There are jarring statistics around how the pandemic has impacted non-profit organizations across all sectors. And further predictions around how many of these organizations will not survive. In anticipation of this inevitability, funders and umbrella organizations, like the Muttart Foundation and Calgary Arts Development in Canada and the Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative in the United States, are addressing this by providing funding for organizations that are seeking strategic alliances and collaborations as a means of finding the shore in these turbulent waters.

On February 18, 2021, the International Women’s Forum hosted a webinar to help members better understand this current landscape and hear from two NFP leaders who shared their collaboration success stories. Tapping the Superpower of Collaboration to Lead Complex Change featured Dara Munsen of Chicago’s Family Focus and Canadian Kaile Shilling, Executive Director of the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network of Greater Los Angeles.

Dara Munsen had been the CEO of the Chicago Children’s Society (CCS), an organization that was founded in 1849. It was “steady”, had increased revenue by 80% over four years and wanted to leverage its history of early childhood education and serve new communities. At the time, the CEO of Family Focus was retiring and the idea of a merger was planted with the CCS board. Over the next eighteen months, the boards met, engaged a consultant and the decision was made to merge CCS (which officially shut its doors on January 1, 2021) with Family Focus where Dara became the CEO.

Kaile’s story begins with an arts project she founded focused on incarcerated youth. Six other organizations were doing similar work in secured residential facilities. As the then Executive Director of the Violence Prevention Coalition, she was the natural to convene these organizations to dream of what they could do together. Could they shift from piecemeal services to year round offerings? Could they coordinate fundraising efforts and make the pie bigger? Could they have a greater impact on policy? With support from the Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative, they moved to create a well-structured collaborative entity, an umbrella organization that now houses fifteen organizations.To set the table, here are some pre-pandemic statistics from the United States:

  • Out of 1.7 million NFP’s, 75% had budgets of $100,000 or less
  • NFP’s account for 5.5% of GDP; 7% of the workforce, $450 Billion in contributions
  • As of the date of the study, 50% could survive for 3 months; 75% for 6 months; only 29% had a surplus

The pandemic’s impact is expected to be profound: up to 7% may close, resulting in a loss of one million jobs.

There is a case to be made for NFP’s to include collaborations and alliances in their repertoire of strategic options. Though this is not for the faint of heart, the time to consider a strategic alliance is not when your organization is facing shutting its doors. Approach this as another tool in your arsenal. Imagine moving from scarcity thinking to long term strength, sustainability and impact. Be abundant: 1 + 1 = 3.

So what might collaboration look like? Anything from informal short-term partnership, joint programming, back office consolidation, a strategic alliance to long term integration involving restructuring and legal contractual arrangements i.e. a merger. Think everything from dating to marriage. The best advice: Start with the WHY and the HOW will follow.

The WHY factors might include:

  • Increased financial position
  • Greater impact
  • Increased organizational capacity
  • Cost and revenue synergies
  • Consolidating government contracts and funding
  • Enhanced expertise
  • Augment advocacy, government and public relations capacity

Both Dara and Kaile emphasized the importance of securing a consultant to facilitate the negotiation and integration processes. A dispassionate third party can objectively assess feasibility, financial strengths, alignment and surface information that would be required in the due diligence process. They also ensure that committees of board and stakeholders are heard and look after the nuts and bolts such as capturing meeting minutes and handling the mechanics of the process.

What are additional common success factors?

  • Time to devote to the process
  • Demonstrated internal clarity regarding what the organizations aim to gain from the process
  • Honest, upfront conversations among partners
  • Comparable missions and organizational cultures
  • Clear understanding of the strategic restructuring process, including negotiation, due diligence and integration

In closing, the panelists left us with these gems from their personal experience:

Even if a merger does not go through, this does not amount to failure – it means rather that both parties did their due diligence. The spectrum of success does not necessarily end with closing the deal.

Cultivate the qualities of a gymnast – the flexibility to tumble, balance, pivot, jump off the vault. Stay nimble and adjust as needed – with grace. Manoeuver with equal parts grit and grace.

This dance requires leadership that is not motivated by self-gain, rather that is decisive, compassionate inclusive in an ego-free zone. “Back lead” into something greater than what you could have ever imagined.

