Rachael Wilson is no stranger to a crisis. She was part of the senior management team at the Ottawa Food Bank when it was providing fresh food and supplies to those in need after the city was hit by a tornado and flooding.
It’s almost as if those natural disasters prepared her for what was to come: a once-in-a-century pandemic that would leave scores of Ottawa residents out of work but still needing to get food on the table for their families.
Wilson, 43, has just been named CEO of the Ottawa Food Bank after serving in an interim capacity since September 2020. She’s the first woman to hold the top position in the charity’s 36-year history.
“I feel incredibly honoured, incredibly privileged to work for an organization like the Ottawa Food Bank,” said Wilson while highlighting the exceptional contributions of the organization's staff, volunteers and its member agencies. “I think the work that we do all together is just so important. It’s just such a vital service in the city.”
Wilson has 20 years’ experience in fundraising, previously working for a wide range of Ottawa-based nonprofit organizations focused on social services, healthcare, arts and sports.
"I really believe in the power of philanthropy and the power of people working together to solve issues."
“I love meeting people and connecting with people in solving big problems in our community through philanthropy,” said Wilson. “I really believe in the power of philanthropy and the power of people working together to solve issues.”
The Ottawa Food Bank, located at 1317 Michael St. in Gloucester, is the main emergency food provider in the region. It works with 112 community-based food programs to feed 39,000 people each month. Thirty-six per cent of those people are children.
In addition to securing millions of dollars’ worth of donated food, it spends about $2.4 million a year purchasing food from its industry partners to meet the needs of the public. It relies heavily on the goodwill of others in order to do so.
“The community has been incredibly generous,” Wilson noted.
Wilson joined the Food Bank in 2016 as director of communications and development, working closely with former CEO Michael Maidment. He left last September to head up the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation.
“Rachael stepped into the interim CEO role soon after the COVID-19 pandemic hit and excelled in what was a very difficult situation,” stated Ottawa Food Bank board member and selection committee member Trevor Whike, delivery and operations consultant at TALOH Solutions Inc, in an email to OBJ.social. “She calmly navigated uncharted territory and provided critical leadership when it was needed most.”
Wilson is “well-respected by her peers,” Whike also noted. “Rachael is one to ask questions, request input and to listen keenly when identifying a path forward – critical attributes when partnering with the Ottawa Food Bank’s myriad of stakeholders. Her bilingual communication skills, her ease with the media and her positive spirit make her the ideal spokesperson for the organization.”
'No shame or embarrassment'
Wilson, who grew up in Ottawa's downtown neighbourhood of Centretown, was first introduced to the Ottawa Food Bank some 30 years ago as a volunteer.
“I vividly remember sorting food in boxes and being absolutely flabbergasted that something like a food bank existed at all, especially in a city like Ottawa, where I just assumed that everybody was fine,” said Wilson. “That memory has always stuck with me.”
After graduating from the arts program at Canterbury High School, Wilson seemed to be heading toward a career in stage management and theatre production. She earned a fine arts degree in theatre from Concordia University. It wasn’t long, however, until she closed the curtain on that chapter of her life and decided to pursue professional fundraising. She’d already developed some relevant skills during her time in the arts.
“I was used to applying for grants and having to hustle for money,” she said.
Wilson studied business management at Algonquin College and, in 2015, became a certified fundraising executive.
Ottawa business leaders need to be aware that many people – perhaps even their own employees – are living paycheque to paycheque and facing food insecurity issues, said Wilson, who encourages bosses to disseminate information to their employees on how they can locate a food program nearest to them.
“There’s no shame or embarrassment in accessing a food bank.
"The Ottawa Food Bank was here before the pandemic, will be here after the pandemic. What the pandemic has really shown is there are so many people who never thought they'd need a food bank, thought they were moving along on the right path, doing everything they could. But, something like a pandemic or a sudden job loss or a medical emergency can mean a family has to turn to a food bank."
The OFB has worked hard in recent years to provide healthy and fresh food for its clients, offer choices that are more culturally sensitive as well as focus on reducing poverty and food insecurity so that fewer people need to rely on food banks, she added.
Wilson, a mother of two, said she aims to continue moving the organization forward in her new role.
“Mike (Maidment) did amazing work really building the organization up and getting it on solid footing. Now, we have an opportunity to really push and do some great things for the community.”