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Paula Attfield’s Reflections On Her Term as Chair of AFP Canada

Leadership and Teams: Boards and Volunteers
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Paula Attfield


In addition to being president and CEO of Stephen Thomas Ltd, Paula Attfield is a longtime member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). She has chaired the AFP Greater Toronto Chapter's Fundraising Congress, served on the Chapter Board of Directors as VP Marketing and Communications, and is just finishing up a two-year term as chair of AFP Canada, an entity of AFP that she helped found.

Being the head of a national organization is a major achievement in anyone’s books. What kind of an accomplishment did that feel like for you personally?

A book “Face the Fear and Do It Anyway”, sat on my shelf for years. I don’t honestly know if I ever actually read that book, but I’ve always felt it’s a great thing to do. I’ve also long wanted to use my time, energy and voice for good, for making a better sector and, at the individual level, aim to make people feel better for having interacted with me. That said, as an introvert, none of that comes particularly easy, loads of fears get in my way. To take leadership roles, I’ve had to work very conscientiously at recognizing my own fears and pushing past them. Each time I break another internal barrier, the better I have felt. I’ve also been very fortunate to have some awesome mentors pushing me along this path. Chairing the board of an awesome new organization has been incredible, but more than that, it’s meeting new people who are all interested in building a better profession that has been the true highlight.

What were your goals when you set out at the beginning of your term?

Two years ago seems like a lifetime, especially in COVID years!

When I became chair of AFP Canada, the organization itself was not yet even two years old. We were still in the process of establishing who we were as a professional body. One thing that was clear from the beginning was that our 3,000+ members across Canada wanted us to be the bilingual voice of the profession. Up until then, that voice was missing in any formal way (we did have the Canada Council, which was a group of amazing volunteers, but that entity had very limited resources). We knew then that we needed to build our capacity to do the work that our members mandated us to do. So, capacity building was high on my priority list. We needed to build capacity so that we could do our work–primarily government relations and communications–effectively.

Did the wealth inequity and racial injustice we witnessed this year (thinking of the pandemic and the resulting protests around the killing of George Floyd) change or play havoc with being able to execute on those goals?

While wealth inequity and racial injustice have always been here, the murder of George Floyd and COVID have brought these issues to the forefront. I do believe we are on the cusp of a social movement that will bring about positive and lasting change. To this end we need to continue to build the capacity of AFP Canada, so we have more resources to lean on to help us be a part of the change in our sector. 

AFP Canada has some great partners in our work: we have the AFP Foundation for Philanthropy – Canada, our 21 Canadian AFP chapters and AFP Global. All of AFP is committed to the principles of inclusion, diversity, equity and access (IDEA) in the fundraising profession, the philanthropic sector and throughout all of society. AFP is involved in numerous projects and partnerships related to IDEA. And of course, in Canada we have our own unique challenges. It’s our job as an organization to help highlight these and bring forward solutions. 

Additionally, I hope that AFP can bring forward solutions to systemic anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous racism by collaborating with like-minded organizations and individuals who have long been steeped in these struggles. There are so many stories of fundraisers experiencing racism, sexism, and other “isms” that are now being told that need to be counted as evidence of a sector that has some mending and rebuilding to do.

Through IDEA, we seek to learn, grow, offer our support and lend our voice and resources to make changes within the AFP. It’s not going to be easy, but we must find a way to make things better.

What’s your experience of the difference about being the chair of a board as opposed to being “just” a board member?

Wow, great question! Sometimes, as a board member, it can be easy to fall into the background. But when you’re the chair, there’s certainly no hiding! You face the tough questions about your work, and you take the kudos. That said, I’m not one who particularly relishes the spotlight, and it’s been a great honour to make space for discussion, collaboration and to bring in ideas for making a better AFP. I have really loved providing the forum to move our work forward. Regardless of whether I’m chair or not, I’m really passionate about working alongside AFP members and our community to continue to advocate for fundraisers. After I step down as chair of AFP Canada, I will still be serving on committees, and will continue to give back to a sector I care deeply about.

What do you think are the biggest issues facing fundraisers today?

I’m tempted to dismiss COVID as a temporary issue, but the reality is, it’s not. It’s hit many organizations hard, from the arts, to the social sector, to organizations that have long relied on fundraising through face-to-face events, there are few organizations that haven’t been impacted by COVID.

When that stress hits an organization, it filters through to the staff. Honestly, I think mental well-being of fundraisers will be paramount. As Ken Mayhew, incoming chair of AFP Canada has said, fundraising is an essential service. Without funds, charities and nonprofits couldn’t exist. Fundraisers therefore are essential workers. Until the world sees its way through this pandemic, we’re going to have to ensure our fundraisers have the resources they need to maintain their mental health and resilience. So much has changed so quickly that, ultimately, we’re all going to have to be thinking about how to reboot ourselves and our organizations in 2021.

Your biggest takeaway from the experience?

I think it’s really important to listen and learn. While I’ve done a lot of “doing” this year, especially as our government relations work has ramped up through COVID. Specifically, we’ve been lobbying for sector support, advocating for a voice at the table as the government prepares new privacy legislation, and ultimately trying to figure out a way for fundraisers’ concerns to be heard and heeded by the government through a lot of collective noise that has been brought on by COVID. Meanwhile, our communications committee has published some really helpful pieces for our Canadian fundraisers from our Narrative for Canadian Fundraising to multiple media briefs designed to address COVID-specific challenges. 

I’ve also been able to meet some incredible people, people that have taught me so much. AFP provides a meeting place (albeit a virtual one this year!) for these voices to come together. It’s an awesome group, and we’re continuing to look for new and diverse members to join us. If you’re reading this and are even mildly interested, I would love to speak with you!  

Now, we’d like to ask a few short questions you can answer in a line or two. Do you have a biggest regret from your term?

While I’m my own biggest critic, I don’t carry regrets. I take forward learnings that help me to do better next time.  

Lesson learned?

Even introverts can find themselves a place in leadership positions. And that my skin colour, white, has afforded me privileges that have helped me get to where I am.

A line of advice for your successor Ken Mayhew?

One of the awesome things about Ken is his ability to create a collaborative environment. I think if he keeps doing what he has been doing, he will do great.  

Great. One last question. It’s been a rough year for many. What’s your end of year message to the members of AFP?

Hang in there. It’s been a year that has tested all of us. I feel for the working parents, the fundraisers that have lost their jobs, the fundraisers whose work has them on the frontlines, the fundraisers whose organizations have seen their revenues decimated due to COVID. If you’re lucky enough to slow down a bit over the next few weeks, maybe at the very least to actually take the statutory holiday days off, I hope you can take at least a few minutes to breathe and reunite yourself with the things that give you joy. 

Here’s hoping for a better 2021!

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