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A Champion of Charity

Eva Friesen’s impact at the Calgary Foundation and beyond

Eva Friesen, president and CEO of the Calgary Foundation (CF). Photo by EWAN PHOTO VIDEO.

Eva Friesen spends much of her time measuring impact. As president and CEO of the Calgary Foundation (CF), her focus is on the community, the charitable organizations serving it, and, most importantly, the outcomes of this service. The who, why and what of charitable work are what most interest her. At the same time, her impact – not only at the CF but on the city as a whole – is, by all accounts, immeasurable.

“I think I’ve got the best job in town,” says Friesen, who has led the CF for 12 years. “The only difference in running a not-for-profit and in running a business is who you’re building value for. In the charitable sector you build value for community, whereas in business you build value for shareholders or owners. It’s the first one that turns my crank.”

Indeed, Friesen has spent her entire 33-year career in the non-profit sector, leaving a trail of growth, improvement and strength in her wake. Case in point: when she began at the CF in 2005, the organization’s endowment was $250 million. Today, its endowment is $925.6 million. In 2016-17 alone, the CF saw $26 million in new contributions and granted $40.2 million to 896 charitable organizations.

There are approximately 2,200 charities in Calgary, and the CF supports many of them in a variety of ways. Primarily, it provides grants in the areas of arts and heritage, education, community development, health and wellness, environment and animal welfare, human services, and faith and religion. Since inception in 1955, the CF has granted approximately $489.5 million to local charities, 70 per cent ($340.7 million) of which has been distributed in the last 10 years under Friesen’s watch.

The CF also manages over 1,200 funds established in several categories including donor advised, donor designated and flow through.

“We’re still growing, despite the bad economy,” Friesen says. “People [families and individuals, not corporations] are still making gifts.” Approximately half of these gifts are from estates, and the other half is living gifts (family foundations and individual gifts, for example). “And [growth] is always a good thing because we’re better able to support the charities.”

Remarkably, 12 years of growth has occurred absent any fundraising. “We do not fundraise, we inspire philanthropy,” states Friesen. “Our reason for being is to support the charitable sector. I learned early on that we aren’t supportive if we fundraise.” Instead, the CF focuses on the community. “We’re just a broker; a mediator,” she explains, “and a broker has to add value or it gets bypassed. So what’s our value? Knowledge of community.”

To build and share this value, 10 years ago Friesen and her team started Vital Signs – an annual report of survey results which provides statistical-type information about Calgary and is available free to everyone. “It’s building our knowledge of community and sharing it with everyone,” Friesen says. “And I am so amazed at the value that research is to the community. Everyone uses it.”

Beyond knowledge of the community itself, Friesen has also focused the CF on community impact. To this end, four year ago the organization developed the Community Knowledge Centre (CKC) – a web-based tool through which those interested can search Calgary charities and learn about their impact in the community.

“It starts with the story of impact,” Friesen says proudly. “It starts with a video showing the difference the charity makes.” The CF provides a consultant team to charities involved and pays for the video production if the charity is unable to. Links to the charity’s website are also included. “So a donor can go on a site to see who’s doing what.” To date, there are approximately 400 charities on the CKC, and Friesen aims to eventually have 1,100 (half of the 2,200 charities in Calgary are churches and faith-based, with no need to be on the CKC).

Friesen has also involved the CF in the community through investment. “With size comes a responsibility,” she says. “The CF has size, and so it must take responsibility to actually have an impact and do things and leave things.” Projects such as the Kahanoff Centre expansion, the cSPACE King Edward arts incubator and the Harvie Passage weir rehabilitation (unfortunately demolished by the 2013 flood) have seen the CF venture into community building with partners.

“We’re increasingly doing impact investing,” Friesen adds. “Using some of the endowment and investing it in social enterprise and charitable programs as a loan. It’s recycled money.” Loans have been given to cSPACE and to the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre for their new facility, for example.

