Shanan Spencer-Brown, executive director of the Telus Friendly Future Foundation, on her career, this past year and what post-pandemic fundraising may look like
By Tracy Howard
Taking the reins of a recently established, multimillion-dollar charitable foundation connected to one of Canada’s major telecommunications companies is a challenging proposition at any time, but doing so during a worldwide pandemic raises the bar all the higher.
Yet Shanan Spencer-Brown, who became executive director of the Telus Friendly Future Foundation last August, speaks glowingly of her nascent tenure at the registered charity, which is focused primarily on helping vulnerable Canadian youth reach their full potential.
“Starting as the executive director in the middle of a pandemic brought into focus the importance of our work supporting charities that are helping the most vulnerable in our communities,” Spencer-Brown says. “So it’s been incredibly rewarding, even while it’s been challenging.”
Early challenges lead to a life’s path
Making the most of challenges is something Spencer-Brown has done since she was a child. Born and raised in Toronto, she lost her mother to cancer at age 10. Spencer-Brown says the loss and the challenges related to it hit her father particularly hard — along with her, he also had her younger brother to raise — and he subsequently struggled for years with depression.
Those difficult family experiences ignited an interest in child development and mental health that have been a through line in Spencer-Brown’s career. “It just naturally fed my interest in how some kids grow up to be very resilient and other children grow up to have great challenges in life,” she says.
After completing an undergraduate degree in sociology and criminology at the University of Toronto, Spencer-Brown did a master’s in social work at the school. She worked for seven years in the field, focusing primarily on children and youth, and says the experience was incredibly rewarding. But she realized while working at a community agency in Toronto that if she wanted to expand services to deliver an unmet need, she had to seek the funding herself.
Spencer-Brown says “the penny dropped” when it became clear to her that by helping raise the funds to create or sustain a community initiative, she could help substantially more people. (She later received her Certified Fund Raising Executive — CFRE — designation, and has also completed an executive leadership program at U of T’s Rotman School of Management.)
“What gets me out of bed every day is that I’ve been able to scale the work I did as a social worker and help that many more people in charitable organizations across the country,” Spencer-Brown says. She’s been doing so now for over 20 years, helping raise more than $25-million, and enabling hundreds of charitable organizations across Canada support thousands of people.
The making of a fundraiser
Spencer-Brown says she’s always had a high degree of empathy and been attuned to “what makes people tick” — qualities that have served her well as a professional fundraiser.
“I think we really have to be interested in people and see how we can enable our donor partners to fulfill their life’s missions through supporting the cause we may be representing,” Spencer-Brown explains.
She hit a home run with that goal during her time as president and executive director of the Royal LePage Shelter Foundation when she created a fundraiser centred around international treks.
“Most of the supporters were realtors, and I understood they wanted to meet others in their profession and were very goal-driven and loved a challenge,” Spencer-Brown explains.
The three Challenge for Shelter treks, beginning in 2015 and held two years apart, required each supporter to raise a minimum of $5,000 for women’s shelters, as well as cover their own travel costs to participate in the multi-day strenuous hikes through the Andes to Machu Picchu in Peru, volcanic terrain in Iceland, and the Sahara in Morocco.
The challenges provided bucket-list adventures for the participants, but more importantly they raised a combined $2.25 million for the shelters.
Spencer-Brown says many of the key skills she was able to demonstrate at the Royal LePage Shelter Foundation and today at the Telus Friendly Future Foundation were honed while establishing the foundations connected with two Toronto-based children’s mental-health agencies she worked at earlier in her career. As the director of development at the Child Development Institute and later as the executive director of the Kinark Foundation, Spencer-Brown recruited and trained board members and staff, established all policies and procedures, created a mid-level giving program and solicited major gifts.
Telus: a unique opportunity
She says a lot of people thought she’d be at the Royal LePage Shelter Foundation for the rest of her career, but when she heard about the opening at the Telus Friendly Future Foundation: “the opportunity was too good to pass up.”
Vancouver-based Telus Corp. launched the foundation in 2018 with an inaugural endowment of $120-million, which is the largest donation ever made by a Canadian publicly traded company. Spencer-Brown says she was also drawn to the philanthropic legacy of Telus itself. Last year alone, the communications and information-technology company donated $85-million to Canadian charities and community organizations, in addition to more than $150-million to COVID-19 relief.
She was also attracted by the opportunity to take on the mantle of the 13 Telus Community Boards, which are located across the country, and provide recommendations to the foundation for grants of up to $20,000 to charities in their regions focused on youth. “The model is highly innovative because it entrusts local leaders to identify the most pressing needs in their communities,” she explains.
The foundation has also launched a new grant stream that enables charities with a national, territorial or provincial scope to apply for grants of up to $200,000. Spencer-Brown reveals the foundation recently completed a second round of giving for 2021 for this larger grant stream — endowing approximately $2-million worth of funding for youth mental health among other initiatives. She says the mental health of young people is a foundation priority, as the pandemic has revealed great need in that area.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, her first year on the job has been spent working from home in the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill, where she lives with her husband, Andrew Brown.
