Karel Mayrand

President and CEO of the Foundation of Greater Montréal

Karel Mayrand is the President and CEO of the Foundation of Greater Montréal. Before that, he has been for twelve years Director General for Quebec and the Atlantic with the David Suzuki Foundation, and chair of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project in Canada. He is also President of the board of Société du Parc Jean-Drapeau. Karel is co-author of Demain, le Québec (Éditions La Presse, 2018), author of Une Voix pour la Terre (Boréal, 2012), co-author of Ne renonçons à rien (Lux, 2017) with the Faut qu’on se parle collective. He frequently contributes columns and op eds for l’Actualité and La Presse.

Before joining the David Suzuki Foundation in 2008, Karel advised several UN agencies as well as Quebec’s former Premier, Pierre Marc Johnson, on globalization and sustainability issues, for over a decade.  He co-authored Governing Global Desertification (London, Ashgate Aldershot, 2006). He was co-founder in 2002 of Unisféra International Centre, a sustainability think-tank, where he created Planetair, a leading Canadian provider of carbon offsets and climate solutions. He is an Action Canada fellow (2005) and was finalist in 2008 for the Arista Prize as Social entrepreneur of the year in Quebec. 

Work and impact

I work for The Foundation of Greater Montreal. It is a community foundation, and like other community Foundations across Canada are supporting the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN SDGs. And so, theoretically, sustainability should be part of everything we do. In some sense, it is, but traditionally, philanthropy has been focused mostly on health, education, to a lesser extent culture and supporting the poor. But it hasn’t necessarily been focused on environmental issues. So that piece of sustainability if you define it as social equity, economic development, and environmental sustainability, had a piece missing, that’s for sure. But I have to tell you that I don’t adhere to the traditional definition of sustainability. I worked for 12 years with David Suzuki, and the first thing I learned was that placing the planet and the economy at the same scale doesn’t make sense. The economy has to fit in the planet. But the environmental aspect has not penetrated the work of community foundations and philanthropy more broadly, as much as it should have done, but it’s changing very rapidly. But still, I think philanthropy has some catching up to do. That’s my first answer.

The second answer to that question is that we distribute grants, but we also manage funds. So philanthropic organizations and community foundations have started incorporating and integrating sustainability in their granting, but they’re very slow to integrate sustainability in the way that they manage their funds. And that’s important, because for example, my organization manages $400M in assets, but we distribute $12M-$20M a year in grants, so our impact can be much greater if we actually leverage the $400M towards sustainability. But what this means is that you need to integrate ESG criteria, and you need to look at climate impact, and your carbon footprint and all of that stuff that the financial sector has not been so proactive to do in the past. Again, it’s changing rapidly, but to me, it’s very important that we incorporate sustainability, not only in our words, but in everything we do in our business model, in our practices in our granting, in the way we manage our assets, our endowment, everything. So that’s what my organization has done in the past 18 months since I joined; really to incorporate the environmental aspect, but also to integrate sustainability in everything we do, not only in our granting, but the way we manage our assets.

I used to be an environmental activist. I’m in my third career now but I started as an international consultant on sustainability issues. Then, after a decade of doing that, I realized I had no impact, I was just writing reports that were getting shelved by civil servants who had very little power. I felt that I needed to have more impact, so I decided to go and work for an environmental organization, the David Suzuki foundation, for 12 years. Environmental sustainability was the core of everything I was doing from the moment I woke up in the morning until the moment I fell asleep, it was literally an 18 hours a day job, so it’s still part of me very much. But I realized that also I could have an impact and bring those values to another sector, and that’s when I decided after 12 years, I needed to try something new by using my tools to have an impact on sustainability, which is why I moved to philanthropy and to a community foundation. You always bring your values with you, and your knowledge, and your expertise, and who you are. And that I think is an important takeaway for me because when you get to a moment in your career when you can really have decision-making power, then you realize that your values are what really matters because the decisions you make are ultimately based on those values.

