Joe Canavan had a successful career in financial services before taking a break at age 47 and using his skills to transform a children’s charity.
Originally published in The Star, 28/1/2014
By: Ellen Roseman
After a successful career on Bay St., Joe Canavan left his job as CEO of Assante Wealth Management in 2009. At age 47, he was looking to find another business venture.
Instead, he used his leadership skills to turn the Children’s Aid Foundation into a fundraising and social media powerhouse.
“Joe translates well into the not-for-profit world. He’s driven, passionate, caring and a great salesman,” says Laura Dottori-Attanasio, chief risk officer at CIBC and chair of the foundation’s fundraising committee.
The Children’s Aid Foundation raises money from donors to help improve the lives of abused, neglected and at-risk children and teens. Started in 1979, it granted $6.3 million in the last fiscal year to almost 20,000 young people.
Canavan spent 18 months as interim chief executive — finishing this week — and he worked as a volunteer.
“It was my way of having an impact in the community,” he says about choosing not to take a salary.
Donald Guloien, CEO of Manulife Financial, knew Canavan as a rival (since Assante was owned by Sun Life) before seeing him transform the foundation.
“He realized that things were going wrong,” Guloien says, “and he rebuilt the organization in absolutely fabulous ways, starting an outreach program and recruiting new people to the board.”
I met Canavan in 1988. He was a stockbroker at Burns Fry (now BMO Nesbitt Burns) and I was buying my first mutual fund from a manager that sold only to intermediaries. I found him through a newspaper ad.
In 1989, he left to join Fidelity Investments, a U.S. mutual funds giant just starting up in Canada, and then started two fund companies of his own — GT Global in 1994 and Synergy Asset Management in 1997.
I wrote a Globe and Mail column in 1996 about GT Global’s innovative ads featuring Henry the Hedgehog. It was part of a campaign to interest children in mutual funds.
He sold GT Global to Invesco Trimark. Later, when he sold Synergy to CI, he was asked to turn around Assante (which distributes funds to clients) and stayed for six years.
While waiting for a new business opportunity, he became chair of the Children’s Aid Foundation’s board and saw it go through a bad patch. It lost a long-serving chief executive and two successors who didn’t fit the job.
“After a few CEO roles, you realize that your skill set as a corporate leader — understanding profit and loss, marketing, figuring out the business model — is transferable,” says Canavan, now 51 and the father of three young sons.
He cleaned out the foundation’s office, another skill learned in business, and left only a third of the previous team.
“Our revenue is up 100 per cent and our expenses are down,” he tells me.
He also gave the children a voice, letting them speak directly to donors at fundraising events and in videos at the website. He set up an advisory council of young people and told their stories incessantly.
“He got the message out clearly and concisely. That’s what people want,” says Jason Henderson, spokesman for HSBC, a new corporate donor that came on board last year to give scholarships.
Noella Milne, a lawyer at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP and former chair of the foundation, wants to see other Bay St. high flyers make the transition that Canavan did.
“I see executives alone at the park in Rosedale, mostly men, and I can tell they had high-powered, important jobs. Now they’re walking their dogs. Why don’t they transfer their skills to the non-profit sector?” she says.
“I know they’d be of use, probably more of use than they have ever been. I’m thinking a lot about it as I’m getting closer to retirement.”