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For 86 years, the Victoria Foundation has been working to create a vibrant, caring community for all in Greater Victoria. 

Q&A with Victoria Foundation

When it was established in 1936, the Victoria Foundation was Canada’s second community foundation (after Winnipeg), and launched with an initial donation of just $20.

Now it administers assets of more than $418 million – making it the sixth largest community foundation in Canada – and has granted over $269 million to thousands of organizations.

It’s come a long way from the beginnings of an idea by its founder, Burges Gadsden. The soup kitchen operator knew the community could be improved by an organization that could amplify the impact of many donors providing what support they could, including the $20 from his mother.

Sandra Richardson, the Foundation’s CEO, tells us why the role they — and their donors — play in our community is also important in supporting economic growth and prosperity.

Sandra Richardson, CEO, The Victoria Foundation.

Why did you join the South Island Prosperity Project?

The Victoria Foundation’s vision is to help create a vibrant, caring community for all. A core piece of having a vibrant community is ensuring there is a strong, resilient economy. Part of having a caring community is ensuring that the residents of our region have access to employment that allows them to comfortably live and work in the South Island. It also means that there is diversity and equity in the employment opportunities in the region. 

The South Island Prosperity Project (SIPP) is aligned with the Victoria Foundation in working to improve our region. We believe SIPP is making a difference in our community by leading the diversification of our economy and creating a more resilient economy. We are proud to collaborate with SIPP on projects including the Shorefast Initiative to build a strong community economy.

What do you see as key to growing a resilient, robust economic future for our region?

A key trend that has been magnified by the pandemic is the growing integration and collaboration needed between sectors to be successful. This includes government, business, and the civil society (non-profit). 

In 2018, the Victoria Foundation and University of Victoria released the Civil Society Impact Report examining the social impact and economic activity of the civil society. It was conducted to better understand and strengthen the sector for the betterment of all residents of Greater Victoria. 

It found that the civil society in Greater Victoria creates $4 billion in economic activity. What’s more, when using a multiplier the economic activity is worth $7 billion and supports the equivalent of 122,000 jobs. Think about that impact in a region of approximately 400,000 people! That is a significant part of our local economy and key when you’re looking at a diverse economy.

In addition, the report demonstrated that civil society has a role to play in achieving all 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. This recognition shows the scope and impact of civil society at a community level, while also demonstrating its ties to a global initiative.

What is our region’s secret sauce when it comes to competing internationally to attract quality talent, businesses with household sustaining jobs, and investment?

The Victoria Foundation sees two keys to our “secret sauce:” our community and the environment. These areas rank high in our annual Vital Signs citizen survey year-over-year.

Greater Victoria offers a community with a small community feel in a region that offers services of a city. Arts and culture, sense of community, festivals and events are all highlighted as some of the best things in Greater Victoria. 

It is a community that residents take pride in.

Building on our great community is our environment. Natural environment, climate, air quality, walkability, and parks are in the top six best things in Greater Victoria in our 2021 Vital Signs report. 

We believe these are key in the attraction of quality talent, building businesses that provide household sustaining jobs, and investment in our region.

What are you most excited about in terms of your own organization’s plans and potential?

The 2021 Vital Signs Report.

Over the past 20 years we have seen an increase in community members and donors engaging with our organization allowing us to grow from granting $1 million a year in 2001, to granting well over $1 million a month in 2021. We are thankful for the community and our donors for putting their confidence in our organization.

I believe we’re well positioned to continue making an impact in our region by working with and listening to the community. Our tagline is ‘connecting people who care with causes that matter,’ and I think that still resonates today. These connections are critical given the size, scope, and impact of civil society on our local economy. 

The impact of civil society is also seen in how it keeps the community moving forward by providing critical services. Part of our role is to continue collaborating with our partners in the non-profit society, while also working with organizations in other sectors to improve our community.

I am also looking forward to our continued growth in terms of equity, diversity, and inclusion. The Victoria Foundation has a history of placing a high value on these areas, however we know there is more work to do especially with the learnings of the last two years. 

Our Vital Signs report theme this year was equity and inclusion, and I encourage readers to watch the launch video and visit our new Vital Victoria digital platform to find really moving articles and stories about equity and inclusion. 

We are proud to have our former board chair and current cultural advisor Patrick Kelly leading a First Nations Task Group with members from both the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations to ensure we’re continuing to effectively engage with local First Nations communities. I think this is an area society is committed to improving as we are at the Victoria Foundation.

There is a lot to be excited about at the Victoria Foundation, and these are some of our highlights!

What’s one thing about your organization you really want people to know that they probably don’t know?

The Victoria Foundation is built on an endowment model to support the community through all economic and market conditions; however we also work to ensure philanthropy is accessible for all for the betterment of our region. The Foundation is pleased to speak to people about the various opportunities to give their time, talent, or treasure in our region.

An example is the Rapid Relief Fund partnership at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal of the Rapid Relief Fund was to quickly disburse funds to local front-line services whose staff, volunteers, programs, and operations were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. 