“It was challenging at first, not being able to meet my colleagues in person and create the types of close relationships that help to strengthen a relatively new organization,” Spencer-Brown says.
She points out, however, that her four foundation team members are located in three different provinces anyway and “all the tools are in place to effectively work remotely.” To foster camaraderie, Spencer-Brown frequently schedules video meetings, and tries to implement getting-to-know-you activities, including using a group chat to share answers to a personal question posed once a month, such as “what’s one thing your grandparents taught you that you’re grateful for and still use today?”
This past May, the foundation team used a walking phone meeting to pick up trash in their respective neighbourhoods as part of Telus #FriendlyFuture Days, an initiative that encourages Canadians to give back to their communities.
“I’m fortunate to have so many great people, incredibly dedicated and talented, both at Telus and on the Telus Friendly Future Foundation, committed to making the world a better place,” she says.
Foundation pivots to respond to COVID-19
The biggest pivot for the Friendly Future Foundation has been temporarily changing focus from at-risk youth to making a $10-million commitment to support health-care and community initiatives across Canada responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The foundation helped fund a range of urgent initiatives including the purchase of ventilators for hospitals, a trauma surgeon’s invention of a reusable face mask, and a project using 3-D printers to create COVID-19 testing swabs. Other pandemic-related giving included increased support for community programs encompassing youth, families, isolated seniors, the homeless and people experiencing food insecurity.
They also changed their funding approach to a rapid-response model. “We gave out $3.8-million within literally a matter of weeks,” advises Spencer-Brown.
Despite the generous endowment, the Friendly Future Foundation is also a fundraising organization. And like many charities over the past year, had to move activities online by using a digital peer-to-peer fundraising platform.
One such initiative, In Their Honour, marked the first year of the pandemic by asking supporters to fundraise for the foundation but also to post photos of themselves wearing masks with a message of hope or a dedication to someone they were honouring. The event was personal for Spencer-Brown — in one post she wears a Telus “critter” mask (another fundraising initiative for COVID-19 relief) and holds a photo of her mother-in-law, who has dementia, alongside a message thanking the health-care professionals at her long-term care home.
“It was a meaningful way to raise funds that rallied people together in a virtual world for a moment of appreciation during a difficult time,” says Spencer-Brown.
She thinks virtual fundraising events, due to their accessibility, will continue to be important after the pandemic. Spencer-Brown also believes hybrid events, existing both in-person and virtually, will become more popular, citing as an example a physical event that’s also live-streamed.
When asked about the difficulty of doing her job in such an uncertain time, Spencer-Brown says ambiguity has been both the hardest and best part. “What’s the world going to look like coming out of the pandemic, what are we going to be able to do from a fundraising perspective, what are the issues facing our communities?” she ponders. “But the best part is we can be responsive to those opportunities; we’re not constrained by the old ways of doing things.”
Looking to the “friendly future”
As Canada hopefully moves away from the worst stage of the pandemic, Spencer-Brown says the Friendly Future Foundation will shortly return its focus to helping vulnerable youth.
The seismic social and racial issues of the past year are also being reflected in the foundation’s priorities. “When we look at grant applications coming forward, we’re prioritizing programs for Black, Indigenous and people of colour, as well as those addressing LGBTQ+ youth,” says Spencer-Brown.
In emphasizing inclusion, she reveals that in addition to funding, the foundation is also looking at making its grant-application process more accessible for diverse communities.
“We have this incredible legacy of giving from our founding donor, Telus, and I really want the foundation to celebrate this legacy. And also make new inroads to supporting the charitable sector for years to come.”
It sounds like a friendly future, indeed.
411 on the Telus Friendly Future Foundation
Launched in 2018 with a $120-million endowment by telecommunications powerhouse Telus, the Friendly Future Foundation provides grants to registered charities helping vulnerable Canadian youth through technology-enabled health and education programs. Some pertinent facts:
• The foundation is an independent registered charity distinct from Telus.
• It builds upon the success of Telus Community Boards, which were created in 2005 by Telus President and CEO Darren Entwistle. The Community Boards, now funded by the Friendly Future Foundation, comprise 13 regional boards across Canada that provide recommendations for grants to local registered charities.
• The eight-member board of directors is chaired by Tania Carnegie, and includes WE Charity co-founder Craig Kielburger. Foundation Executive Director Shanan Spencer-Brown, when asked if his position has become problematic due to WE having been at the centre of a major controversy connected to the federal government, responds: “The work Craig does in contributing to the foundation is immensely helpful, very useful in terms of his expertise, so at this point it’s certainly not problematic to us. Our board of directors is geographically representative, and we’ve got lots of diverse voices on the board we’re really proud of.”
• The foundation raised nearly $3-million in 2020. Funds are raised by a wide range of initiatives, including Donate the Change, which enables Telus customers to round up their bills to the next dollar with all money going to the foundation.
• The foundation contributes close to $8-million annually to charitable causes.
For more information on the Telus Friendly Future Foundation, visit friendlyfuture.com.