Finally, be patient and trust the process – sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.


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   International Women’s Forum

Canadian members of the International Women’s Forum celebrated when headquarters announced Toronto would host the 2019 Global conference. An opportunity to welcome over 1500 female leaders and influencers from around the world and offer them a taste of Canadian culture and hospitality. It was like winning an Olympic bid….which comes with a price tag…the obligation to raise US$650,000. Reality set in when each Canadian chapter was asked to raise $60,000, inconceivable in the province of Alberta, where the economy had been shattered by oil prices and an economic downturn.  With a bit of imagination and our finger on the pulse of our community, we raised triple the target while introducing an Indigenous component to the programming, leveraging the conference’s theme “Open Minds”. 


Eighteen months before the global conference, at an Executive Committee meeting of the Calgary chapter, the touchy topic came up. We need to raise $60,000 for this conference. Being the only one at the table who had any experience in fundraising, I was voluntold to be part of a committee of three to come up with a strategy. Phone calls ensued as we grappled with our options. The conversations went something like this:

“Our economy has tanked. The energy sector is on fumes. Maybe we try the diversity angle? Women in leadership is a priority – but who is going to sponsor a conference of elite women taking place in Toronto? It’s going to be hard to make the link.”

“What if we go for twelve sponsorships at $5,000 each? And maybe see if headquarters will create a $2500 level? Do we have enough members who can pull that lever in their companies?”

“That’s so much work…”

Enter Kara Flynn

Later that month, I happened to be the Calgary member, by default, on one of the national sponsorship committee calls. Every chapter was struggling. And Alberta had historically and consistently out-raised almost every other province. The pressure was on. My colleague Kara Flynn from Edmonton, Alberta, whom I had never met, but knew of as the VP of Government Relations at Syncrude, mentioned en passant that she would be in Calgary later that week. I said little in that meeting other than to ask her if she might be interested in having a visit while in my town. No idea what propelled me to do that at that moment but I followed my instincts. It was there that we hatched our “big idea”.

Kara’s background is a collage of accolades in the corporate and non-profit sector. She is a pro at raising money and giving it away. But where we connected was around her childhood. I was sharing with her my work with Indigenous people and her eyes lit up as she reminisced about growing up with First Nations children as a result of her father’s work. I don’ recall how we got there but one of us leapt onto the idea that each Conference sponsorship included two delegate registrations, or three, depending on the sponsorship level. We both knew that every energy company in Alberta was focused on “indigenization”. They were in part responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report and Calls to Action. They were also intent on building relationships with Indigenous tribes and Band Councils that had were impacted by their projects. From the perspective of IWF, we had a long way to go to diversify our membership, particularly with the “I” in BIPOC.

What if

What if….we asked our colleagues in the energy and mining sector to consider a sponsorship  and consider dedicating one of the delegate spots to an Indigenous female leader or influencer? It could be an employee, a woman from a band they were working with, or someone they would like to recognize. She would in turn meet women from around the world, take part in all the conference activities, and be profiled at a breakfast the Calgary Chapter was planning to host.

Over our second glass, Kara confirmed Syncrude’s support, made two calls to industry colleagues and we reached our target. Over the next eight weeks, we raised another $120,000,  guaranteeing a strong presence of Indigenous female leaders and influencers from across Canada. How could we make their experience memorable and leverage their presence to advance the greater project of reconciliation and open the minds and hearts of our colleagues here in Canada and around the world?

The original idea had been to host a full-on Calgary Stampede style western breakfast, complete with hay bales, country music, cowboy hats and flapjacks – celebrate the spirit of the City and profile the Greatest Outdoor Western Show on Earth. Giddy-up! Informal conversations had taken place and by then my colleague and friend Mary Rozsa was on board to help strategize the Calgary Stampede’s contribution to the international conference. Over the years, she and I had worked on numerous campaigns to bring awareness to the arts as a necessary part of our culture and a public good. Again, over a drink, we asked ourselves: Is this really the image of Calgary we want to portray? 

