PhiLab Interview: Mario Régis, Vice-president – Social Development at Centraide of Greater Montreal

Par Diane Alalouf-Hall et Anaïs Bovet , Doctorantes
02 September 2018

“We must get donors interested”


Mario Régis, Vice-president – Social development at Centraide of Greater Montreal, discusses the Centraide Network’s transformational capacity and its necessity given the generational and technological changes.



How to define the role and mission of your Centraide?

Mario Régis: Centraide defines itself more and more as a social investor that is both strategic and proactive. We have really moved on from a more traditional role of grantmaker that holds a fundraising campaign and that distributes the funds to a maximum of well-managed organizations, to become more of a changemaker with a vision of what we should do to contribute to the fight against poverty and social exclusion. This way of working took root during a strategic shift that took place around the turn of the century and that has been confirmed several times through the refurbishing of our strategic orientations. More specifically, we have developed a regional approach in which we seek to understand, neighborhood by neighborhood, in Laval, in Montreal, and on the South Shore, how people from these regions are experiencing poverty and social exclusion and what forces are working to fight against poverty in these regions. We are trying to see how Centraide can contribute, at the height of its resources, to the collective effort of making a difference in these neighborhoods.

How do you identify the issues to which you respond?

Mario Régis: It consists of a regional approach that takes into consideration other actors, whether they be institutional, municipal, governmental or private. Four of Centraide’s greatest concerns allow for a proper understanding of our way of seeing and acting upon poverty:

1. A first concern is associated with the success of our youth. If we want to prevent poverty, we must work on the medium-long term. Working from birth and fostering children’s success up until they obtain their diploma.
2. Secondly, it is important to guarantee the essentials in the short-term. Here we mean housing or food security.
3. Thirdly, it is necessary to break isolation. There are certain sections of the population that are more vulnerable than others. The challenges are thus even greater. Let’s consider newly arrived immigrants, the elderly, or even those living with physical and/or intellectual limitations.
4. Finally, it is in our advantage to build rallying living environments. What’s important is to create a very tight-knit social fabric so that citizens can, for instance, find the answers to their needs and socialize in their own neighborhood or volunteer.

Over the past few years, what significant developments are worth highlighting?

Mario Régis: In our business model, we went from a role of grantmaker to changemaker. In other words, we are evolving our own business model on the philanthropic level. At the moment, we know that our donors want to have a closer proximity to where their donations are invested. Our challenge is that, if we want to fight against poverty, we must work on the long-term. At Centraide, we work on medium-long term funding with the organizations we support. We have developed several ways of functioning, such as the Projet Impact Collectif (PIC). This project brought us to develop a partnership with 9 foundations, over five years. We have developed similar projects on a smaller scale. For example, when the time came to welcome Syrian refugees, we solicited three important corporate partners for a donation spread over five years that could evolve depending on the situation. This allowed us to extend the project onto those seeking asylum. We made the use of the donation evolve in order to face this particular challenge. We are now concentrating our efforts on having an even greater flexibility, but also on building strong alliances with large donors in order to make a targeted difference. Thus, we are no longer working with annual donations, but with donations spread over a longer period of time.

Do you notice any issues that are specific to the Greater Montreal area? As there are many Centraide locations spread out over the region. What is most particular to your Centraide?

Mario Régis: In fact, what is slightly more pressing, and we see it in the 2018 Quebec electoral campaign: poverty is very concentrated in the Greater Montreal area. Not that it is absent elsewhere, but that it is particularly concentrated here. Two years ago, a thesis was published, with the fight against poverty plan in mind, and we really emphasized this issue. We see a worrisome increase in the phenomenon of the working poor. Many people work and yet remain below the poverty line. This situation affects women at the head of single-parent families and newly arrived immigrants in particular. In the case of single-parent families, there is a significant number of children stemming from immigrant families. When we say that there are many working poor people in Montreal, we must also realize that there are many children living in poverty. It is a particular issue. The faces of poverty are changing. In Montreal, the challenge of social diversity increases. It is where new communities touchdown and establish themselves, despite all of the efforts to favor their integration into regional towns. We have found that after a year, a significant number of these families return to Montreal. Others had already established themselves in the Greater Montreal area as soon as they arrived. Which brings up the issue of inclusion. To this, we add other challenges. If we want to go into the specifics, there are the issues of mobility. Not only in environmental terms. We observe that in underprivileged neighborhoods, there is an enormous difficulty in accessing the job market. It’s not simple. It is extremely challenging for individuals from these areas to access places where there are significant job opportunities.

