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United Way chief Susan McIsaac doing more than just talking

President and CEO of United Way Toronto Susan McIsaac climbs the stairs to her office, located in the in the 11th floor of a downtown Toronto building as preparation for the Enbridge CN Tower Climb fundraiser in Toronto, October 11, 2013.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Thousands of participants will hike up the 1,776 steps of Toronto's CN Tower this weekend for United Way's 2013 Enbridge CN Tower Climb to raise money for community and social services across the city. Joining the climbers this year will be Susan McIsaac, president and chief executive officer of United Way since 2010.

Although she climbed the tower once before in 2004, this time she felt she needed to show the hundreds of others who are making the ascent that she's walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

Ms. McIsaac has more than 20 years' experience in non-profits, and 15 years with United Way, after leaving her job at a bank – and a possibly more lucrative career in the private sector. She says she hasn't looked back.

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What was your first encounter with the United Way?

Probably in my first full-time job at Canada Trust, before the merger with TD Bank. They ran a workplace campaign and I remember one of my colleagues coming to solicit me for United Way back in the 80s. At that time, I was working out in what is now one of our priority neighbourhoods, Danforth and Victoria Park, and I remember thinking that there were so many people that benefited from United Way.

Why did you decide to work for them?

I was already working with lots of not-for-profits and I realized that while my work brought me into the not-for-profit sector, my volunteering and philanthropy was all focused on the social services sector. Some of the organizations I worked with were in arts and culture, education and health care, but where I volunteered and where I gave was all in social services and human services. When this opportunity presented itself, I thought it was so closely aligned with what I was passionate about that it was really important for me to at least explore it. That really became motivation for me to make it not just what I would do in my volunteer time, but what I would do in my career.

Why did you choose to work in the non-profit sector over the for-profit sector where you could probably make more money?

In my first job, I was working in a bank. I learned lots about management and lots about business, but what I really was passionate about was all of the issues around human services and social justice. As much as I felt I had a great experience and it was great learning, I really longed to do something where I had an opportunity to give more of myself and to align my work more with my passion. I really felt I had something to offer in terms of making change in our city. I probably could make way more money working elsewhere but I'm very happy in the work that I do. You make these choices in life. To really thrive on what you do is worth way more than money to me.

Was there a particular person who inspired you to give back to society?

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Most definitely my parents. They were incredible role models for me. They were both quite vocal about the responsibility that you have when you are given much. For a long time my mum worked with kids that had multiple handicaps, so families that were caring for children that struggled and wanted to keep them at home. My mum would go in and provide respite for a few hours and stay with the children and play with them. I remember going with her once and thinking it was so easy for her to do, it was so natural for her to do and it was such a right thing for her to do. That was a wonderful way for her to show me, as her daughter, this is what you do, you help out. That message has played over and over in my life so when I see a need, I feel I want to respond. It really fulfills me. It's not that I think it's something special that I do – it's something that makes me feel special.

What's the most rewarding part of giving back to society?

When I listen to youth who have multiple barriers or who have overcome real challenges and I hear them talk about what they're doing and how they're giving back, for me that's as gratifying as it gets. I feel like we've enabled, we've provided great programming, and we've funded the work they do.

Why did you decide to do the CN Tower climb?

I was pressured. I thought it would be a fun thing to do. It engages thousands of people every year and I think it's a good thing for me to get in there and climb with the rest. And also because I'm foolish.

How have you been training for the climb?

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I keep a relatively modest but regular fitness program. There's a gym in my condo building and so I go on a semi-regular basis and use the treadmill. The United Way office is on the 11th floor and I try to, as much as possible, take the stairs back up so that when I actually hit the tower, I'm not doing it cold.

Are you scared you won't make it all the way to the top?

There's no option. Once you're in there, there's no getting out until you get to the top. There are no exits along the way. I'm not scared. It might take me a long time, but I will get to the top. I'll be huffing and puffing, but I'll get there.

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