150 Profiles: Debra Kerby

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.

Name: Debra Kerby

Current role in the sector: President and CEO, Canadian Feed The Children

Years working and/or volunteering in the non-profit sector:  Eighteen years.

Debra Kerby profile picture

What was your first job in the sector or a defining moment?

After a year of studying international development at the LSE following my move from the private sector, I spent time volunteering in communities experiencing poverty in South America. I wanted to understand community-level complexity from the grassroots, not just theory. This experience taught me that the greatest solutions are drawn from the wisdom of the community, not imposed from outside. I’ve tried to carry this forward as a development practitioner: focus on the voices of the community and remember who our work is about. It is our duty and privilege to create the space for this wisdom to come forth.  

Describe your desk/workspace.

My workspace is colourful and eclectic–with pieces from my travels, inspirational quotes, and fun paintings. My favourite is a painting of a farmer that says: “Even if I knew tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I’d still plant my apple tree.” (Yes, I would!)

I work at a stand-up desk (a cardboard box) and my mouse sits on a beautiful carved stool of an elephant from Sierra Leone. I have a green scooter nearby to scoot around the office. On my left, my three lucky ‘money trees’ have grown eight feet while CFTC has doubled its revenues!

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

I was inspired by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and am now reading his Pedagogy of Hope. It reminds me of humanity’s resilience and generosity despite poverty. Recently I read Thomas King’s An Inconvenient Indian, about the centuries of difficult relations between First Nation people and settlers. We have so much to learn from our Indigenous leaders and communities.

One of my favorite blogs is Social Velocity by Nell Edgington. Nell has wonderful wisdom to share on running a responsive non-profit. I like to listen to the BBC’s Africa Today and read back issues of Development Drums.

What do you think our sector needs to be thinking about?

I think about how to support today’s leaders to create greater collective impact. Not just organizational leadership, but personal leadership either within their current organizations or beyond. This extends to cultivating local leadership in partner organizations. We tend to focus on results and financial metrics and sometimes miss the human component that makes it all happen. Deepening our community-led approach, ensuring that we honour community voices and choices while managing organizational and donor realities. We need to have courageous conversations and be prepared to make mistakes. One of my favourite proverbs is “Fall down seven times. Stand up eight.”

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

Debra Kerby is President and CEO of Canadian Feed The Children.

4 thoughts on “150 Profiles: Debra Kerby

    Debra is an accomplished leader who walks the talk. She welcomes even the most difficult challenges with positive outlook … and know how to smile! She loves adventures and know how to enjoy life! Above all she loves people, especially the poor and marginalized around the world!

    TradeAID Integrated the organization that I lead is lucy to work with Canadian Feed The Children under the leadership of Debra and I must say together a lot has been achieved. I was so much encourage to dedicate myself more to help address the poverty situation in the Upper East Region of Ghana when I first met her some time in 2013 when she visited Ghana. As I read through her message, I noted particularly her desire to cultivate and develop local leadership, this reaffirm my hope in CFTC as a true partner in development.

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