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Daniele Zanotti, CEO United Way of Greater Toronto

Innovative strategic and creator of groundbreaking intersectional partnerships within the nonprofit sector, governments at all levels, and the corporate sector on behalf of GTA communities. He is a  sought-out speaker whose eloquence is boundless and leaves one spellbound. He is a friend and an invaluable strategic guide for us at the Foundation. His favourite quote is from Michael Ondaatje:
“There is the hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border that we cross.”
In the Q & A, Daniele discusses COVID-19 recovery, the importance of social capital, how it relates to community building and quality of life, United Way’s tremendous support for GTA communities and historic and continued leadership in equity, diversity and inclusion.

1) What challenges and opportunities has your organization faced during Covid and what do you forsee in the Covid Recovery period?

While we could not have foreseen the COVID-19 pandemic, United Way’s decade-long commitment to investing in the people and places facing the greatest barriers – informed by our own research on inequality – meant that our network was in the right places when the GTA needed it the most.

One early challenge for our network of agencies was adapting in-person programming to virtual platforms. In early March 2020, we offered our agencies flexibility with our dollars so they could pivot to meet urgent needs and work in new ways. There was a dramatic spike in need for social services – so United Way enabled rapid response grants to get crucial emergency funds out the door and on the ground. Harnessing our granting expertise, we’ve directed more than $30.8 million in Government of Canada and Local Love funds to over 800 COVID-specific emergency programs driven by 500 agencies.

COVID-19 has exposed the inequalities that exist in our region. It has pushed more people into hardship and heaped even more pressure on those already struggling: racialized groups and residents in our region’s low-income neighbourhoods. We’re strengthening our commitment to prioritizing the people and places facing the greatest barriers.

What we’ve seen is that local solutions matter. We’ve been working with government and community agencies at local coordination tables across the region to meet emerging needs and bridge service gaps – work we’ve always done but acting even more intentional since the outset of the pandemic.

The factors that made many vulnerable to this pandemic are not going away — they are deepening.  As challenges continue, we are very mindful of the toll COVID-19 has taken on our staff and those at community agencies.

While there have been a lot of challenges, the pandemic has fueled incredible collaboration across sectors and has shown us and our agencies that it is possible to serve and engage community in new ways that may actually benefit certain populations beyond the pandemic. We have had to be nimble, adaptive, and innovative, and I think that has strengthened us as an organization and as a sector.

2) What does social capital mean to you and why is measuring it important?

Social capital has been described as our social DNA, and I really believe that. It means knowing you can leave your kids with your neighbours in a pinch. It means having friends and family to celebrate good times with, but also to rely on when things are tough, like in the middle of a pandemic. It means knowing the agencies in your neighbourhood can provide the supports you need, if and when you need them. It means being able to trust the people around us as well as the institutions that serve us. That type of trust and interconnectedness is so closely tied to our sense of well-being, connection, personal growth and access to opportunities. And research tells us it doesn’t just strengthen our lives – it strengthens our communities as well, making them safer and more engaged, resilient, and inclusive.

It is important to measure social capital because that provides an empirical basis for reviewing and building initiatives and investments to strengthen it. The research can inform what strengths we can build on, and what gaps we need to address. And that helps us to harness all the potential our region can offer as we build back better towards an inclusive region.

3) How does Social Capital relate to community building and quality of life? And do you see a relationship between Quality of Life and Social Capital ?

Social capital is inextricably linked to both community-building and quality of life. Anything we can imagine as part of building community is also either dependent on, or simultaneously creating, social capital. We build resilient, cohesive communities by creating opportunities to share and to meet, and to volunteer in community and support and trust one another. It doesn’t take a great amount of research to understand how that would also improve your quality of life. On the individual level, we know social capital impacts one’s health, wellbeing, and access to opportunity. At the community and societal levels, social capital is the foundation for healthy and engaged communities and is one of the factors that can help weather the storm brought on by this pandemic.

4) How has United Way Greater Toronto helped to support the social capital of people in the GTA during the pandemic?

We support a network of agencies that build social capital and ensure that everyone has access to opportunities and connection: it’s where neighbours meet each other, find people who speak their language, find others with shared experience, and where they attend networking events providing avenues into jobs or careers.

Our work supporting a network of community agencies has been more critical than ever through the pandemic.  Right away, we offered agencies flexibility with our funding so they could adapt their programs. We also provided nearly $31 million in both federal and Local Love emergency funding to help meet the dramatic increase in demand for services. United Way support helped agencies keep people connected by supporting the move to virtual programs and sessions, and by resourcing agencies to do wellness checks and calls with isolated individuals. Through our community coordination tables, we also funded and piloted community ambassadors who informed residents about testing sites and vaccines and helped make entire communities safer.

5) United Way Greater Toronto has always been in the forefront re: diversity, equity, and inclusion in its work, both internally for staff and externally in the community. What changes/adaptations to do forsee moving forward?

We can’t fight poverty without building equity. United Way is strengthening our commitment to the people and places facing the greatest barriers by embarking on an equity and reconciliation action plan that touches every aspect of our organization.

  1. We’re becoming a more equitable fundraiser and funder: we are supporting more agencies in Peel, Toronto and York Region than ever by reducing barriers for new and emerging groups, and we’re increasing our investment in organizations by, for and about equity-seeking communities.
  2. We’re striving to become a more equitable organization: Our staff, board, committees and cabinet will be representative of the communities with which we work, and staff will be supported to ensure our recruitment and performance outcomes are meeting our equity goals. As part of those efforts, we have signed on to the federal government’s 50-30 Challenge.
  3. We’re working to dismantle discrimination: Our research, convening, policy, advocacy, and funded programs will be designed with people with lived experience to drive equitable outcomes for the people and communities most impacted by poverty.