(For Part 2 of this article, go HERE)


Photos from the Event

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The Centre for Creativity and Entrepreneurship (Alberta College of Art and Design) and the Arts and Leadership Seminar at the Harvard University Centre for Public Leadership

In 2012, the president of the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD) recruited me to lead the design process for a Centre for Creativity and Entrepreneurship. He listened to the work I had done while at Harvard in the area of arts and leadership and  recognized the connections and interplay between art, design and entrepreneurship. Working with students and faculty, we created a cross-campus, interdisciplinary strategy that resulted in a concrete action plan for the centre: a world where art, craft and design and entrepreneurship are one. An economic downturn and change in government put the plan on hold but the value of such an enterprise is clear. 

This story takes place in Calgary, Alberta in 2012 but begins at Harvard University in 2008. Following an intense and challenging year creating and launching Alberta’s first cultural policy, and having reached the milestone age of 50, I needed a change. I recall the moment the universe responded to that appeal.

 It was in May and we were on the tail end of a month long trip through Argentina, in a modernish café in El Calafate, a chance moment waiting for our colleagues to finish some last minute shopping. Carolyn Goldstein,  a fellow member of the International Women’s Forum (IWF) program, and I had shared a room for the last weeks and feeling a deep comfort with this friend and mentor, I  shared with her one regret.

“I’d like to go back to school” I blurted. Though I had three university parchments to my name, they were never earned. I was in the photos but never present as only one who has suffered from addiction can understand. I dreamed of what it would be like to be present and healthy in a learning environment, without all the shenanigans. She paused, as she always did, and in her oracle way, proclaimed: “You’re going to Harvard.”

Upon our return to our respective home towns, we had two weeks to get the applications in for a Fellowship at the Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs, where each year a spot was held for a member of the International Women’s Forum, provided she met the criteria. My dual interests were in the nexus between arts and leadership and cultural diplomacy. One year led to four in large part to meeting a Humanities educator who was changing the world through the arts, her lived experience to date captured in her seminal book The Work of Art in the World.

Dr. Doris Sommer is a full Professor at Harvard and Director of the Cultural Agents program, a platform for academics, artists, community leaders and active citizens to combine arts and research in the service of civic development. She encouraged us all to think like an artist, to learn from exemplary creative agents and share lessons that challenge stale paradigms with artful alternatives. It was a magical time, reading the philosophical texts of Schiller, Kant, Habermas and Freire and learning from practitioners who were applying their theories and changing the world through art. Compelling examples of such initiatives can be found on this website on the xyz page.

I had the privilege of designing and leading a four session seminar at the Harvard’s Kennedy School, Centre for Public Leadership. Arts and Leadership was oversubscribed and students from diverse schools across the campus engaged with theatre, music, song and movement to embody the philosophical underpinnings of arts as a transformative device. They completed the seminar by identifying a campus challenge and designing their own artistic intervention to address it. All reported that much more should be done to teach leaders how to engage the arts for transformation and change.

On my return, I was introduced to Daniel Doz, the president of the Alberta College of Art and Design  (ACAD). We immediately agreed on how the school’s art and design students would benefit from real world entrepreneurial tools. Conversely, the city’s emerging entrepreneurship and start-up sector could leverage the school’s talent to amplify their innovation and incubator processes. We spent one year working across the college’s silos ranging from photography to ceramics, painting to jewelry and metals, media arts to visual communications. We engaged four classes in focus groups and enlisted students to Dragon Den style pitch competitions. The presentations by teams with the ACAD students were the most creative and scored the highest.

Student surveys and focus groups revealed a deep need for hands on experience, apprenticeships, and tools for building a career as an artist post-graduation. We worked with the industry to obtain feedback and with the emerging start-up sector to identify their needs. We achieved consensus on a cross-disciplinary approach and support from the college executive and developed a budget. Regrettably, a downfall in the economy and a change in government bureaucracy resulted in shelving the concept of the Centre for an indeterminate length of time.


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It wasn’t easy going back to piano lessons at the age of 40, having abandoned the practice for over twenty years, dark years blurred by, well, that’s a story for another day. Looking back, the seed to return was planted in Banff, Alberta at the Honens International Piano Competition’s Jury Recital. A chance encounter there led to an invitation to join the Honens board, and collaborate with Jenny Belzberg to co-found an Amateur competition for local accomplished pianists, changing their lives and along the way raising friends and awareness. Since its inception, this unique and innovative event has raised over half a million dollars for the organization. 

