Edmonton is celebrated for many reasons and chief among them is a high level of philanthropy across every sector. Whether it is volunteering, lending expertise to boards, donating funds or running non-profits, Edmontonians love to give back. It takes organization, though, to draw together the many different people, causes and supports for the benefit of all. That is where Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) and its CEO Tina Thomas come in.
“ECF began in 1989 and was strongly supported by three founding families – John and Barbara Poole, George and Rae Poole and Robert and Shirley Stollery. These founders had the great insight of seeing the value of investing money to provide long-term support for the community rather than giving it away all at once,” Thomas explains. “ECF’s fund has grown from granting about $1 million in 1990 to the fourth largest community foundation in Canada and the largest non-governmental funder in Edmonton. In 2022, ECF distributed over $34 million to 800 charities and 650 students.”
Thomas joined the organization in 2022 when former CEO Martin Garber Conrad, who was retiring, recommended her for the position, sharing that he felt she would be the ideal fit to take ECF in an exciting, new direction.
“I generally say yes to interesting opportunities when they come up and that approach has always worked,” Thomas smiles. “I spent 13 years at the Edmonton Public Library and loved working for an organization that provided so much value to the City.”
She continues, “I did a B.Comm at the UofA and worked for a large multinational for 13 years. It was an amazing opportunity to try many things and develop a variety of skills, including defining new market segments and positioning them with industry analysts, partnering with multinational Fortune 50 companies, executing large scale events and leading product and service marketing for interesting and diverse global customer segments.
“I would have never predicted that I would have left that world and gone to the library, but an interesting opportunity came up and I took it, allowing me to build one of the best loved brands in our city, change the perception of one of Edmonton’s most used services, develop interesting and valuable programs and services, lead the service design of a giant capital project and much, much more.
“ECF was a great opportunity to work with another organization in Edmonton that serves the needs and interests of the whole community,”
Making the leap to ECF, however, felt different. Thomas loved to say “yes,” but that didn’t mean she was not cautious.
“I was older and more settled,” she looks back on that decision, “but the more I learned about the organization, the more I was intrigued and excited. I felt an incredible sense of possibility at ECF. I am motivated by progress. I want to do things that have an impact. I am constantly thinking about what can be done differently and better. My career path is more informed by this than anything else. I have taken new and sometimes more senior positions not for the position itself but because with the position comes the ability to influence decisions and progress.”
With that in mind, she said “yes” to the opportunity of leading ECF.
“ECF touches every corner of our city. It’s not a stretch to say that every charity in Edmonton has likely been supported by ECF in some way. We are uniquely positioned to contribute to solving complex, ongoing issues and creating communities where everyone can thrive.”
How does the ECF help communities thrive?
“Give. Grow. Transform!” says Thomas. “This a statement often used at ECF and I think this perfectly summarizes one of the main values we provide and how ECF is a different kind of organization. ECF connects Edmontonians to the institutions, causes and issues they care about so that we can support them in the long-term. We grow the funds that have been entrusted to us by using solid investment strategies informed by industry experts. Each year, a percentage of the value of those funds is then used to provide tens of millions of dollars into every corner of the charitable sector – all while the capital continues to grow. We are an investment in the charitable sector.
“We also help people from all walks of life create a lasting legacy because their funds continue to give back into our community each and every year – forever. We make it easy for donors to manage their charitable support. We serve as a main resource to ensure that the funds are distributed in accordance with donors’ wishes.”
It’s no surprise that ECF’s connections are needed more than ever. In the post-pandemic landscape and challenging economic conditions, funding for charitable causes has declined.
“Our funding model provides consistent, reliable funding, influenced by the economic climate for sure, but independent of social and political factors,” shared Thomas. “ECF has now distributed more than $370 million to community charities since its inception in 1989 and millions more will be distributed in the coming years. That is the power of endowment—it keeps on giving, regardless of the market, what’s popular or which government is in power. Because of this reliable source of funding, we can think about complex issues that require long-term investment and thinking. There are very few organizations that can do that.
“We help charities create their own funds, which allows them to have sustainable sources of revenue rather than only counting on grants and donations each year. This gives charities autonomy and control through financial independence but also allows them to focus on doing what they do best – delivering services. Diversifying revenue sources and having sustainable, consistent funding is a smart business decision.”
Just a few examples of the different ways ECF supports Edmontonians includes:
- COVID Recovery Funds – ECF partnered with the Government of Canada to increase funding to support local charities transitioning during COVID-19. Between 2021 and 2022, ECF granted over $4 million to dozens of charities in greater Edmonton to support emergent needs. Examples of charities and programs include Little Warriors’ online counselling program, Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital for early discharge and virtual rehabilitation and numerous performing arts organizations transitioning to online performances. An additional $2 million will be granted in 2023.
