Karen Young, CEO of United Way Calgary
1. Karen your career has been exemplary. Your achievements too numerous to catalogue. Tell us about a few accomplishments that you are proud of.
Thank you so much for your kind words. I am proud of the collective positive impact my roles have been part of in Calgary. Calgary is a “can do” city and I’ve worked with amazing people and high performing teams over the years. I am constantly inspired by those around me!
In my time as a leader at United Way of Calgary & Area, we have raised over $430 million for our community. In that time, we also surpassed $1 billion in lifetime achievement for our campaign, which was an exciting milestone that builds upon the inspiring years of hard work from those that came before me. It really moves me to think of the collective impact of these efforts, the number of Calgarians who have been served and the number of lives we’ve improved. I’m so proud to be part of this legacy.
Prior to my career at United Way, I worked with the City of Calgary for many years. In my roles there, I had the chance to lead several initiatives that are still positively impacting Calgarians today, which makes me smile. We built seven new regional recreation facilities, and we implemented the Calgary AfterSchool program, the Calgary Local Immigration Partnership, and the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative which led to the city-wide Enough for All strategy, something I continue to work closely on. Lastly, I would mention my role leading the Emergency Social Services efforts during the historic 2013 Alberta Floods. Again, across all of these, what makes me proud is the lasting positive impact my teams and I have made for Calgarians.
I must say though, my biggest accomplishment is raising my daughter to be the kind, hard working, and values-driven person she is. She recently completed her masters and is beginning her own career. We have a number of team members at United Way right now who are starting their own families, and as I often do, I’ve been reflecting on the importance of inclusion and equal opportunities. Creating an inclusive workplace is a top priority for me personally as a leader. I’m proud of the way I’ve grown my career while also focusing on my family, and I love passing on that encouragement to others who are also raising their kids and chasing their career goals.
2. In hindsight as you look back on your work journey what are some things you might have done differently?
There have been so many learnings along the way! I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by supportive leaders and mentors, and kind and compassionate teammates who have helped me learn and grow. Without a doubt we will all make some mistakes along the way, I certainly have, but I’ve always focused on how we rebound, how we pick ourselves back up. I think that spirit of positivity and optimism has been crucial to my resilience.
In hindsight, I would have leaned in more to the leadership principle of “Great not Perfect Leadership” and taken some pressure off myself, especially as a single mom. This is part of the culture we are creating at United Way. Leading by example and encouraging our teams to be vulnerable, authentic, honest, and courageous. This includes encouraging diverse perspectives, challenging the status quo, and being surrounded with people who help me with my learning journey.
3. UWs across Canada face numerous challenges as the resource needs of their funded agencies may not match their capacity to fund. This is complicated by the entrance of new players in the fundraising space at a time when the donation rate of Canadians appears to be going south. How are UWs navigating through these disruptive changes?
At United Way of Calgary and Area, we have worked hard over the last several years to improve social sector coordination to achieve the most significant possible impact. We have felt the increase in demand in the social sector in Calgary, where the last five years have brought financial hardship to many people, first due to changing oil prices and the economic downturn and then the uncertainties stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
We aren’t immune to disruptions, or to the impacts of ever-evolving philanthropic trends, which is why it is critical for United Way’s across Canada to ensure we are responding effectively and quickly to what is happening in our markets. As the adage goes, change is the only constant. For example, a trend United Way’s and other not-for-profits across Canada have been experiencing in recent years is this concept of fewer donors giving more. We recently launched a new Revenue Generation Strategy, to ensure we remain strongly positioned in this space because we know how critical every single dollar raised is when it comes to the other side of our work, investing those dollars in our community.
After working closely with our agency partners, we also developed a new Community Impact Framework to guide our investments in social sector initiatives that are collaborative and innovative in nature, and designed to create long-term, sustainable systems change in our community.
