Executive Director, Trottier Family Foundation
Eric St-Pierre is Executive Director of the Trottier Family Foundation, one of the largest private philanthropic foundations in Canada. Under Eric’s leadership, the Foundation has transitioned its assets towards sustainable and impact investing, increased grants for climate change and helped to build new initiatives that accelerate the transition towards a net-zero carbon economy. Much of Eric’s work is focused on strategic philanthropy and creating opportunities for innovation and collaboration that advance Canada towards Net Zero. He is co-founder of Low Carbon Cities Canada (LC3), Greater Montréal Climate Fund, sits on the Board of Environment Funders Canada, and co-chair of the Montreal Climate Partnership. Eric is a member of the Quebec bar, has civil law and common law degrees from McGill University and a BA Hons degree in Political Science from Concordia University. Eric is recipient of various awards including Lawyer of the Year from Young Bar of Montreal and Clean50 climate advocate.
Work and impact
How is sustainability/social impact integrated in your work?
In my current role, I run a philanthropic foundation where the core focus is on impact. More specifically, the foundation is focused on health, education, science and environment (climate change). That impact driven approach makes us very lucky in a lot of ways because our primary goal is not to generate revenue or to sell something new. That means we can make all our decisions based on what action will have the strongest impact. From an environmental perspective, we’re one of the few funders that’s focused on climate philanthropy. That aspect is a lot of fun because our board is really open to us finding innovative solutions and taking large leaps in order to drive meaningful change. The main levers we use to make an impact in the four areas I outlined previously are, providing grants, running programs and initiatives, and through endowments. For example, last year we provided grants to 175 different charitable partners across Canada totaling about 21 million dollars, we helped launch initiatives like the low carbon cities Canada (LC3) initiative, and then we utilize our 225 million endowment for ESG investing, impact investing, and shareholder engagement.
What are your past and current areas of focus in a few words?
I come from a political science background. I was really interested in policy, human rights, international issues, and environmental matters. From there I took each of those things and tied them into practicing law. There was a natural link there and so I focused on Aboriginal law, environmental law, and social justice law. I studied law at McGill, and at the same time I was always interested in policy and thinking about systems while looking for the human component in each of those areas. Moving into the philanthropic sector, I feel like I brought a lot of that background with me which helped me understand different issues from multiple perspectives. Applying both that policy and law lens to climate issues helped me look for approaches to solving problems that would have a really strong impact and aims to change systems. Understanding the policy side of things allows me to learn a lot about emerging climate policies and what they mean for our work and being a lawyer has helped me to analyze information and synthesize it into something useful.
How did you enter this space?
Making the move into philanthropy wasn’t necessarily planned. I was working as a lawyer and the opportunity came up to manage the foundation. At the time I was still taking on clients and going to court while also managing the foundation on the side. At a certain point I realized that you can do philanthropy two ways, you can do it on the side of your desk where you simply write cheques to the organizations you support, or you can choose to get really involved and try to make a bigger impact. I was inspired by other foundations the in space that were thinking big impact and how involved they were with the federal government and their ability to move policy and I started getting more involved in that side of the work as well. Eventually it got to a point where I needed to stop practicing law if and so I took a chance and went all in on philanthropy. From there, it has remained a viable opportunity for me because I took an entrepreneurial approach to managing the foundation in building it into something that was more robust.
Did you always want to work in the impact space?
I really had no idea that philanthropy was a career option. I was aware of philanthropy peripherally but was not aware of what foundations did with their programs or about investing assets into impact investing. The space was completely new to me when I started but I embraced it and jumped right in to try and learn as much as I could. That path led me to discover how interesting and rewarding it is to work in this space and I’ve been passionate about it ever since. I continue to try and learn everyday because the sector is growing and is no longer as niche as it once was. It is also important to call out that I was lucky in that I met the right people at the right time and was able to develop some role models in the space that I could learn from. Coming out of law school I never would have guessed that this was where I would be working but it speaks to the importance of not being afraid to try new things.
What are you most excited about that has been happening in your industry/field for the past few years?
There are a few things that I think are really exciting that have happened over the past few years. The first is the increased focus on climate and the fact that governments appear to be actually moving forward. Here in Canada, with Steven Guilbeault as the new Environment Minister, it will be exciting to see how we continue to build on the progress we have made as a country over the past five years. This is also true at the municipal level and we are seeing cities really starting to take things seriously and taking action. Seeing cities like Montreal make more ambitious climate plans is exciting to see. Is all of the climate action in Canada going fast enough? Maybe not, but I am excited that we appear to be moving forward nonetheless. The second thing that excites me is the sense of urgency that I see among organizations who are working on climate change. I feel that people are genuinely wanting to move on finding solutions pretty quickly. Thirdly, it is great to see more philanthropic funders starting to think about the work they do in climate change. In philanthropy, climate change grants remain minimal but that is starting to change which I feel is starting to increase momentum. The increased allocation of funds towards ESG investing and linking endowments to the climate is something that gives me hope for the future.
Are there any misconceptions about your profession or industry?
I believe the biggest misconception is that philanthropy is cautious and conservative and not very innovative. I think this is because traditionally most foundations focus on the traditional avenues of providing large sums of money to hospitals and universities or establishing safe things like scholarships. Due to this, philanthropy has tended to be very hands off in its approach. However, I am seeing more and more foundations take a more proactive and collaborative approach to philanthropy. Some are starting to work together and identifying problems and finding gaps and opportunities that a funder can take advantage of to have a larger impact with their funds. This is contrary to the traditional approach of waiting to be approached by donors and instead, actively seeking opportunities that need to be funded. I want to call out that there are a lot of foundations, including ours, that are doing innovative work.
