150 Profiles: Miia Suokonautio

As we mark the 150th anniversary of confederation, The Philanthropist is profiling Canadians from across the non-profit sector and putting a face to 150 individuals who work or volunteer in Canada’s social sector.

Profession (current role in the sector): Executive Director, YWCA Halifax

Years working and/or volunteering in the non-profit sector: 25+ years – which is really my entire working life.  My first real job, at 14 years old, was in the kitchen of a non-profit nursing home.

Can you describe a defining moment in your career working/volunteering in the non-profit sector?

There have been so many extraordinary and memorable moments.  I always feel privileged to do the work I do, regardless of where I am. Two defining moments of my career in the non-profit sector have been supervising and teaching students, and becoming involved in a truly national organization.

In many ways I still see myself as a young professional. My general orientation to my work is one of relentless learning and a keen interest in new ideas and ways of working.  To see ourselves as learners, I think, keeps us young at heart. At the same time, having now directly supervised a number of students, both in their placements and as a university instructor, I have come to appreciate what I’ve learned along the way. Holding this place of learner and teacher has allowed me to not only be mentored but to mentor others.  This transition has been a key defining moment for me.

The second defining moment happened in June 2014 when I attended my first national YWCA meeting.  Previously, I had not been part of a truly national and international movement working so clearly toward the same ends.  I was and continue to be humbled by the sisterhood of YWCAs, how we stand shoulder to shoulder on issues facing women and girls.  Together we work toward a common advocacy agenda, provide peer support, and offer guidance on internal operations and programs.  The community of CEOs and Executive Directors is nothing like I have ever known; the degree of trust and mutuality is something that has deeply moved me and one that I would love to see emulated in communities across Canada.

Describe your desk/workspace.

Tidy, organized and spacious.  Full of natural light and beautiful art, including by our staff and community volunteers.  Although I try to balance the amount of time I spend at my desk with being present in the programs and in the community, it is a safe and welcoming landing ground.

There is stained glass in the window made by our staff Tishe Petite and a painting, by local artist David Benjamin, depicts the landscape on Nova Scotia’s South Shore. There is a green house sculpture made by some of the youth I worked with in Nicaragua.  A stone by a homeless youth here in Halifax and reads: “Hope is the chance you give yourself at a better outcome of a situation.  It is the action that we take to making our situation better than what it is.”

What are reading or following that has expanded your understanding of the non-profit sector?

Usually I read materials specific to certain areas of our work.  For example, lately I’ve been reading research on proven effective strategies to address family homelessness.  Recently I’ve also enjoyed:

  •         Strategic Fund Development: Building Profitable Relationships That Last, 3rd Ed. by Simone Joyaux, ACFRE
  •         Managing the Nonprofit Organization: Principles and Practices by Peter F. Drucker
  •         Nonprofit With Balls at nonprofitwithballs.com
  •         Fundraisergrrl.tumblr.com
  •         Homeless Hub at homelesshub.ca
  •         HR Council for the Voluntary/Nonprofit Sector at hrcouncil.ca
  •         Community Sector Council of Nova Scotia at csc-ns.ca

My biggest challenge is that I hate to read work-related materials before bed as I’m trying to keep time with my family and home sacred.  At the same time, squeezing in reading time during busy work days isn’t always easy.  I love attending webinars!

As a past author with the journal, please select an article you wrote for us and share your reflections, reaction or thoughts about what has changed and/or stayed the same?

Working For The Mission: Getting Nonprofits To Be The Employers Of Choice, 2011

I have to be honest and say that my perspective has changed very little since writing Working for the Mission for The Philanthropist.  The non-profit sector is consistently challenged with job instability and salary inadequacy.  As a result, we have high turnover in many of the positions we offer, even when we are providing maximum salary levels allowed in grants.  The impact on programs and participants is genuinely awful as the inconsistency is detrimental to the development of trusting relationships and the achievement of innovative practices.

The need for collaborative and coordinated responses continue to persist.  For example, when Andy Fillmore was elected MP for Halifax and we had our first meeting, we discussed the challenges with ESDC’s Skills Link program and the reliance on 12-month contracts as an effective way to attract and retain truly skilled employment facilitators.  Happily, the most recent call for proposals for Skills Link funding allowed for three-year projects.  We need to see more of these types of changes with all orders of government as well as with foundations and funders.

As an Executive Director, there are many priorities that need to be addressed.  Improving staff salaries and limiting turnover of strong staff have been two of my principal priorities.  Like most things, there is still plenty of work to be done.

Do you know someone we should profile as part of this series? Email us at philanthropistprofiles@gmail.com

Photo credit:  Samson Learn, Samson Photography


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