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Bridge Beat

Jun 15, 2015

Courage and Impact: Next Steps of the Laidlaw Foundation

I have had the honour of being the Chair of the Board of the Laidlaw Foundation for most of the last four years and over those four years, Laidlaw has seen a significant amount of change. There has been a new Strategic Plan, a new Executive Director, new partnerships, new granting programs, and the future promises continued innovation in the form of research, advocacy and how we invest the money of the Foundation.

 But in as much as I am proud of these new directions, they are all built on Laidlaw’s existing values: Youth engagement, diversity, excellence and integrity. Everything new about the Foundation is built on these values. It is aimed at creating a positive impact working with and for young people, and reflects the mission our foundation. If I had to summarize our values it would be this: we begin with the assumption that what young people have to say is valuable, that they offer their seniors much to learn.

Tonight, I would like to make the connection between our values and what Laidlaw has undertaken and offer some insight into the road ahead for Laidlaw. Taken together I think they demonstrate the courage of our grantees, the impact our Foundation is having and, moreover, the impact it can have looking forward.

The only place to start - our grantees. Since our starting premise is that we have something to learn from youth, let me tell you that I have learned a few things in my time as chair and I want to relay a few of those lessons.

First, never underestimate the power of youth expression. A couple of years ago I went to an exhibit put on by one of our grantees at the time –CUE. CUE was regranting small amounts of money to young artists in Toronto and puts on an annual show. And I fell into the trap of assuming that the show would be quite bland. To be honest, I was picturing the watercolour landscapes of the art show at the community centre near my house. You know, art you might refer to as “nice”.

That particular preconceived notion was beaten out in three steps as this art made me immediately uncomfortable. It was all challenging, some even aggressive and definitely not “nice”. And yet, for me, many of the pieces still had an optimistic beauty about them..My favourite piece from that show is still pictured on my blackberry – a 4 painting quad Pic that seemed to depict upper and lower Toronto. It's still with me.  

Youth expression, whether through art or conversation is valuable, courageous, destructive and not to be underestimated. 

But a second penny dropped that day too. And here is the thing that really got me – In as much as the art itself was amazing, the fact that someone – the people who run CUE – were creating the pathway for this to happen was just as important. But to make it happen, they were going from foundation to foundation to cobble together the funds they need to allow this to art to find a way out into the world. This is courage that has impact and that waste of time we saw as they go from funder to funder instead of using that time to help artists, led directly to one of Laidlaw’s initiatives – changing the way the not for profit sector works.

Third, not every young person is ready for the world. Especially when the world is not ready for them. We used to fund an organization called the New Mentality. I met them when they were asking for funding to support a drop in centre for young people struggling with gender identity. One thing jumped off the page of their application for me – they had identified something like 7 genders. Well, that is not an easy concept for your average straight board chair. This particular board chair took latin in high school so could get to three genders but that was not what New Mentality had in mind.

I don’t know how many of us ended up accepting that there are 7 genders. What we learned from New Mentality is that it really doesn’t matter what we think about this. What mattered is that the people working with New Mentality were offering a loving and unjudging audience to young people and acknowledging their self-identified gender. For some youth, no amount of job programs or skills training, will be sufficient to achieve an engagement in society – our mission at Laidlaw – until they are able to find comfort in their own identity. And if the naming of 7 genders that straight board chairs find awkward helps achieve that goal, then 7 genders there are.

The point I took from that exchange is that providing traditional tools to young people without taking into account their individual circumstances will not always work. And again, the people who actually carry out this work amaze me. There is a degree of courage, patience and love in what this group does that simply does not exist in most of us.

Finally, what happens to young people is too often ignored. This will not be news to most of you, and as chair of Laidlaw, I know that too, and yet, even for those of us who engage through organizations like Laidlaw, we get caught by surprise on the magnitude of this. In fact we are very good at giving young people far too much to overcome. We met with Amadeusz last year and I was taken aback by the number of young people on remand in Toronto detention centres. Remand is pre-tCUErial custody. While in remand, school goes on outside the detention centre and education as a pathway to engagement recedes from view for young people in remand. Amadeusz is now one of our long term grantees as they help young adults 18-30 finish high school while in custody. There is a waiting list.

There is no doubt that the program is desired, but we need more. That’s one of the reasons that Laidlaw decided to focus its resources on certain issues facing young people and one of those is assisting youth outside the regular education system. And, can you imagine the impact on a youth in remand and on his or her family of completing school and maybe even getting into post secondary education – as 5 of the Amadeusz grads have done.

We are proud that Laidlaw is there to help Amadeusz carry out this work. But…there is a waiting list… so it's not enough. We need a change in the system that lets young people sit idle in prison without conviction.

These are only three examples – but we have learned from all three and those lessons are reflected in what we do. We are providing means by which young people are expressing themselves, we are inclusive of all young people – and open to feedback when we are not - and we are driving towards making the kind of systematic change which might help young people in remand or change the way our sector funds groups like CUE.

Which brings me directly to our strategic plan.

Two years ago, we completed our strategic plan, this past year we reworked our granting structure and approved a new investment policy. Let me get back to that. And in the coming years the focus will be on completing our Strategic Plan through research and advocacy.

In fact, these next steps of our strategic plan in fact relies on our ability to work with grantees to ground our research and advocacy in the challenges they face and overcome. We have focussed our granting on fewer areas with a view to achieving Impact. Many grantees have already noticed some of the changes we need to make to move forward on this: Our granting process is more formalized and our reporting is becoming more demanding. We have had feedback on these changes: Some say that our new approach makes it more difficult to get through the door, others say its fairer this way. We appreciate the feedback and are taking steps to ensure good ideas are not lost as we move to greater rigour in grant making and reporting.