Do you notice any differences between Centraide of Greater Montreal and other Centraides with whom you collaborate?

Mario Régis: There are two levels of differences. There are Centraides/United Ways in very urban areas, such as the larger concentrations of population in Toronto, Calgary, and Edmonton. There, we will work with our colleagues in an urban context. There are many head offices in these zones. We also work in a provincial context. Here, we can consider Centraide Québec Chaudière-Appalaches which has an influential reach, but that differs from Montreal. There are also smaller Centraides spread over the area. Knowledge sharing occurs within the network. For instance, Centraide of Greater Montreal shares all of their communication and content tools. Over the past few years, the Centraide of Québec network reorganized itself in order to group together several administrative functions in order to maximize the time dedicated to field work in each region, as much for donors as the organizations of local communities. This is because the power of the Centraide network is proximity. The people of Abitibi are in a much better position to know how to invest in Abitibi’s initiatives. Significant efforts were made to work together differently, efforts that should be saluted. There is still work to be done with our colleagues in the rest of Canada, as certain large partners need to know the impact across Canada of the donations their employees make. Furthermore, in the context of the federal government announcing a plan for the fight against poverty and calling for social innovation strategies regarding housing, the Centraide/United Way network takes into consideration the Pan-Canadian reality while still remaining anchored in regional specificities.

Do you also work with other foundations? (PIC example or others)

Mario Régis: We often work with other Foundations through PIC, but not exclusively. There are more and more collaborations with foundations on different subjects, either because they are interested in particular neighborhoods or certain targeted themes. At Centraide, for over 10 years, we have had an explicit strategy, with an envelope strictly reserved to the support and development of skills and leadership within organizations. Beyond supporting projects, we invest 3% or 4% of our annual amounts to reinforce the organizations’ capacities through training. There are multiple objectives. First of all, to reinforce the learning capacity of supported actors with the aim of increasing their capacity to act. Next, to circulate the information and expertise among the actors. We have developed, for example, with the Centre de formation populaire, the Évalpop project which has allowed for organizations to evaluate the effects of their actions themselves and to show the results to their funders and financial partners. I can also mention the projects of Leadership rassembleur with Dynamo and atelier C with COco. There is interest on the part of several foundations to invest in the reinforcement of actions, given the complex challenges to which the fight against poverty is confronted with.

Can you talk to us about funding?

Mario Régis: There is a context to the funding. Taïeb Hafsi and Saouré Kouamé have recently come out with a book, La solidarité en crise, Centraide et la nouvelle philanthropie. They present the diagnosis well, especially when they mention “low-intensity challenges”. At the moment, the trend in corporate social responsibility is to choose one cause to focus on, because they are a bit more visible. The fight against poverty is a low-intensity phenomenon, it isn’t spectacular and yet it is more sustainable. This poses an enormous challenge. The behavior of donors changes as well. It is a reality to which we must adapt. We went from the baby-boomer generation who made payroll deductions, to donors who want to be actively involved. We saw the appearance of walks and races, sports challenges. We have to revise our fundraising model, to maintain donor interest. This is why the Centraide Soccer Cup came to be. People come to play soccer for the organizations supported by Centraide. We have to help this model evolve according to the generational change. There is also the commitment motivation from the donors’ part. We have seen, in a Montrealer context, an increase in significant donors, but a simultaneous decrease in the number of donors. We have challenges that make it so that we can’t simply adapt, but must also transform our way of working. The strategy is to take advantage of this transformation to be even more relevant and more performant in the way in which we work towards the fight against poverty and exclusion.

Do donors notice this transformation? If yes, what is the feedback?