Her impact at the CF has not gone unappreciated. “Eva would be included in the group of the best CEOs that I have ever worked with,” praises Bob Gibson, board chair of the CF. “She has been instrumental in making the [CF] one of Canada’s largest and most impactful foundations and I know she has no intention of slowing down any time soon.”

To be sure, Friesen had many successes before joining the CF. Born and raised in a Mennonite village in rural Manitoba, she originally aspired to be a teacher. “Where I grew up, women were nurses or teachers, or they didn’t marry and worked at the post office or the co-op, and if they got married they were a farmer’s wife. There were five choices, and of those I picked teacher.”

A natural athlete, she attended university with the intention of becoming a physical education teacher. After completing her physical education degree, and just one course short of finishing her bachelor of education degree, the YWCA offered her a job in Winnipeg. “I decided I can always go back and become a teacher, but I never did,” she smiles.

After a stint working in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, she was recruited to be CEO of the Yellowknife YWCA. She was 26 years old. “I learned a lot in that job,” she recalls of her first stint as CEO, a position she remained in for five years. “That YWCA didn’t have a fitness centre, so it really developed my leadership skills and the rest of who I became.”

She met her late husband in Yellowknife and the couple decided they would only leave Yellowknife for Calgary or Vancouver. When the position of CEO of the Calgary YWCA became available in 1989, Friesen applied. “I was a long shot,” she admits, “but they took a chance on me. I told them they wouldn’t be sorry and they weren’t. I was there 12 years.”

“I think she turned the YWCA around when she became president and CEO,” reflects Bonnie DuPont, a corporate director. DuPont was a member of the Calgary YWCA board when Friesen was hired. “We hired her and she never looked back. She very quickly put her team together and started to make some changes that were needed. She took us forward for 12 years.”

At the YWCA, Friesen oversaw many advancements: the organization opened the Women’s Employment Counseling Service; it opened Langevin Place, a 56-unit housing project for hard-to-house women; it raised $6 million through fundraising, which enabled the expansion and improvement of its 5th Avenue location; and, it launched several programs including the first program for men who are abusive.

“I loved that job,” Friesen recalls. “I did a part-time MBA at night [at the Haskayne School of Business] while there, was working and had my two daughters in the middle of it.” She also taught a course in not-for-profit leadership at the Banff Centre once per year.

Not surprisingly, she was eventually recruited for the position of CEO of the Calgary Health Trust. Hesitant to accept the job, her late husband convinced her. “He said to me: ‘Eva, you can retire at the YWCA if you want to; you are excellent and they love you there.’ And it was like the shutters of my eyes blew open. I was 42 years old and I thought ‘I’m going to stay in one job the whole rest of my career?’ I thought ‘No, I shouldn’t do that.’”

Four years later, she was again recruited, this time for the position of CEO of the CF. At the same time, her late husband was terminally ill with brain cancer. “I was CEO of the Health Trust and wife of a patient in the hospital,” she says. “I was doing business and going through a difficult personal journey all at the same time. It was very difficult.”

It was, again, her late husband who convinced her to take the CF job. “On his deathbed, he said to me: ‘Eva you should change jobs. That job [at the CF] is perfect for you.’” So she did. Shortly after joining the CF, her husband passed away in October 2005.

She describes her leadership style as hands-off. “Build the common vision that all can see, feel and buy into, and then free them to all play their role to achieve that.” Her reflections on being a woman in leadership are measured. “Many, many things have changed, and I don’t feel that I ever didn’t get something, or achieve something, because I was a woman. But it is different [to be a woman], even today, although we’ve made so much progress.”

The first woman president of the Rotary Club of Calgary Downtown in its 100-year history, Friesen was proud. “I turned them down for the longest time because I didn’t want the job just because I was a woman. I never wanted anything just because I’m a woman.”