As an organization, we have been strategically transforming over the past several years. We continue to grow our muscles in the digital space, and we are also strongly committed to innovation, both within our organization and for the benefit of the entire social sector. Together with our Social Impact Lab, we are co-designing and implementing our large-scale initiatives to address the root causes of social issues. Examples of this work would include Community Hubs, and All In For Youth. All of our strategies and intentional transformations are in service of one goal – to mobilize communities for lasting social change. But we can’t do this alone.
Our agency partners inspire me. The coordinated system of care that we are all contributing to is so critical for those needing to navigate and access services. I know all of us in the sector would be able to amplify impact if we had more resources, that will always be true. The reality is, we have to work both smart and hard to still create the maximum impact we can within the constraints we face. Fundraising trends are impacting all of us across Canada, but the giving power of Calgarians continues to amaze me. Despite unique challenges over the years in Calgary, our city continues to show up for its neighbours and I am deeply grateful for that.
4. UWCA has been visionary in its approach and engagement of Indigenous communities. Can you tell us your perspective in this regard and share some of the learnings that could be helpful to newer entrants to this space
The social sector has a key role to play in reconciliation. As we all know, Indigenous people face many urgent issues in disproportionate numbers to others in Canada. We have been formally addressing this through our work for over two decades in Calgary, and we can’t discount the importance of the long-term trusted relationships we have built as a result. We have been fortunate to have the leadership and guidance of Indigenous Elders from different nations across the Treaty 7 region, as we work in Moh’kins’tis, also known as Calgary. Words could never do justice to the gratitude I feel for our Elders. Earlier this year they gifted me a Blackfoot name, an immense honour that I will cherish forever.
I would encourage anyone looking to begin or advance their journey in truth and reconciliation to start by making relatives. Get to know the Indigenous community near you, seek to truly understand their experiences and culture, learn about Indigenous ways. And don’t wait, start now. Indigenous lives depend on it.
In addition to our decades of investments and focus on Indigenous healing and well-being, in 2018, we launched a five-year strategic plan which is built on the foundation that United Way and Indigenous communities have a relationship built on trust, respect, and reciprocity. To ensure real and sustainable change for our organization, with the guidance and leadership of Elders and other Indigenous people, we developed our Indigenous organizational strategy called Akak’stiman, which in Blackfoot means “journey of creative planning to achieve goals.” It is a multi-generational strategy that guides United Way’s business practices, Indigenous-focused investments, and our relationships with Indigenous communities. The Akak’stiman Indigenous Strategy helps United Way staff and community partners understand how to build respectful, authentic relationships with Indigenous people and to create ethical space so that we may work together to identify and achieve common goals.
5. How can we make the Nonprofit Sector more attractive for young people- who according to survey data are firmly embedded in working with social purpose organizations but are doubtful that they can raise a family with the low salaries in the Nonprofit Sector
The commitment young people have to social purpose is truly inspiring. Just the other week I had a visit with a five-year-old named Delilah, who held a lemonade stand to fundraise for United Way. She came to my office to present us with her funds, and it really warmed my heart. The future is in good hands!
I think it’s easy to respond to a question like this with the usual things we hear; our commitment to our culture and employee well-being, our comprehensive compensation package, development opportunities, the fact we offer a hybrid work environment with flexible working hours. All of which we have, and those things are of course important, but I think engaging young people in their social purpose and creating a work environment where they want to stay and grow goes beyond the formal offerings.
Young people want to work for leaders that they believe in, they want to be part of a team where they truly feel they belong, and they want to know that they are making a positive impact in the world, that their work matters. I recently read an article from Harvard Business Review on the importance of work friends. Loneliness is on the rise in our communities, meeting new friends in real life has become increasingly digital forward and at times challenging. We spend a significant amount of our lives at work. This is a big opportunity for us as a sector. As leaders, we must nurture our younger team members, and this requires us to develop a genuine relationship with them. There is no shortage of talented young people who understand and place value on being a member of a positive workplace.
Related to this topic, I encourage everyone to watch this TED talk: The way we think about charity is dead wrong | Dan Pallotta – YouTube