- Belcourt Brosseau Metis Awards – Started by Orval Belcourt, Dr. Herb Belcourt and Georges Brosseau QC, their vision was to help Métis Albertans through post-secondary education and skills development. The initial endowment was $13 million and has grown to nearly $21 million. Over the past 20 years the Belcourt Brosseau Métis Awards have provided more than $11 million to approximately 2,000 Métis students studying at institutions across Alberta. In 2022, $1 million in scholarships was awarded to 300 students.
- Social Enterprise Fund (SEF) – Offers debt financing to mission-driven organizations working to improve their communities but having difficulty accessing traditional financing sources. The SEF has been instrumental in supporting social innovation in organizations like Ballet Edmonton, Sustainitech, Fruits of Sherbrooke, Edmonton Ski Club, iHuman, CKUA and Startup Edmonton.
Yet, despite this robust support and outstanding success, ECF faces an unlikely challenge – awareness.
“While many in the charitable sector know who we are and what we do, I would say few Edmontonians do,” says Thomas. “The more people know who we are, what we do and how we can help the charitable sector, the more people will feel like this is a great opportunity to think differently about philanthropy and move away from being fully transactional to more transformational giving.”
“Another challenge,” she adds, “is the general lack of understanding about how endowments work and thinking they are only for rich people. We do a lot of myth busting around endowments; they’re more accessible to people than they might think. You don’t have to be rich to start an endowment fund and you can contribute to a fund supporting a cause or an organization you care about.
“Starting an endowment fund at ECF is easy, can have a really big impact on the causes you care about, and is a smart way to invest sustainably while also allowing you to leave a legacy for generations. You can start your own with $10,000 but this can be built over time – you don’t need to do it all at once.
“The most important part is that instead of a one-time gift, people will be contributing to the causes they care about forever.”
As the world continues to change, and the province’s place within it, the idea of the Alberta Advantage has also evolved. For Thomas, who gets to see the advantages through a philanthropic lens, Edmonton plays a big part in helping the province thrive.
“As someone who grew up in Edmonton but had the chance to live away for periods, I truly appreciate what Edmonton provides and who Edmontonians are. I have friends from all cultural, political, religious and social backgrounds. We all want a city where vulnerable people are taken care of, children have opportunities to grow and thrive, the sick are treated, musicians and artists contribute to a vibrant community and our city stays beautiful for future generations.
“We are a big city but we feel small in the best way. I think creating vibrant, thriving communities where everyone belongs takes the expertise of leaders, government, educational institutions and the non-profit sector. Our interests are interconnected and overlapping. We can’t do it alone and one kind of expertise isn’t all that’s needed. Edmonton is one of the places where groups work together to build the city we all want. I hope I can contribute to that.”
The fact is, Thomas does contribute to that, professionally and personally. One of the first things she did as CEO of ECF was to nominate and award 12 Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Medals.
“What I loved about our award recipients is that they were a mix of philanthropists promoting the value of being charitable in our city, partners working hard to deliver essential community services and two long-term staff who’ve been instrumental in building ECF.”
Thomas says thank you to the people and organizations that have been vital to the success of ECF.
“Martin Garber Conrad, ECF’s CEO for 17 years, was ahead of his time in many ways. He was experimenting and implementing social finance, community wealth building and social enterprise decades before those become mainstream ideas. Many donors I have met have told me how wonderful Kathy Hawksworth has been to work with and the reason they started working with ECF. As our longest serving employee and former director of donor services, she has been instrumental in growing our fund to what it is today.
“It is impossible to give too much credit to the original three families that had the vision to invest in a strong endowment-based community foundation. John and Barbara Poole, George and Rae Poole and Robert and Shirley Stollery could have supported short-term needs with that initial funding back in 1989. Instead, they had the foresight to see that they could contribute to ongoing impact in our city. Their original investment has given back 10 times over and will continue to do so over generations.
“They also set a meaningful example for other business owners and community members to follow. Their initial gift was given just over 30 years ago. They lived to see the effect it started having in Edmonton and their children and grandchildren can both see and experience the legacy and impact their families have created. While what they’ve done may seem daunting, it’s not. There are many, many Edmontonians that could create just as much impact as they have.”
Over the next decade, ECF will continue working on its goals while solving community issues. A top priority is to identify critical long-term community needs that are currently overlooked or underfunded. ECF also seeks to encourage more charitable organizations to use endowments to create sustainability and independence.
Thomas concludes, “Our hope over the next 10 years is to significantly move the needle and support material change that will ultimately transform our city and the lives of the people in it.”
Learn more about how you can get involved and be a part of this change by visiting ecfoundation.org.