Charitable Choices: Owen Charters, President & CEO of BGC Canada

BGC Canada is the largest child and youth-serving charitable and community services organization. We spoke with Owen Charters, President & CEO, to find out more about them.

BGC Canada

Describe your charity/non-profit/volunteer work in a few sentences.

At BGC Canada (formerly Boys & Girls Clubs of Canada), we believe that opportunity changes everything.

As Canada’s largest child and youth-serving charitable and community services organization, our Clubs open their doors to young people of all ages and their families nationwide, providing programs and services that help them realize positive outcomes in self-expression, academics, healthy living, physical activity, job readiness, mental wellness, social development, leadership, and more—and we’ve been doing that for over 120+ years!

What problem does it aim to solve?

We understand that the problems kids face today are complex. We provide safe, supportive places where children and youth can experience new opportunities, overcome barriers, build positive relationships, and develop confidence and skills for life. Our Clubs take a preventative approach to a broad range of critical issues, including poverty, health and nutrition, education, mental health, and youth violence. And it works. Kids that join a BGC Club struggle less with academics, avoid risky health behaviours, and have less interaction with the justice system. Simply put, they do better.

When did you start/join it?

I became CEO of BGC Canada in January 2016.

What made you want to get involved?

I originally volunteered at a local Club when I was a teenager, and subsequently worked in the youth-serving sector for years, at a YMCA and with Easter Seals. After entering the charitable sector professionally—having completed a business degree focused on nonprofit management—I did a lot of professional fundraising. Coming back to a youth-focused organization, and especially BGC Clubs where my original passion was ignited, was very special. This is a cause that means a lot to me, and now I get to see firsthand the impact we have on so many children and youth.

What was the situation like when you started?

BGC Clubs have been evolving for over 120 years, but one thing that stands out is that they are too often our best-kept secret. Clubs keep their head down and focus on the vital work in their community. Our challenge is that we sometimes forget to tell other people about the great work we do! The opportunity I saw when I started was the capacity to tell such a powerful story to the rest of Canada, to build on a phenomenal brand and grow the recognition of the organization across the country.

We’ve also seen the leadership of BGC Clubs grow—as Clubs have grown in size and scope, they often transition from leaders who are grassroots to professional managers. That brings benefits and challenges—we need leaders who can manage larger organizations effectively, but we also need leaders who can continue to connect with the community and cause. That’s something we’re working on now as we build a stronger national identity. We are ensuring that our Club leaders are connected to their community and to each other.

How has it changed since?

Being a bigger organization and building our brand has brought great benefits, but also has put Clubs in the spotlight more than ever, especially in a pandemic. Clubs needed to respond to a growing crisis on the ground—families that had lost jobs, kids that were losing an education, and figure out how to get them food, resources, access to technology and internet, and keep them engaged, among other things.

Our Clubs were ready—it wasn’t that they expected a pandemic, but they were in the right place at the right time. And our brand-building meant that funders—corporations, foundations, and government—turned to Clubs to understand what the needs were and what they could do to support. Funders heard our appeal and our Clubs benefited from a great deal of goodwill. And while the need continues, Clubs really helped families from falling through the cracks during this pandemic.

What more needs to be done?

The needs that Clubs see in communities never goes away, and unfortunately, the pandemic has exacerbated the inequities in society. More youth are falling behind and this leads to more challenges.

The rate of gang violence is growing and Clubs are trying to confront it. Food, academic supports, youth engagement—there is a whole host of things that Clubs need to provide. What we need today is for the community to think of Clubs as an investment, a safety net that ensures that youth don’t get left behind, that each of them finds the opportunities they need. Clubs need people who align with them and empathize with the challenges that youth face today. Clubs are charities, but they are also sophisticated enterprises. We need to support them as such—invest in them, help them grow to meet the demands for today, to lift up children and youth so they can access the opportunities they deserve. A great example is the 2021 TD Ready Challenge grant we recently received, which funds programs that address societal issues. The grant will allow Clubs to collaborate with Hoot Reading to provide more than 12,500 hours of one-on-one remote literacy tutoring with experienced classroom teachers to more than 2,500 children across the country. That is an investment with a long-term impact.

How can our readers help?

Visit BGC Canada’s website and click the red DONATE button, or use our Find Your Club page to make a donation locally. Readers can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @BGCCAN and help spread the word about our work across the country.

Do you have any events coming up?

We have our national BGC Club awareness day coming up on June 3 and we will be celebrating our Youth of the Year in September. More info will be shared on our social media channels so make sure to follow along!

Where can we follow you?

Twitter | LinkedIn

PAY IT FORWARD: What is an awesome local charity that you love?

Obviously, all BGC Clubs are local and I love them all. But one charity that does stand out for me is the Michael Garron Hospital in East Toronto (formerly Toronto East General). It stands out because in the pandemic it has been a beacon of community support, providing tests, vaccines, and encouragement to the community. It’s also our local hospital and my family has benefited from their care and compassion.

The Michael Garron Hospital saves lives: without them, we might not be the family we are today.