It was a gut decision. I’ve never had a career plan, I just know in my gut when it’s time to move on, and when an opportunity is the right one at the right time. I was contacted by a headhunter, and the funny thing is, I was really surprised that they hired me. Because I had just spent, you know, 12 years, being an activist, or as David Suzuki would say, a “shit disturber”. But here’s an organization, The Foundation of Greater Montreal, which has traditionally been much more conservative than an advocacy NGO. And here I am, a former professional advocacy guy, being hired in philanthropy. There’s no contradiction, both aim to change things. I thought that it’s a great opportunity and it shows how the sector is changing and is opening up to new ways of doing things, to being much more intentional in trying to change the world for good. Before I joined, the Foundation of Greater Montreal was less intentional, essentially acting as a neutral player in the ecosystem. And now, I think, when I look at most Community Foundation’s in recent years, they’re really, really trying to play what’s more of a leadership role to transform their communities. And I think that’s the reason why I ended up there.

Yeah. I’ve always had this feeling I wanted to shake things up and have an impact, but I wasn’t a natural activist. I’ve met people who are born with that kind of energy, but I’m not a very good guy to go with a megaphone on the street. I’m good at other things. So I’ve always had this feeling that I wanted to change things, and one of my skills is I’m a good communicator, I’m good at writing, I’m good on the media, radio, TV. So I used that a lot. It was also very useful for me when I became a manager, and now that I run an organization with a team of 20. Before that, it was around 12 to 15 employees. The way you inspire people outside, is the same way that you are inspiring people inside your organization, so I was lucky because I had this gift.

What I’m most excited about is that the philanthropic sector is taking on the climate crisis. And I’m very excited that the sector is also using its assets more and more, its endowments, for impact, and I think it’s a game changer. Because before that we thought the only goal of assets was to generate returns so that you could give grants. But community foundations and private foundations across the country are doing much more impact investing and mission related investment. That’s an exciting thing, because, as I told you, we granted about $20M in the past year, but I have a mandate to put 10% of our total assets in impact investing in the coming two or three years. So 10%, in three years, probably will mean $50M that we can invest in the community and impact investing. So that’s huge, because suddenly, we multiply the impact we can have by two or three.

So philanthropy historically is a place of power. You can imagine aristocrats giving away bread pieces to poor people, that’s philanthropy 500 years ago. Then eventually, philanthropy, you can think about the Rockefellers and others who made so much money that just didn’t know what to do with that money, and eventually gave back to society. And so, it’s always been a charity model. I’m giving back and I’m doing good because I’m giving back. If I’m successful and I give back, I’m morally winning. So I think that was the old conception of philanthropy, the new conception of philanthropy is much more intentional, it tries to transform society. So it becomes one of the means that we have, government interventions is another one, transforming businesses is another one. But the thing is, it’s no longer enough just to give back money, we need to have an impact and we need to contribute to transforming society. And so then once you’ve said that, you start thinking about ‘Where has the money gone in philanthropy in the past 50, 60, 100 years?’ and you realize that almost all of it has gone to issues or causes that are dear to rich white people. Less than 1% of grants in the past have gone to combating inequality, to justice, diversity and inclusion or to environmental issues. So the misconception here is that there was a huge blind spot in philanthropy, where people thought ‘I’m doing a good thing, because I’m giving back to society.’ But basically, the places where people were giving back were rich people’s causes. And now philanthropy, and especially Community Foundation’s are saying ‘Okay, we’re going to support diversity, we’re going to make sure that our grants end up in communities where they haven’t reached in the past.’ And that’s very important, so the key then is to convince donors who have the power to give because they have the money to let go of that power, and to let community foundations or others make decisions as to where that money would be most useful. Because donors like to control where to give money, and that’s normal, that’s human. But I’d love to see a world where donors would just pull resources and make these resources available to the community, and the community itself would make decisions; we call this is Trust-Based Philanthropy where basically, you try to reverse the power structures, and you give the power to make decisions to the community. So it means that donors have to let go.

Life and aspirations

Zoom calls. So in my past job, I used to start a work day not knowing what would happen because every day there was some media emergency or something, but philanthropy is a much more quiet, stable sector. And so my typical day will involve making sure that everyone on my team and in my organization can operate and that we’re feeling good. I always spend a lot of time internally, trying to make sure that people connect with each other, understand each other, that we work as a team. This is very important I noticed in the past. If you’re away for a long time, when you come back, sometimes it changes the dynamic, and you have to be very careful. So that’s always something I have on my mind; I know that you need to make sure that people feel good and appreciated. So that’s one part.