Life and aspirations
What does a typical workday look like for you? What’s your work-life balance like?
I’m a father of two young girls, and so that is always my first priority. I always make time to spend time with my family. I’m a morning person and so I get up early so that I can catch up on emails and have time to be with my girls before work as well as make time for the other things that I enjoy like running. From a work perspective I tend to work pretty long hours so it is about managing each of those priorities as effectively as I can. A typical work day involves a lot of meetings (zoom meetings for the past two years) with various stakeholders both internally and externally, managing various projects that we are working on, and appearing as the public spokesperson for the foundation. In my role I get to wear a lot of hats and so on top of the things I just outlined I also handle a lot of the admin work which can be very time consuming as well. It’s very busy but it keeps it interesting because I get to work on a wide range of different things.
What parts of your job do you find most challenging?
The core of what we do is tackle complex problems and so that means that the job is always going to be challenging. For example, looking at decarbonizing heavy industry, which accounts for roughly 4% of Canada’s emissions, is a very nasty problem and there are currently no philanthropic funders in that space. So our job is to jump in and figure out how we can help and who we can work with. Projects like that are especially challenging because there is no road map to follow. It involves a lot of analysis at the beginning to develop new projects and initiatives, and forming new pathways to the solution. You often have to bring together a lot of stakeholders who do not always have the same views as you in order to create an effective solution and that is not always easy.
What’s next for you, what are your long-term goals (if you have any)?
I really enjoy what I am doing and I am still working on lots of projects that have been in the works for a number of years that are just starting to get off the ground. Climate issues will take time to solve and I am looking forward to continuing to develop new solutions that will help in the future at the same time that the current projects we are launching. To keep the momentum going, one of the primary focus areas will be on scaling my organization and continuing to build a team that helps us drive more climate solutions. As that happens, I envision starting a lot more initiatives that focus topics like border carbon adjustments, and bringing together international stakeholders to figure out how we talk about trade and climate. We also have new work in cities, transportation, federal policy, climate movements, direct air capture, and more. On the investment side, we want to go a little bit further and increase our shareholder engagement, increase our impact investing, and increase our role as a leader in finance.
If I had to sum it up with one goal for the future, I would say that our focus is on 2030 with a focus on working as hard as possible to stay below a 1.5 Celsius scenario. That’s my current goal, to use all the tools at my disposal to make the next 8 years count in terms of fighting climate change.
Advice for the next generations
What are 3 key skills required in your position?
In my role, I feel that being a strategic thinker is really important. Having an intuition for finding innovative solutions coupled with the desire and passion for thinking outside the box goes a long way. Another one is being diplomatic, meaning being able to deal with a lot of different stakeholders regardless of the views they have or the issue they are interested in. We are a heavily solicited foundation and so you need to be able to say no where you need to if there is not a strong fit. Additionally, you need to know how to wear multiple hats because the stakeholders you will be engaging with will come from a variety of different backgrounds and so being able to work with all of them is critical to making sure you are having the most impact that you can. Attention to detail and genuinely wanting to learn more so that you can make connections is important as you look for new areas to focus. You do not need to be an expert in any of the areas but paying attention to the important details and wanting to keep learning will enable you to find those innovative solutions.
Whether it’s from your own path or the ones from your colleagues and friends who have a similar profession, how important is it to have a specific degree to be able to work in your industry/profession?
There are not very many degrees that focus on philanthropy and those degrees tend to be heavily focused on things like fundraising as opposed to running a foundation. That being said, I find that most people that are in my position tend to have a couple of degrees under their belt. The specific degrees do not necessarily matter as much because if you look at the foundations in Canada, there are very diverse backgrounds, ranging from law to community development. Knowing that, I wouldn’t say there is a single path that you need to take. However, if you wish to work in this section, having an environmental background and working for a climate foundation makes for a good fit. When hiring I tend to look more at the applicant’s experience but obviously having a degree is useful.
What are some personal characteristics that you value in someone you’re interviewing/working with?
The first one is being genuinely passionate about what the role is and the issues that you will be working on. If you don’t have that passion, it comes through in the interview and you can always tell when the applicant is just looking for something for the short term. There are signs of that passion outside of the interview as well because you can see if they have it on their CV or if they are engaging with it on platforms like LinkedIn or Twitter. That passion is important because those applicants tend to be the ones who are really good at what they do because they are willing to put in the time and effort to produce their best work. It doesn’t feel like a burden when that is the case because it is something you are genuinely passionate about. The next area I look at is the more human quality aspect of if they will be a good fit for the team. Some people are very ego driven and are primarily focused on what is in it for them and tend not to be good team players. I am looking to see if the applicant is willing to work with others even in uncomfortable situations. Our work is very focused on broader, societal issues and that involves a lot of stakeholders so you can’t be thinking about just yourself to be successful at tackling the problems that we face.
Knowing what you know now, would you have done something differently with respect to your career? If not, why and what is your best life or career advice for youth?
I wouldn’t change anything about the path that I have taken.
As for career advice, it may sound cliche but I advise people to pursue what they are passionate about while staying flexible enough to recognize that you may not land that perfect opportunity, especially when you are just starting out. It is important to be flexible and ready to pivot while not losing sight of your passions and where you want to be in the long run. You may be working a role that has no connection to your passion but there is always an opportunity to work on it on the side through volunteering and things like that. In summary, be willing to be nimble and to pivot but keep sight of your passions in the long run. That would be my advice.