A New Perspective of Growth

Tina Thomas taps into years of community leadership to shape the future of the Edmonton Community Foundation

When Tina Thomas stepped into the role of chief executive officer with the Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) in August 2022, she knew she had big shoes to fill. Her predecessor, Martin Garber-Conrad, had been in the role for 17 years. And although she’d been working in a high-profile position in Edmonton’s public sector for nearly the same amount of time, she knew he would be a tough act to follow.

“I was nervous, of course. Martin knows people really, really well. He is the wise elder in the sector,” she says. “And I’m the newbie in many ways.”

But it’s exactly that newness that she sees as a strength.

Thomas has an impressive breadth of experience backing her: Before joining ECF, she spent 14 years in the private sector, and 13 more in the public sphere. She has an MBA from Queen’s University, a CPA-CMA and most recently earned a Masters in Library and Information Sciences from the University of Alabama. She’s well-versed in everything from marketing and business development to strategy and innovation. So she knew she could bring some fresh perspectives to the role.

“When you have someone new come in, you just get different ideas,” she says. “So I get to build on the great work that Martin has done from a different perspective, and different background. I mean, I’m very different from Martin in every way. And I think that can be a good thing.”

Since 2009, Thomas had been working at the Edmonton Public Library (EPL), first in marketing and communications, then overseeing strategy and innovation and finally in customer experience. Over the years, she spearheaded several major initiatives, including the library’s rebrand, which transformed public perceptions into what library services are in Edmonton, gaining international acclaim and awards along the way.

But after 13 years in leadership at one of Edmonton’s favourite institutions, she was ready for a change.

“I’d been able to accomplish a lot of great things,” she says. “So it did seem like a good time to change and to go to an organization that, like EPL, provides tremendous community value and does great things. But there were opportunities for me to see how I can help make a great organization even better leveraging my experience and ideas.”

In her role at EPL, Thomas worked alongside ECF on several community projects including the Forward Thinking Speaker Series, Welcome Baby and the epl2go Literacy Vans. She knew that the Foundation supported many of the community groups that were also active in EPL’s circles. But it was only once she started at ECF that she came to understand the full depth of community support the Foundation offered.

“My knowledge was pretty thin in comparison then,” she says. “It’s better than thin now, but it’s still got a long way to go. It’s been exciting and rewarding to see all the great work that we do powered by the many Edmontonians who have funds and ECF and the numerous charities doing amazing work in our city.”

One similarity Thomas sees between the two organizations is that both serve all Edmontonians. At EPL, the focus was on enabling learning and unlocking possibilities for people from all walks of life. Similarly, ECF invests in the long-term growth and success of the community by working with groups who believe in Edmonton and want to see it grow.

“ECF isn’t focused on just one issue or one community group. It’s really for everyone, by everyone, in that the people that come to ECF to create endowments have that idea of a long-term investment in the community,” she says.

The difference, she says, is ECF’s role as a supporter, convener and initiator, bringing community organizations together. “We’re helping understand issues, finding the right organizations, working with organizations that are already doing this great work and amplifying it,” she says.

Thinking Differently

While at EPL, Thomas’ work focused largely on the services provided to customers. It was a hands-on role, centred on service delivery, development and execution. And she thinks she can leverage that experience to help ECF think differently about how it supports the community.

Over her first few months as CEO, Thomas has familiarized herself with the many ways that ECF supports Edmontonians by meeting with the people who know ECF best — charitable organizations, donors and other community leaders. And while she’s inspired by the work that ECF has accomplished, people have been open and honest about sharing where there are gaps and needs that can help guide ECF’s future growth. She has a few ideas of how she’d like to move forward and is staying open minded.

“ECF supports all areas of community need, and that’s a strength. So many people have told me that ECF is one of the few organizations that understands the needs of the entire non- profit and charitable sector because we work with everyone,” she says.

ECF can continue to serve the whole sector while also leveraging the strength of its knowledge and relationships by seeing where there are opportunities where the Foundation is uniquely positioned to have a more meaningful impact.

Thomas sees the opportunity to bring more people to the table. Edmonton is filled with many first- and second- generation Canadians as well as small and medium business professionals building a life for themselves and their families in Edmonton.

“I think we can do more to broaden the profile of philanthropy in our city by meeting with business owners, entrepreneurs, cultural groups and others who are invested in seeing Edmonton and Edmontonians grow and thrive,” she says.

She also wants to help raise the profile of the Foundation.

“I was amazed to learn that ECF is the largest non-governmental funder in Edmonton, granting approximately $30 million each year. But the most interesting part for me is how we do it,” Thomas says. “Investing money and granting a portion of the funds is a practical way to create sustainable funding for the organizations that are offering vital services in our communities. I want more people to understand ECF’s approach to philanthropy because I think it’s a smart investment that will make the charitable sector more self-reliant and effective.”

Finding new, better or more efficient ways to support the community is nothing new to Thomas. She’s not intimidated by change or innovation and wants to make every move forward an intentional one. It’s the same strategy she used as she built on EPL’s success, year after year.

“I like to try and think, ‘We’ve done this a certain way. Is it working for us? If it isn’t, how can we do it differently? If it is, how can we make it better?’” she says. “I don’t like change for the sake of change, but I think that’s part of having someone new — fresh eyes and ideas.”

Although the path forward is still being carved out, Thomas is confident ECF will continue to support Edmontonians when and how they need it. It’s just a matter of listening, learning and leading.

“I’m not coming in with a preconceived notion, I hope I’m coming in with open eyes and ears to hear what those opportunities are, and where those needs are, and how best we can help,” she says.

“I want our decisions to be informed by what the community needs.”

Hear more from Tina in episode 142 of ECF’s Well-Endowed Podcast.