Skip to main content

Betsy Martin realized her desire to join the non-profit sector when she joined the Community Foundations of Canada.

Of the many tributes and letters Betsy Martin's husband received after her death, one letter in particular articulated her generous nature. The writer was not a close friend but lived in the same neighbourhood and always found Betsy, who knew the woman's husband had terminal cancer, warm and supportive whenever they crossed paths.

"When one speaks of random acts of kindness, I think of Betsy. After my husband had passed away ... I remember coming home one day and finding a tin on my porch full of Christmas cookies, with a lovely, thoughtful note attached. I will never forget that gesture and how much it meant to me."

Betsy Martin understood the importance of community and service to others. A graduate of the renowned Harvard Kennedy School, she was honoured with the Lucius N. Littauer Fellow award for academic excellence and her contribution to the Harvard community, and later helped the Community Foundations of Canada (CFC) win a prestigious award for innovation.

As her friend and former CFC president and chief executive officer Monica Patten explains: "Betsy believed in the power of community in people's lives. It was the focus for her commitment."

Elizabeth (Betsy) Carroll Martin was born on March 14, 1959, in Washington, D.C., one of six siblings in a military family often on the move before settling in St. Louis, Mo., when she was 8.

Older sister Michele speculates that Betsy's interest in healthy communities sprang from the great neighbourhood where they lived and an even greater influence – her parents Maurice, an air-force colonel, and Marion:

"It was the influence of mom and dad's commitment to God, country, family and others which was such an ingrained example to us, that it [felt] necessary and normal for a healthy life. We grew up knowing that caring for our world and others, especially those in need was critical."

Raised a Catholic, Ms. Martin attended Jesuit-founded Boston College, joining the business sector after graduating in 1982. Although successful, she realized while working for Citicorp Mortgage Inc. in St. Louis that she was more interested in the firm's philanthropic programs.

That interest continued when she left in 1992 to become director of public affairs for St. Louis University. Two years later, she was accepted in the master of public administration program at the Kennedy School, winning the Littauer while volunteering with the Boston Foundation.

While at Harvard, she also met husband Corey Copeland. After graduation, they moved to Ottawa and married on Aug. 5, 1995. Six years later, daughter Emma was born.

Ms. Martin realized her desire to join the non-profit sector when she joined the CFC – a national organization dedicated to building and strengthening communities. As director of programs, "Betsy was very grounded in the present but she always had a vision for what was possible," Ms. Patten says.

"She was able to think strategically and, because she had a business background, she understood the rules of the game. Her experience in the banking world was a great asset."

In 1999, an ambitious grassroots campaign was launched to celebrate the new millennium and strengthen the social fabric at the same time. Designed, developed and directed by Ms. Martin, the Our Millennium National Project engaged more than 4.6 million Canadians in giving gifts to their communities to mark the occasion.

According to an assessment prepared for the Caledon Institute of Social Policy, the venture "was essentially about giving gifts – but not in the traditional sense. The type of giving encouraged was entirely voluntary and noncommercial .... built on the foundation of uniquely human gifts: care, concern, attention, recognition, appreciation, affirming the reality of others, and celebrating both difference and similarity."

Despite the program's success – it received a prestigious award of merit for innovation that is presented annually (both in Canada and the U.S.) by late business guru Peter Drucker's charitable foundation – but Ms. Martin thought more should be done to engage the public. In a 2005 journal article, she wrote that "Canada's community foundations need to focus on social justice. By this we mean investing a community foundation's resources (financial and other) to address underlying causes, rather than simply to treat symptoms."

Always ready to take on a challenge, she wrote a letter to the St. Louis Post Dispatch last summer – willing to take on the Vatican despite having just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

"Catholic nuns have been the backbone of the church in the United States for generations: They educated us, built our hospitals, cared for the poor and served wherever needed ...," she contended.

"To be reprimanded over their concern with social justice and serving the poor and for questioning the limited roles for women in the church is confounding to say the least – and unfortunately shows that the Vatican is more concerned with its own power and authority ... The old order is fighting hard and will not give up easily. The American nuns have more capacity and power to withstand this crackdown than many other women around the globe. They owe it to themselves and powerless women around the globe to stand firm and faithful and fearless."

Betsy Martin died peacefully on June 4. She was 54 and leaves her husband, daughter, siblings Maurice, Michele, Joan, Anne and Nancy and numerous nieces and nephews.