Back to the recital at the Banff Centre…the effusive French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet appeared on the stage sporting a white jacket, his personality, charm and charisma outsizing his diminutive physique, effacing the fact that he was at least a foot shorter than the rest of other jurors. They were putting on a concert for Honens patrons, followed by a reception, where the story begins.  Chatting with my plus-one Beth, Jean-Efflam stepped right into our space with a plate of hors-d’oeuvres and three forks. Magic.

We wound up going for lunch later that week, talked about our lives, our triumphs and hardships, the journey of a concert pianist, our mutual love of the piano. It was then I decided to pick up where I had left off and take lessons and the Grade 8 level exam of the Royal Conservatory of Music.

I was practising law at the time and it seemed at every turn, someone was playing the piano and playing it well. It occurred to me that some of them might be inclined to put on a concert and raise money, the cause to be determined. I ran this by Jenny Belzberg, my partner in crime on the Board of the Honens International Piano Competition. She looked like she had struck gold. “I’ve been telling Honens to put on an amateur competition for years, like the Van Clyburn! Let’s do it!”

So here’s the deal. As an amateur but accomplished pianist, your mission is to perform a twenty minute recital of classical music, off book, level Grade 9 or higher. This will be played and recorded on a 9-foot Steinway, in a concert hall, in front of an audience of 350 and a jury. And for the honour of doing this, you also have to raise $20,000 from your friends, family, co-workers, your network. It’s an ingenious way to raise countless individual donations from a new pool of prospective patrons every competition.

Since 2003, Honens has hosted 9 such competitions with over 40 pianists participating. Each has said that it changed their lives. I was a “substitute” for the inaugural ProAm and competed in the second. That year, I was grateful to a friend and mentor, Jim Stanford who offered to match all donations up to $10,000. Four of us practiced for months, though it was clear from the outset that the youngest competitor, Joyi Wei, would win. She was playing on a keyboard which seemed beneath her talent, so I gave her a key to my place for access to my Kawai baby grand whenever she felt the need. In the meantime, I was traveling and adhering to my daily practice schedule which necessitated securing pianos in cities across Canada and around the world.

I learned how to access churches, green rooms in concert halls, and hotel banquet rooms (before or after the catering staff clocked in or out). At the time, thanks to a relationship with Lachlin McKinnon, the winner of the first ProAm, when working in Ottawa, I was granted access to the Governor General’s residence, Rideau Hall, to practice on Glen Gould’s piano. I played and practiced in Canadian Consulates in Washington and Madrid and in the lobbies of the Moscow Metropol and hotels in Ecuador, Argentina, Morocco and Hong Kong. I cherish each of those memories and celebrate the discipline and commitment it took to prepare for the ProAm and the exam.

As the competition approached, anxiety levels rose, to the point of not being able to eat the day before the competition. My Mom had come to town for the event and that just added to the nerves. I tried to practice but it was easier to fuss about my wardrobe and hair. Finally, I settled on a stunning, shimmering brown faux alligator skin pant suit, with matching suede stilettos. I was told later that the audience’s applause and collective gasp when I walked onto the stage was in fear that I would trip and break my neck.

I learned a few things about performing that day. About three quarters of the way through Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor, I said to myself “Wow, this is going quite well.” That momentary flight of ego and breach of concentration caused a memory lapse and three repeats that were not in the score. Somehow I got it back and finished the piece and the rest of my repertoire. I had done it. Laughlin happened to be on the jury and I won – for best shoes!

The ProAm has evolved considerably since its humble beginnings, garnering media attention, fan clubs for each of the competitors, complete with T-Shirts, mentors, a wardrobe donated by local high end boutiques and a suite of prizes including a residency at the Banff Centre. Every year, more money is raised and more Calgarians and Canadians are aware of the cultural gem that is Honens, now ranking in the top ten piano competitions in the world.

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In 2003, some went so far as to call Alberta Ballet an oxymoron – a classical ballet company in a province of rednecks and cowboys. Soon after I became Executive Director in 2005, it struck me that we were trying to sell an art form of tutus and tights to a city of 30-something male engineers. So, as the ballet was about to turn 40, we did what any self-respecting cultural icon might do at mid-life. We re-invented ourselves. 

