Suzanne Duncan – Vice President of Philanthropy at the Canadian Women’s Foundation
Suzanne Duncan has helped social justice organizations reach their philanthropic potential for 20 years. At social service organizations like YWCA Toronto and The WoodGreen Foundation, she connected visionary donors to innovative projects. She spent 9 years at the CAMH Foundation where she raised $39million+ for major mental health initiatives while curating and creating experiences for donors to feel the impact of their giving. Now as the Vice President of Philanthropy at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, Suzanne is advancing gender justice and ensuring women, girls and non-binary people don’t get left behind as we recover from the pandemic.
As Vice President of Philanthropy, what can you tell us about your role to give our readers a better idea of what it is you do exactly? How has your past experience prepared you for your current role and contributed to your role in Philanthropy?
My role as VP of Philanthropy is to provide strategic direction and leadership of fundraising activities to the Canadian Women’s Foundation. I have the great privilege of working with people across the country who want to help women, girls and gender-diverse people thrive. And I have the even greater privilege of showing our supporters the impact of their giving.
I’m also on the senior leadership team, and I play an integral role in the growth and development of our work. Prior to working at the Foundation, I worked for other non-profits and social service organizations, like the YWCA Toronto and the CAMH Foundation. Those experiences taught me a lot about the transformative power of giving, which I’ve been able to bring to my current role.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your current role since the beginning of the global pandemic?
I started at the Canadian Women’s Foundation during the pandemic, which has certainly had its challenges! Aside from logistical things, like not being able to meet my team members in person, the non-profit sector is working double-time right now to keep up with the increased need for support services. A recent survey we worked on with a few of our partners found that 51 per cent of women’s rights organizations had to cut back on vital services due to the circumstances of the pandemic, and 48 per cent had to cancel some of their programming all together. A big challenge of mine has been to get the word out to our supporters, who are also dealing with economic stressors right now.
But I am full of hope. This past year has seen unprecedented interest in gender equality—particularly as women and gender diverse people have been disproportionally impacted by the pandemic. We have been able to rally hundreds of individuals and businesses during the pandemic to raise more than $2 million to support women, girls and gender diverse people. And we are seeing record attendance at our educational events.
Even though many folks are hurting during this pandemic, many others are generously offering their resources to make sure we all get through this.
Part of your role at the Canadian Women’s Foundation is to advance gender justice and ensure women, girls and non-binary people don’t get left behind as the world slowly recovers from the pandemic. What are some of the strategies you’re using to help you achieve that?
We know that when COVID-19 spread in Canada it deepened inequalities for diverse women and Two Spirit, Trans, and non-binary people. As we rebuild from the pandemic, we’re focused on using this moment as an opportunity “reset” normal, so we can build a Canada where gender equality is a reality.
At the start of the pandemic, we launched the Tireless Together Fund to help us achieve this goal. It’s a national emergency fund to provide critical support to women and girls through the COVID-19 crisis.
We’re also working with the Government of Canada to deliver emergency funding to some services, and advocating for a gender lens on policies implemented during and in the aftermath of the pandemic.
What can you tell us about corporate citizenship and do you believe this is crucial in our current era?
Corporate citizenship is all about the social responsibility of businesses to act in the interest of their communities. It can look like: considering the environmental impact of your work, training staff in anti-oppression frameworks, making philanthropic gifts, reworking hiring processes to make them more equitable, organizing fundraising events, investing in community consultation, and more.
When it comes to gender equality, business leaders have an incredible opportunity to lead the way towards a more gender equal Canada. They can do this important work by factoring-in the gendered impacts of their business, investing in training and mentorship opportunities for marginalized staff, incorporating policies like pay transparency to guarantee pay equity, and by working alongside non-profit partners in the women’s sector on campaigns and company policy.
And this is especially important now. Gender equality gains are at risk in the pandemic and the goal of building a gender-equal Canada is more pressing than ever. Importantly, good corporate citizenship goes beyond financially supporting non-profits that are focused on gender quality. It is also the opportunity to consider what role a business can play in encouraging gender equality outside of their workplace. Community involvement and consultation is key – this is about developing deep relationships with those doing the work on the ground!
In your expert opinion, what is the biggest struggle that we as a society face when it comes to our gender diversity commitment and what are some of the initiatives we should be implementing to help us?
I think there’s a lot of interest in committing to gender equality at work, but a lot of confusion about how to get there. What we need are clear steps that business leaders can take to move into action on this issue, but it’s challenging because solutions have to be individualized. It might start with gathering data to get a clear picture of your work—how many women do you employ? How many are racialized? Do you have fair pay scales that guarantee pay equity? You need to consult with employees, clients, and other stakeholders to get a sense of where you’re falling short, before you can appropriately address the issues.
And we need to address this now, more than ever. The pandemic hit hardest in the sectors where women are traditionally employed like restaurants, hospitality, tourism, art and culture etc. Just yesterday, we learned from a study by RBC that more than 200,000 Canadian women are now long-term unemployed. And it’s going to take a lot of intentional leadership from government and business to make sure that these women can reenter the work force.
On a final note, how would you say COVID-19 has impacted the way gender diversity is addressed in Canada’s business industry?
We need to build gender equality into every aspect of our lives, including our work. The pursuit of equity isn’t an individual issue, and for systemic change to happen we need corporations to be onboard. I think that for many businesses, the pandemic has been a wake up call. We can’t wait to address inequity in our work and beyond, and based on conversations I’ve been having throughout this time, I’m hopeful that we’re going to start to see more inclusive workplace policies, and in general a work working world that has a deeper understanding of gender-based discrimination and how to address it.
One thing that I have personally noticed over the past few months is that so many businesses are reaching out to us because they want to make meaningful change and help drive that change in their sector. And these business leaders are telling me that they are doing this because their employees and customers are asking them to. It is so inspiring to see the changes being inspired by employees and customers and championed by leaders.
Our upcoming “Corporate Citizenship for Gender Equality” event on March 8 is one way that we’re engaging in this work. This interactive learning opportunity on building workplace cultures and practices that lead to impactful corporate citizenship for gender equality. If you’re able to join us, you can register here.