Margaret Mead said it well: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” This is especially true for the passionate and committed group of women who together with conviction, tenacity and a whole lot of gumption, helped to found the Minerva Foundation for BC Women. They actively continue to play an important part in increasing its impact and relevance today.
Much like British Columbia’s early pioneers, these women helped to blaze trails towards equality with a mission to ensure that girls and women would have more choices and opportunities than ever before. They had a vision of a province “where their daughters would feel empowered, respected and safe; where their sisters could exercise all of their talents and abilities without inhibition; and where their mothers would live their senior years as active members of the community with dignity.”
It all began with an idea that Sue Hammell had after meeting with a variety of community groups across the province to discuss issues of concern for women in the late 1990s. As the Minister for Women’s Equality at that time, she was becoming acutely aware that there was much to be done to address all the inequities and issues facing women. However based on the community feedback, she wasn’t sure that another government initiative would be the answer.
“I remember at one point being in the Okanagan,” says Hammell. “We talked a lot about what women needed and what their hopes and aspirations were. But what struck a chord consistently was that meeting after meeting they wanted something that was outside of government. Something that was not dependent on government funding and that was women supporting women. It was a very strong theme.”
Around that same time Hammell met with Nancy McKinstry, then VP of Odlum Brown Limited, and the idea for a nonprofit society that would help raise funds for women’s organizations began to take shape. But before they could move forward, they needed to know if there was a need and enough financial support for this type of fundraising organization. As a starting point, they decided to invite a few more women of influence to the table.
This was a very committed circle of friends. They came together initially as a steering committee and then later helped to build Minerva’s first board of directors. This included Dorothy Finnigan as the Chair and Margaret Mason, Nancy McKinstry, Sherry Baker and Jocelyn Jenkyns as directors. An initial advisory committee was also created that included Sue Hammell, Pearl Roberts, Jane Hennessey, Debra Sing and Beth Hardy. Others who would soon be courted to join the board were May Brown, Lis Welch, Sushma Datt and Alice Laberge.
“She told me about a recent tour of northern BC, primarily to the reserves, and how shocked and moved she was by the plight of the women and that something needed to be done.”
Lis Welch fondly remembers receiving a few different invitations to lunch from McKinstry and Hammell which would eventually seal her commitment to the process. “Sue Hammell invited me to lunch on top of Harbour Centre. I clearly remember that lunch; we were slowly revolving, shrouded in fog. She told me about a recent tour of northern BC, primarily to the reserves, and how shocked and moved she was by the plight of the women and that something needed to be done. Nancy McKinstry and Dorothy Finnigan then hosted me to lunch to discuss founding board member status. I accepted their invitation with alacrity as I had already been so attracted by the energy, vision and by the caliber of women on the steering committee. Plus the idea of being part of a project from the ground up filled me with anticipation and excitement, so I was ready for any amount of work and involvement.”
Margaret Mason, a lawyer with Bull, Housser & Tupper LLP, took the lead in pulling together all the paperwork, and in 1999, Minerva was incorporated as a Registered Charity with four “pillars” of focus: Education, Leadership, Economics and Safety. “This is what I do,” says Mason. “I started the process of incorporation and registration. It took three to five months to get things rolling and behind the scenes Nancy McKinstry was doing her piece with the money.” All of this was conducted off the sides of their desks.
Through discussion and input, the name of the new organization was chosen and the mission became clear: to create opportunities for women throughout BC to realize their economic and leadership potential. But, they still needed to determine the best way to move forward. Their initial idea was to take advantage of their strengths and networks to fundraise for women’s organizations across the province. However, that focus would eventually change and Minerva would instead become more program based. Hammell had access to some seed funding that could support this process and decided to hire Pearl Roberts, a fundraising consultant, to write a case statement for the newly formed organization. She would later also conduct the feasibility study. “It was rewarding for me as a consultant to have them be able to move forward so quickly, because at that time, less than four percent of funds were going to women’s organizations,” says Roberts. “It was also fun for me as my own company, Iris Communications, was also named after the Greek goddess of communication. It was fitting for me to be working with the Minerva Foundation, named after the Greek goddess of wisdom.”