Community support was unprecedented, as we hit our first $1 million goal just 36 hours after launching. In under two months the Rapid Relief Fund raised $6 million. This was money put directly into the community during a time of need and we continue to support the sector through the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Foundation offers long-term funds that are spent down in a specific period of time, and passthrough funds that go out to the community to meet the need as soon as possible. Our main channel for passthrough funds is our Community Action Funds.

Our team is also working to engage younger people in philanthropy with the Gadsden Initiative and the Vital Youth program.

86 years ago the Foundation was started by Burges Gadsden with the first donation coming from his mother, Fanny Gadsden. The donation was $20, and Fanny wrote in a letter along with the donation that she wishes she could have given $100. Following on the legacy from our founder we are committed to creating an environment that allows us to respond to community needs and make philanthropy accessible for all.  

Photo: Page One Publishing/Jeffrey Bosdet.

What challenges are you most invested in helping our community overcome and why?

There are two issues that the Victoria Foundation continues to work on and improve.

The first is affordability. While we live in a beautiful part of the world, unfortunately there is a significant cost to live in Greater Victoria. The Greater Victoria Food Distribution Centre has been a key collaboration project with the Victoria Foundation, Mustard Seed Street Church and dozens of other community and funding partners. 

The Centre is a community resource for rescuing and distributing food, as well as providing training opportunities, food skills and social connections. Everyday, the Centre rescues 12,000 to 15,000 pounds of food that would otherwise go landfill, redistributing to those in need in our community through the Food Share Network. 

In addition, through the Victoria Community Food Hub, the Centre is the home for several initiatives directly helping local farmers, food producers and processors improve their sales and economic success. 

Part of making life more affordable in Greater Victoria is ensuring everyone has access to healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate meals as well as the opportunity to meaningfully engage in the social and economic development of this region. The Food Distribution Centre and the projects it supports helps us to meet these goals everyday.

Another issue is inclusivity in our community. While a majority of the 2021 Vital Signs citizen survey respondents feel very welcomed and included in our community, and there are those that does not. According to our Vital Signs citizen survey 42 percent of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour do not feel included in our community. 

Therefore, as a community we need to take what is working well for some and ensure it is extended to all members of our community. The Victoria Foundation is committed to continuing to work with our partners to ensure Greater Victoria is a welcoming and inclusive place for all.

We were proud to be part of the Canadian Urban Institute Victoria urban intensive in October 2021. These conversations, in partnership with the City of Victoria and Canadian Urban Institute, were tied into our 2021 Vital Signs report. 

What lessons have most profoundly impacted you since the pandemic sent shockwaves through our community and economy?

A key lesson during the pandemic is recognizing the significant impact it is having on the civil society as a whole, while also considering how the response to COVID-19 was impacting organizations differently.

The Victoria Foundation partnered with Vantage Point, the Vancouver Foundation, and the City of Vancouver to understand the impacts of the pandemic on the non-profit sector, and these results are available in the No Immunity Report (March 2020) and Unraveling Report (February 2021). 

In the latest report, 67 percent of non-profits in the Capital Region reported having increased demand for programs. Meanwhile, 75 percent of non-profit organizations faced challenges due to increased costs and adapting to new service-delivery models. The organizations responding to the survey also experience a loss in volunteer availability and revenue.

Nearly half of the respondents from across BC reported they would have to shut down their operations if the situation continues.

Given the size of the sector, it is difficult to consider the economic implications of having almost half of our non-profits shut down. Therefore, a key lesson during the pandemic is the need to ensure we’re considering the community impact and economic impact of the non-profit sector.

I want to give kudos to members of our civil society that have found new, innovative ways to deliver services during a very stressful and unpredictable time. It hasn’t been easy, but we will continue to support each other.

We also have seen the impact of Trust Based Philanthropy, which centres on relationships and flexible funding to organizations to trust they know where it can have the most impact. A lot of funding available to non-profits is project based and usually cannot be used for operations, however during the pandemic this shifted and has made a difference to adapt and respond to the needs. 

Streamlining application and reporting processes has also helped reduce the burden on non-profits. This is a good lesson moving forward for any granting organization. 

When you envision the South Island region in 2040, what will have changed? What does our future look like?

While 2040 seems a long way away, it is only 18 years until we reach that point.

It is my hope we will be a vibrant, caring community for all. As there is immediate urgency around this, I hope by 2040 we have learned lessons from the past and have implemented real change based on meaningful engagement and relationship building with First Nations communities. I think this is critical to our region and country.

I also envision a more affordable community. Living at the tip of an island with limited available space creates challenges for housing, however I believe there are solutions which can be implemented. I also believe we can find ways to continue to build a robust economy while not leaving others behind.

Something I want to preserve through 2040 is our natural environment. Our natural environment has been a positive in Vital Signs citizen survey for years, and this is one of the keys to our region. At the same time, this is threatened by the impacts of climate change such as an increase in smoke from wildfires, and the recent flooding. 

Taking action to keep our natural environment and the services it supports is critical to future success and our community’s health and wellbeing.