Supporting the Staff

The van Woudenberg family believes a charity’s operational costs should be as well-funded as its programming for clients

These days, Els and Walter van Woudenberg live in the mountains of Colorado with their dogs and horses, but they remain forever connected to Edmonton.

Born in the Netherlands, the couple lived in Australia and South Africa before immigrating to Canada and settling in Edmonton in 1977. That same year, Walter, an engineer and entrepreneur, launched Nilex, a company engineering geosynthetics products such as soil reinforcement and erosion control systems for the construction and resource sectors.

The company grew in leaps and bounds, and the van Woudenbergs moved to Colorado in 1988 to expand their business to the U.S., keeping their headquarters in Edmonton, where it remains today. After selling the company in 2013, the socially minded couple decided to use their retirement to commit themselves to philanthropy in a big way. “Giving back with engagement is now the primary focus of our lives,” says Walter.

As part of this, the couple connected with Edmonton Community Foundation to start a fund focused on helping children and youth. They opted to create a donor-advised fund in order to advise how the annual disbursements are made and, after much research, chose to support the iHuman Youth Society.

Created in 1997, the organization offers arts programs for young people between 12 and 24 years of age who are living on the streets and struggling with personal problems like gang involvement, mental health issues, family neglect or abuse, and legal entanglements.

About 80 per cent of the organization’s clients are Indigenous youth.

“It is a safe haven for the most disadvantaged sector of our youth,” says Walter.

The van Woudenberg family had a good idea of how it wanted its money to help its chosen organization, but the van Woudenberg Family Fund is unusual in its support of administrative costs — specifically salaries for staff.

“There’s a lot of stuff in the media about charities needing to put every donated dollar to programs — but the charity needs adequate funding of its operational costs to run well,” says Kathy Hawkesworth, ECF’s director of donor services.

She points out that many donors don’t specify how their money is used, allowing charities to cover administration costs if they need to. It is rare for a donor to actually mandate that their money pay for behind-the-scenes costs, which many consider less exciting than programs for clients.

Walter explains that arranging the fund’s focus that way is a conscious effort to contend with the pressure charities sometimes face from the community to keep their administrative costs as low as possible. In his view, this isn’t just unfair to staff, it’s impractical for the organization.

“I think it’s a big mistake. It’s important to have adequately compensated, skilled people at the helm to make sure the organization’s budget is well spent,” he says. “Cutting costs at the top end by not compensating people properly puts at risk the organization’s ability to properly manage its mission.”

As a longtime businessman, Walter has seen first-hand the importance of investing in the right people again and again. He’s also seen it play out in his charitable work, recalling an organization in Nicaragua that once upset donors when it ran 15 per cent over budget one year because of administrative costs — until he explained to the donors the return on investment from paying good salaries.

“You can’t perform well if your prime consideration is to pay the rent and put food on the table because your pay is so little,” he says.

When it comes to iHuman, Walter knows that the organization’s staff, especially its executive director, face a “seemingly impossible task” in helping traumatized youth gain resilience and independence: “The last thing I would ever suggest is that, at the end of the day, they also struggle to make ends meet.”