“In her presidential term, Eva was a manifestation of experience, knowledge and interest in growth in the dynamic charitable work of Rotary,” reflects Bill Avery, president of the Rotary Club of Calgary Downtown. “She brought with her a natural sense of serving the community, a vision for necessary growth and development for the future, and a respect and understanding of both the strengths and symbolism of tradition.”

Her interests beyond work include horses and showjumping, a passion she shares with her two daughters, now 19 and 21. “I have a horse and I’m deeply dedicated to the barn,” she says. “I probably ride horse seven days per week.”

Her advice to her daughters and other young people? “I have taught them from day one to discover their passions and gifts, and then figure out a way to put those two together and make a living,” she says. “Then you won’t work a day in your life, and you will have joy. And it’s all about joy – it’s not about money – it’s about joy.”

Seven years ago, at the age of 52, she married lawyer Stan Carscallen, also a widower. “He is a rancher as well as a lawyer, and he has more horses than I do,” she laughs.

With an impact of indiscernible boundaries, Friesen is one of Calgary’s great leaders. Her imprint is all over the city – in the charitable sector and beyond – with a list of beneficiaries that grows daily. Her work – her passions – have benefited many.

Who’s Taking Your Money

Tips for evaluating a charity


With approximately 2,200 charities in Calgary, it can be difficult deciding where to give charitable dollars. On top of deciding which causes are most dear to them, donors must also consider the effectiveness of charities. How can you know whether your donation is being put to good use?

“Look at the impact they have on the community – the difference they make,” advises Eva Friesen, president and CEO of the Calgary Foundation. “Do they have a clear understanding of the reason they exist, the problem they’re solving, and whether they’re solving it?”

Don’t get too hung up on their financials, she says, because solid organizations with the ability to track impact need infrastructure, which costs money. “To run it on a shoestring is not sustainable,” she says, “though you don’t want it to cost $0.90 to raise a dollar. But most charities don’t.”

Kate Bahen, managing director at Charity Intelligence, an independent charitable organization which researches Canadian charities, agrees the effectiveness of the charity is key. Effectiveness is difficult to measure, she cautions, but Charity Intelligence (and GiveWell in the U.S.) are endeavouring to do this work. To date, Charity Intelligence has measured the economic impact of over 100 charities.

Another simple thing to look at is legitimacy – is it a registered charity? Bahen recommends checking for its charitable registration number (a nine-digit number) through Revenue Canada’s Charities Directorate database. “We get calls frequently about Children’s Miracle Network and Greenpeace – these are not registered charities yet people give them money,” she adds.

Five additional aspects are worth examining. First is the financial transparency of the charity. Bahen recommends checking out the charity’s website to see if it posts its financial statements online. “The number one question donors have is how a charity spends money,” she says. “The charity should be able to answer this question honestly and transparently.” Calgary charities, she adds, have far better financial transparency than those in other parts of Canada.

Secondly, does the charity need money? “Some charities fundraise because they can, not that they have an actual need for money,” Bahen explains. “Look at a charity’s balance sheet and weigh its cash and investments that it has relative to what it spends each year on running its programs.”

Thirdly, look at whether the charity’s overhead spending is “reasonable” with between 65 to 95 cents of every dollar going to the cause. “It’s a red flag if it’s too cheap,” Bahen says, “and may indicate it’s too good to be true – it could be a fraud charity.” On the other hand, charities with less than 65 cents going to the cause should give donors pause. Seventy-five cents of every dollar going to the cause is average.

Fourthly, Bahen recommends donors do their research. “Think of your giving like an investment: before you give, read the charity’s annual report; read the information on its website.” You should be able to identify the problem the charity is tackling, its strategy to be effective, the clients it works with, the programs and activities it does, and hopefully, the results it achieves.

Finally, diversify and be an active donor. “For most donors, pick three to five charities, spread your giving and compare these charities’ results,” Bahen advises. “Back your winners; drop your losers. Be active – give to charities working in a sector that fits with your interests rather than just passively giving to charities that ask you for money.”