At this time, what I find most challenging is not to be physically with people. It’s very hard on me because I need those interactions. It feeds me, it fuels me. And what I find challenging is learning the processes, the legal and the financial processes. In an organization like mine, it’s very complex, but what’s most rewarding is the people I work with. It seems cheesy, but I don’t remember what I did six years ago, but I remember who I worked with. And those relationships they build over time, and eventually people you meet when you’re 25, or 30, will be in places of power later when they’re 45 or 50. And the people you’ve had beers with, you’ll always have a different connection with them than your other professional relationships.

And the other thing I find most rewarding is the organizational strategy, positioning the organization, and understanding how to improve the organization, as if I was playing with a new board game. Board games that you play, you learn the rules, and then you build your strategy, and I love that that’s something that I do naturally. So I really like to do the visioning part, the strategic part, to meet other people to understand how to position the organization in the ecosystem, where to lead it next. This is the most rewarding part along with the people.

I don’t know. I don’t know. So I believe at some point, I’m going to feel I have given what I can in this organization. And when you’ve given what you could bring to this organization, maybe it’s time to go or it’s time to find a new project within the same organization and you keep on going. So the thing is, if you don’t have new ideas, and if you don’t know what the next step is, it’s a signal that it’s time for you to think about something else. It’s a lot of intuition, it’s gut feeling, but at the same time, intuition, is an implicit way of processing information. It’s just less explicit than having an excel spreadsheet. But intuition comes from what you feel, it comes from the information you gather and how you process it. And so the next step, I have no idea. If you had told me three years ago that I would run a community foundation, I would not have believed you. And yet here I am super happy learning so many things. So, yeah, I don’t know.

Advice for the next generations

I’ve always been in leadership positions, because I had natural leadership skills. Even when I when I was a teenager in high school, it’s just been who I am. So the first thing is to know who you are. If you know who you are, and you are true to yourself, you’re going to be hired for the right reasons, because headhunters and people who hire are going to check the boxes and find if it’s a good fit for you.

Also, communications is very important. You need to be able to convey a message and be understood. And I think it’s important everywhere you work to be able to interact positively with people. It seems obvious, but if you’re not capable of connecting with people and conveying your vision effectively, you’re not going to be a leader for a long time. So that’s, that’s an important skill.

And then having strategic vision is important too. Understanding complexity, making sense of it, and simplifying it in a way that you can make decisions and give a direction. And it’s difficult because sometimes it takes courage; there are decisions that are not easy to make. If you back down from those decisions, you’re just not doing your job.

People come to philanthropy from so many angles. So I have a master’s in international relations. So basically, I’m a generalist. Being trained in management or having experience in management or finance really helps. As a CEO, I realized that CEOs have a skill set, training, and a personality; it’s just a mix of everything. So I don’t feel like there’s one single path to working in philanthropy or one single path to becoming CEO of an organization.

The first one is authenticity because if there’s no authenticity, there’s no connection. Trust comes from that connection that you have. I also think loyalty is very important, as is being result driven. It’s very difficult for me to work with people who are process driven, or task driven. It’s just my own personality, but I’m really goal driven. And so authenticity, loyalty, being goal driven, I think are the three things I’m looking for. I’m a no bullshit guy. No nonsense, no bullshit guy.

I would have trusted myself a little more when I started. The context was so different because there was a lot of unemployment when I started in the late 1990s, and so there was this feeling that you had to take any opportunity that you had and hang on to it, but I think nowadays, people have more choices. So, I think it’s very difficult to compare. I don’t have regrets except I wish I had worked in jobs that were paying more at the beginning of my career… ha ha !  But I think it’s not the same, the situation is different today. I used to work for NGOs and startups, so there was a price to pay for me in foregone income. The first time I had a bi weekly pay was when I was 35. So from 25 to 35, I had good revenues, but I was working as a consultant, so money would flow, and then there was no money for six months, so it was very difficult. However, since I initiated projects, I learned a lot because there was a lot of trial and error all the time, so I was just taking lots of risks. It cost me money wise, but it was an incredible learning experience. Now, if I were to do it all over again, I would probably choose a path that is much more secure, but I would regret it because I would have missed these opportunities to learn.

And if I were to give advice to people I would say to take some risks while you don’t have mortgage payments or kids or while you’re not responsible for anyone else.  Perhaps it was good, but in retrospect, it was asking a lot from myself and it helped me become who I am today. It was a huge investment.