Our focuses this year and next – set out in our Annual Report -– Community based Education, changes in the not-for profit sector and so on – will be the subject of research and advocacy in the year following.

As a result, our grantees continue to be at the centre of the Foundation. They are our partners in delivering the strategic plan – And It is a two way street – a partnership in which we demand much of our grantees and they demand much of us in return. And while we have a focus on the areas we have identified, we are still keeping our ears open for new ideas through the Youth led community grants and pop-up granting.

So what do the next couple of years hold for Laidlaw as it completes its strategic plan? Let me tell you what you should expect:

  • A higher level of activism. It is our intent to speak about the issues that our grantees are working with. Our partnership with grantees provides with both hard earned knowledge which should be shared and completely unique set of relationships from which to draw insight. Through the network, we can synthesize and analyze information that is unique and helpful. For example, our funding of Amadeusz and other organizations working with youth outside the traditional system, will allow us to recommend and advocate for changes that will have broad systematic impact.
  • You can expect to see Laidlaw continue to be an interactive funder – We will continue to work with grantees both before and after awards to ensure that good ideas are put forward.
  • You can expect Laidlaw develop its research capacity so that it can translate ideas and knowledge into advocacy.
  • You can expect Laidlaw to continue to find new and exciting partners to deliver on our mandate. This includes opportunities like the Innoweave project described in our Annual Report, the research fellowships you’ll be hearing about, and even other foundations.
  • You can expect us to advocate for systemic change that helps young people succeed. Its our hope that an annual Laidlaw State of Youth Address featuring both the results of our research and the voices of many of our grantees will one day become a fixture for politicians, business people and the youth sector alike.

And by the way, systemic change is not just about legislation, it can also mean change in how the not-for-profit world operates. If we can make it easier for good ideas to get annual funding instead of going from funder to funder every few weeks, that would be a systemic improvement that frees up time and resources for other things.

  • Finally, you can expect us to be putting a portion of our capital to the service of our mission – just as the strategic plan calls for. I want to spend a little time on that.

Laidlaw has traditionally invested its money and spent the proceeds on those investments on grants and administration. As you can see from our financial statements, the foundation has enjoyed some good years and now has a more capital than at any other time in its existence. You can see from our financials that our assets now exceed $67,000,000. Of course, in order to keep the good work of the foundation going we will have to continue to invest that prudently. However, as part of our strategic plan, we wanted to ensure that some portion of those funds were put to the service of our mission through impact investing.

So I am pleased to report that the board has decided to move forward with that initiative and we will slowly begin to move up to 5% of our portfolio into impact investments. That is, investments that have both a financial and social return. This might include backing a community bond, investing in a new space for arts, to be repaid through rent, investing in affordable ownership housing targeted at young people – the possibilities are really broad. In doing so, we become one of the first foundations move toward the Philanthropic Foundations of Canada goal of having 10% of foundation funds in Canada available for that goal. In so doing, we are joining other foundations including McConnell and the several of the Community Foundations in creating a new marketplace for impact investing.

To assist us in coming to this overall conclusion, we retained MERCER to help us analyse our options and assess the change in risk to our portfolio. The conclusion was that impact investments do not materially change the level of risk within our portfolio, or its prospective returns. We still have to work out the mechanics of making this move a reality – such as whether we will pool our funds with other foundations or make independent investments. But the decision is made – we will invest a portion of our capital in investments that will benefit young people.

Like our other initiatives, we want to have greater impact then just what we do ourselves and will work with the balance of the sector to increase the amount of money available for this kind of investing.

That is what you can expect – If you don’t get it, ask why.

Before I conclude, I want to tell you that this will be my last presentation at AGM of Laidlaw as I will not be chair next year. I would like to thank several people who have been on this journey these past four years:

First, The Laidlaw Family – It seems trite to say but if your forbears had not decided to make a foundation and give it money, we would not be here. However, there is something more. Unlike most foundations, the Laidlaws chose not to dominate the board. As a result, we have a resilient and diverse board. My particular thanks to Jen Apgar and Jessica Hammell – the two members of the family who have served on our board for my entire time there and Lyon Smith who was also with us for part of that time.

Second, our grantees – I am thankful every day that there are always more good ideas than money. Keep making it hard for us to choose.

Third, the first ED I worked with Nathan Gilbert – Laidlaws strategy today is based on the values of the Laidlaw Foundation, which Nathan led for 31 years. He personified those values and continues to be part of the family through the research grants we have named in his honour. It is a fitting honour.

Fourth, Laidlaw is blessed with a wonderful and committed staff led by Jehad, the irrepressible Ana Skinner, Denis Levebre and Susan Brand. There are also some newcomers: Tamer Ibrahim, Ajeev Bhatia and Betul Keles: The bar is high. Move it higher.  

Finally, the board that fashioned the plan and led the work that was required to make it happen. Liban, Jessica, Shannon, Michael, Ravi, Brenda, thank you. I am particularly grateful to the members who led the committee work. Hanifa Kassam, who is reworking the granting committee and its processes, Derek Ballantyne who has led our work on the Investment Committee to make impact investing possible, and Jen Apgar a second time for leading governance and recruiting.  My special thanks to Andrew Bedeau who has been responsible for the Finance Committee all 4 years. His enthusiasm for Laidlaw is unending and unbending.

My great thanks to each of you.

Laidlaw has an ambitious vision and it is one worth repeating: An inclusive society that values and supports the full engagement of its young people in the civic, social, economic and cultural life of diverse and environmentally healthy communities

We know we are not there, but with the courage of our grantees, the power of our values, the strength of our partners, and the hard work of our staff and volunteers, we can have profound impact and achieve this goal.


Thank you.



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