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Turning to the kids helped turn a charity around

Joseph Canavan left a wealth management firm to become Chairman and interim CEO of the Children’s Aid Foundation.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The Gift: Volunteering to run the Children's Aid Foundation

The Reason: To help the charity reorganize

When Joe Canavan became chair of the Children's Aid Foundation a couple of years ago, he started asking some tough questions. He didn't like what he heard back.

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The Toronto-based foundation, which works with child-welfare agencies across Canada, had become disorganized and dispirited. Mr. Canavan knew something radical had to be done, so he left his job on Bay Street, where he had been chief executive of Assante Wealth Management, and volunteered to become the foundation's chief executive officer.

He wasn't sure how long he would in the post, figuring it could take up to three years to sort out the charity. "I decided to step in and apply my skill set in the for-profit sector to a not-for-profit entity," Mr. Canavan, 51, recalled.

He didn't waste any time. Mr. Canavan recruited top managers from other charities. He met with sponsors, donors and agencies to ask what they wanted changed. Most importantly, he began regular meetings with the children the foundation helps and eventually turned that into an advisory council that provides crucial regular input.

The work paid off. The foundation raised $6-million last year, $2-million above target, and it is on track to raise $8-million in this fiscal year. He also helped find his replacement: Valerie McMurtry, whose experience includes running the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation and the Canadian Olympic Foundation.

Mr. Canavan will step down at the end of January, after serving 18 months as unpaid CEO, and resume his role as chair. He plans to return to the financial industry but won't ever forget his time running the foundation.

"It has been a very powerful and impactful year for me," he said. "I have been given a gift. This has changed me."

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