Mario Régis: According to the feedback we receive, yes, donors notice the changes. The results are interesting. There is a strong adherence from the donors to the relevance of Centraide and on the challenges we face with the transformation and evolution of our business model. There is strong support. For example, we changed the Centraide campaign. We went from an inclusive donation (where Centraide saw to how to use the amounts) to the funding of the four fields of action presented in the beginning (success of youth, ensuring the essentials, breaking social isolation, creating rallying living spaces). We have also adapted our campaigns in the workplace and among our donors accordingly. If a donor is more sensitive to food security, we will show them what we do and will go over the organizations that work on the issue. The strategies are much more targeted and have a positive impact on our capacity of reaching out to new donors.

We can say that this correlates to your idea of proximity…

Mario Régis: Exactly. We don’t attribute the donation to a particular organization, because the challenge is to protect the less popular causes. We make sure to be able to better stick to their fields of interest. We have had the opportunity to develop our way of doing while still being anchored in the added value of what Centraide represents.

In your opinion, what are the challenges of the Centraide network?

Mario Régis: We have a challenge in rejuvenating the image and perception people have of Centraide. We also have the challenge of becoming known by new citizens. Quebecers that have been here for a long time know Centraide well. Centraide has been part of their environment forever. Newly arrived immigrants have not grown up in the Centraide universe. We must thus get them to know us and clearly demonstrate what we are able to accomplish. Before, people would tell us: “you’re a good organization, but we don’t really know what you do”. People didn’t know, for example, that 30% of our investments went, and still go, to support the success of youth. We also have to make the technological shift. We started doing it with PIC and also with the collaborations we’ve established with the City of Montreal and the Regional direction of public health. It is the only city in North America which has a support program for Tables de Quartier. For the Tables, this has allowed for a single funding request and only one revision of accounts to be submitted to the funders. We bring added value that few other actors can bring. The objective is to move forward with the required transformation brought on by a new context, and all the while going further with our DNA as a social investor.

There is thus significant communication work to be done?

Mario Régis: Yes, there is a lot of communication, but also taking more of a stand in the public space. We published an open letter in La Presse. Last year, we spread awareness about the reality of the working poor through a report. Centraide is an engaged organization, but this does not mean we are activists. Our public positioning is at the heart of our mission, as it is a privileged witness of the fight against poverty and social exclusion. Thus, Centraide acts more as a social field expert. The place the organization wishes to occupy is on the level of public influence and education, by taking as a base their profound knowledge on the Laval, Montreal and South Shore communities. With the objective being to accompany change and social actions. We name the facts and reality to instruct the public debate. In the current great debates, let us take as an example that of the increase of the minimum wage, Centraide does not take a stance on it, but is able to say that certain people are working full-time and aren’t able to escape the poverty line.

How does the Centraide of Greater Montreal take part in this perspective of social transformation? What is its role in the undertaken chain of actions?

Mario Régis: Centraide of Greater Montreal can assume a leadership role. We will take into consideration the realities of regional communities while maintaining that Montreal represents nearly 50% of Quebec’s population. We are sensitive to ensuring that people speak up across the province, by also taking into consideration the realities of our colleagues in less urban, rural or semi-rural environments. This collaboration was already there, and we will pursue it. Centraide of Greater Montreal participates by speaking up in the public space about broad themes that are specific to them. By doing so, Centraide participates in the transformation of the network. Centraide of Greater Montreal also does this by being close to the world of higher education and of research. We can also spread knowledge in this way. Creating alliances among research teams, the education world, partners and private foundations, to ensure that there is a lot of communication and networking in the field to make a difference in the fight against poverty.

What are your hopes for the future of the Centraide network?

Mario Régis: My hope is to be able to properly seize this transformation opportunity. Not within a defensive strategy. This could be the lever to better network and be more performant. I also hope that we continue to be an indispensable player in Montreal. In my opinion, Centraide is the collective tool that the Greater Montreal area has given itself, it is an important social lever. We cannot ease up on our efforts.

For further information

For further :

Hafsi, T. et Kouamé, S. (2018). La solidarité en crise, Centraide et la nouvelle philanthropie. Montréal : JFD Éditions.

Pole, N & Fontan, J.M. (2017). Recherche-action sur le « temps zéro » du Projet Impact Collectif (PIC). Cahier de recherche #15. Montréal: PhiLab

Site internet de Centraide du Grand Montréal :