How can smaller groups engage the country’s largest charitable givers?


When you run a grassroots charity, financial contributions can make the difference between wanting to help people and actually being able to.

The $20,000 grant awarded late last year to Serenity Renewal for Families by the Telus Friendly Future Foundation, through the Telus Ottawa Community Board, allowed the small organization to continue offering counselling and mental health workshops during the pandemic, using a virtual format. The funds ended up helping more than 150 low-income individuals and families affected by addiction issues. 

Finding a way to engage with one of the country’s largest donors made all the difference for those who rely on it for key services. It’s a lesson many smaller charities could benefit from learning.

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“For an organization with no sustained government funding and a shoestring budget, the $20,000 had an incredible impact,” said Serenity Renewal’s executive director Neil Leslie. “It meant we didn’t have to turn anyone away.”

The Telus board in Ottawa gives out $400,000 each year in grants to registered Canadian charitable organizations. Cumulatively, it’s contributed $7-million to 500-plus projects in the Ottawa region alone since 2005, when Telus launched 13 boards in communities across Canada. 

“Telus truly believes that doing good in the community and doing well in business are mutually inclusive,” said Shanan Spencer-Brown, executive director of the Telus Friendly Future Foundation.

The funding comes from the foundation, which was created through a  $120-million endowment created from the Vancouver-based telecommunications corporation.

A diverse group of Ottawa business and civic-minded leaders, chaired by the community builder Manjit Basi, collaborate with a small group of Telus employees to make decisions that will impact their community. They meet several times a year to assess and approve applications for grants of up to $20,000. 

Of particular interest to the Telus Community Boards are local charities that offer community-based health, education or technology programs that help marginalized youth. Many of the beneficiaries are grassroots charities that might fly under the radar of other funding sources.

Telus also assigns a community investment manager to assist charities in the grant application process. 

“Some funders look for a way to say no to charities that apply, we look for a way to say yes,” said Spencer-Brown.

Organizations with projects of a provincial or national scope can also apply for funding of up to $200,000 through the Telus Friendly Future Foundation’s national grants.

RBC Royal Bank is not only one of the biggest banks in the country but also one of the largest in the world. It invests one percent of its net profits, globally, back into the communities where its employees live and work through RBC Foundation.

In Ottawa, that adds up to roughly $2-million-worth of charitable gifts each year.

“We believe we have a corporate responsibility to give back where we work and live,” said Glenn Sheen, regional director of marketing and citizenship for RBC. “Yes, we are a successful company. Yes, we provide returns to our shareholders, but our mission statement is about helping clients thrive and communities prosper.”

The priorities of RBC Foundation are to help Canadian youth prepare for the jobs of tomorrow, protect the environment when it comes to climate change and clean water, help emerging artists thrive, and support mental well-being programs that help youth reach their full potential. 

“In all of those pillars we do look at the intersectionality of marginalized, racialized and underserved populations, whether that’s socio-economic, race based, gender based or sexuality based,” said Sheen. “It’s about giving all people equal access to the programs that are going to help.”

RBC Foundation gifts range from $5,000 up to the $1.5-million donation it made to CHEO in 2020 to improve access to youth mental health in the community. Some of its other local beneficiaries include the Ottawa Art Gallery, Operation Come Home and Ottawa Riverkeeper.

Sheen manages the majority of the gifts, along with his colleague, Derek Farrow, regional manager of corporate citizenship and social impact. For larger donations, regional president Marjolaine Hudon is involved in the decision-making process.  

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the RBC Foundation, as well as the Telus community boards, responded to the needs of local charities desperate for assistance. 

RBC employees, of which there are about 1,800 in the region, also look for opportunities to get involved in the community and to use their expertise to mentor youth or to volunteer on boards, said Sheen. “We try to build relationships, to support the not-for-profit ecosystem with more than just money.

“There’s not a lot of corporations that have the size and scope and breadth that we do. We can effect societal change. Money is one way of doing it, obviously, but by showing up, by talking about issues, by putting our money where our mouth is and getting our people involved, we believe we can make a difference on those key issues facing society today.

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