Founded in 1966, it was based in Calgary and had dual citizenship in the capital city of Edmonton.  A small company, but respected for the high quality and training of its dancers, recruited nationally and mostly in the classical genre. In 2001, Mikko Nissinen, now the reputed Artistic Director at Boston Ballet, had moved from San Francisco to Calgary to transition from dancer to director. He brought with him a much needed audacity and confidence and a network of international talent. Balanchine was in the repertoire, not an easy feat, as the eponym foundation will allow a company to stage his work only on the approval of an authorized repetiteur of the trust. It had a respectable and strong cadre of patrons and donors and it did its best to deliver an art form that few in this growing city, business center, oil and gas based wild west town understood or appreciated.

When Mikko left the company for Boston, the Board recruited a youngish, bilingual, charismatic,  dancer/choreographer and aspiring Artistic Director from Ottawa. I met Jean Grand Maître at the rodeo at the Calgary Stampede, in a suite hosted by Enbridge’s VP of Government affairs, my friend and Chair of the Board D’Arcy Levesque. We all hit it off, and when the organization needed a new Executive Director, D’Arcy reached out to me, with the clear mandate to “put the company on the map”.

It was September of 2005 and these were difficult times for Alberta Ballet. The Jubilee Auditorium, the company’s performance venue had shut down for a year for renovations, morale and trust were low to the point the administration had brought in the provincial workers union, the governance model was weak, there was no human resources policy and injuries to the dancers were frequent and numerous because they performed on a hard floor. And we were in trouble financially.

Notwithstanding, there was a magic about the company, its history, its tenacity and about the building we all worked in, a turn of the century sand stone train station converted into a studio and rehearsal space on the main floor and offices on the second. Nestled along the Elbow River, it sat at the heart of Rouleauville, one of Calgary’s founding communities. And though many regarded the company’s two home cities as an obstacle, a hindrance, I saw it as an opportunity – two markets, two funding sources, and the automatic go-to for the government if it needed a cultural ambassador nationally or internationally.

A lot was accomplished in the first year. Thanks to a generous gift by my friend the late Jim Palmer, we built a new retractable, portable and storable sprung floor in time for the Nutcracker that Christmas and multiple injuries were a thing of the past. We implemented an HR policy and the union was dissolved. I call this work “nuts and bolts”, the science of the enterprise. We needed the art, not the art on the stage, but in relation to our community.

One afternoon, feeling overwhelmed by all that still needed to be done,  beckoned by the music wafting up through my office window, I wandered down the marble staircase to the studio and grabbed a chair to watch the warm ups. The pianist kept the tempo as the dancers took the bar for plies and point work and moved into jetés and arabesques. Scantily but tastefully clad in their rehearsal wear, light shorts, tank tops, T-shirts, in turn they flew and spun and pirouetted across the floor, at times inches from my face. Up so close, I sat motionless, having to remind myself to breathe, in awe of the grace and beauty of these humans, at the shear athleticism.  I was told later that to perform the Nutcracker’s Grand Pas de Deux requires the stamina equivalent to running a half marathon. 

That was when it struck me. We are trying to sell an art form of tutus and tights in a city of 30-something male engineers. What we were, in contrast was elegant, strong, and athletic – dare I say sexy. As the only ballet company within a bull’s roar, all we needed to change was the perception of the art form. As it happened, the company would be 40 the next year so we leveraged that timely opportunity to rebrand with our new take on ballet – beauty and athleticism. 

By Year 2, we introduced an extra performance to each run, raised records amount of money, doubled ticket sales, and were invited by the province to represent them at the Smithsonian in Washington. Jean was choreographing modern works and that fall we made another decision that would change the course of the company. He mused about creating a work based on the music of Joni Mitchell, the question was, how would we get the rights? Knowing of his power of persuasion, I suggested he write to her to see if she would be interested in being involved. She said yes. The next season we premiered The Fiddle and the Drum, the first in a songbook series that now includes the works of Sarah McLachlan, k.d.lang, Sir Elton John, Gordon Lightfoot and The Tragically Hip.

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