help catalyze the group and make a difference. It is a lot of balance.
It sounds like you’ve been thoughtful in your approach to making the transition and leading your organization through change. What advice would you give to someone who was in the private sector thinking, “I want to change gears. I want to change course and move into the social profit sector.” What advice would you give them if they called and said, “Mark, I’m thinking of doing this. I have this opportunity. How should I approach it?”No one likes change but a wet baby. Click To Tweet
The lines have been blurred. It’s a little bit of business is business. In the end, it’s a business. It is a business doing whatever in this sector, whether the ultimate aspiration is X rate of return or not for profit, maintaining that surplus deficit balance right in and around not for profit. The challenge is the issues and the cycles are quite similar. Depending on where you come and what your experience has been, there may be some challenges certainly with resources. Understand the history of the organization and change management. It’s a little bit of cliché pieces. Every human being’s experiences this pandemic has been a fundamental change. People can be resilient. I would demystify that the sectors are different. There are trade-offs to be made in terms of reporting here. Are you doing this piece?
I had the experience with a board. If I could state it because it gets right to your question. I was speaking to a group as I’ve had on occasion to do at UVic Business School. I was telling a bit of my background. The subject was about my experience crossing over, etc. to which one of the students boldly said, “From what I’ve learned, there’s a big trade-off to be made in terms of money. You got to be making a fraction.” That was an interesting one. I couldn’t answer right then and there. I was a little bit stymied. I put it out there because that’s part of the trade-off piece that people consider as well. There’s a real opportunity to be fulfilled on that front as well.
You mentioned that immersing yourself in the sector, you still have a lot to learn. When you reflect on the years you’ve been in the role, what is the area that you need to learn the most in or there is still to learn? Where are you going to turn your learning brain?
It’s constant learning about the community issues, the agencies involved in those areas, where we can partner. It’s understanding those. Certainly, a number of these causes and needs have come more to the forefront during the COVID pandemic. I’ve been on that learning curve throughout. That’s understanding who can affect certain areas in great need, whether it is across seniors, families in need, mental health and addictions. It’s a constant learning curve for me. There’s new information, whether it be who are the purveyors of the services or what are the ways to deal. That’s certainly been quite an education. I’m fortunate to work with the skill group in this area. It’s learning for all, but that is my biggest area of learning for sure.
Leaders across the sector are right in the pool with you, trying to figure out what this pandemic means for their organizations and how to keep the focus on mission as the needs of the community are changing drastically and quickly. As we move through this pandemic, the way the business has changed and the way your work has changed, what are you hoping to hold on to as we move through the pandemic and get back to the new normal following?
We’re fortunate to have a great many individuals who support the United Way and many workplaces and that’s been over the course of time. It is a fundamental shift to a virtual offering. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about that being a huge pivot for us and how we engage with donors and at workplaces that had physical events over years. How to deliver the message is the biggest to educate, while at the same time, pivoting and becoming more tangible and initiative driven. We pick specific areas to focus on.
In a short window, our big opportunity is how to tell our story virtually for the most part and in a compelling manner. It’s fine-tuning along the way. You have X moment in time and that’s been a great area of focus. We’re living in real-time. United Way campaigns traditionally have been most heightened in and around that Labor Day weekend through to the end of the calendar year. We’ve worked to adjust to donor needs and what I call smooth the cycle. The community needs our year-round in their nature. It’s dealing with a lot of moving parts. Most importantly is we’ve changed what United Way Greater Victoria is focused on in delivering. That’s a big piece in addition to everyone else that supports us on an existing basis and perspective, so much change in their lives.
You’re saying what I’ve heard many leaders say. My summary of it is that we used to say, “It’s a marathon and not a sprint.” What you’ve outlined there for your organization is it’s a marathon that you run as fast as you possibly can. I wish you and your team all the best. Thank you very much for being a part of the Discovery Pod.
Thanks, Doug and the Discovery Group, for your great leadership in the sector. It’s a pleasure.