The consultation process involved meeting with two very different groups: one with a group of non-profit representatives and the other with business leaders. According to McKinstry, “the first group was brought together at Pearl Robert’s office and included about 20 non-profits. This group was not overly receptive to the idea as they saw it as competition for limited amount of funding dollars. The group as a whole was defensive and protective. They openly campaigned against anything being done.”
Hammell was surprised by the non-profit’s response as she felt “that the more you do the more there is. We also used the argument that we could be generating funds to support others.” But in the end they chose to become more program-focused as they believed that it would be more empowering, and then decided to target groups where needs were not being met.
McKinstry was far more encouraged by the second group which included about 20 business women of influence from around Vancouver. “Their response to the idea of a fundraising body for women’s organizations/programs was the opposite of the first group.”
“Nancy McKinstry was unstoppable and drew everyone—unsuspecting or otherwise—into the wake she created!”
Fueled by the support they needed, this small group of passionate pioneers decided to host their first fundraising event in September of 2000 where they were able to raise $25,000, and then officially launched with another event in February 2001 that was held at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. Chaired by Lis Welch, this was an incredibly successful event and raised $91,240 ($25,000 donated by Mr. Wosk). By this point they had been able to create an impressive database of potential donors and launched their Founding 500 campaign to help grow Minerva’s endowment. Lis Welch paints quite the picture of those early days, all of them with substantial careers but still committed to finding the place and time to do the work needed to get the foundation started. “As with other board members and volunteers, my inbox had more Minerva Foundation emails than those associated with my career. We all worked off the corner of our desks because there was no office or staff for a long time. We talked in our sleep about the Foundation; we reveled in the successes and were undaunted by temporary setbacks. Nancy McKinstry was unstoppable and drew everyone—unsuspecting or otherwise—into the wake she created!” In her own words, McKinstry’s role was “to bring as many people as possible to the table and look for opportunities.”
Welch had also been responsible for producing and distributing Minerva’s newsletter. “I created and printed the newsletter for years until paid staff took that on. We issued it multiple times per year and here is another nifty image: the folding/stuffing/stamping took place at my office and who should be doing that but a group of Order of Canada women — May Brown, Marguerite Ford and several others. Can you imagine? Those ladies were so special that I always brought in fine china and a teapot to serve them afternoon tea while working.”
Around that same time, Danna Murray was hired as fundraising support and then later became Minerva’s first Executive Director. Before they had office space, Danna remembers working next to Nancy at Odlum Brown Limited. “There she was on the phone doing trades and I would have an idea and then Nancy would execute. After a while of doing this, we decided that we needed space.”
Through the help of Jill Leversage at TD Canada Trust, they were eventually able to secure office space in downtown Vancouver and the Minerva team began to grow as programs were implemented for the four “pillars.” First came the education awards and community grants followed by planning their first leadership conference for 2002, which later became known as Learning to Lead™. Shortly thereafter, other programs were introduced: Minerva Helping Women Work™, the Combining Our Strength™ Initiative, Follow-A-Leader™, Women Leading the Way™ and Leaders in Transition.
Minerva continues to have a real impact around women’s issues across the province. The original circle of friends left us with the legacy of a pioneering spirit and one that has led the way towards effectively changing the face of leadership in BC. “We took risks,” says Welch, “and we never stayed down even with temporary setbacks. We were highly creative, we had results, and everyone wanted to join the band wagon. Formidable talent and skills were in evidence always, and the bar was high in every way.”
Pearl Roberts in her initial 1999 report of recommendations captured it well when she wrote, “Recruit a small group of visionary women to think through the vision, mission and goals of the Foundation and articulate them in a passionate and compelling Case for Support.” They did indeed fulfill that mandate, and to this impressive group of women, we are forever grateful.
“We were changing lives one person at a time”, says McKinstry. “And no one else was doing this. We have touched so many lives in so many ways. The ripple effect is phenomenal.”