Behind the Scenes at First Book Canada: Gurdeep

Gurdeep Dhaliwal is the Strategic Alliances Manager at First Book Canada.

When you first started, what was that like?

I completed the Creative Book Publishing Program at Humber College, and through that the opportunity to apply for an internship with First Book Canada came up. From there, I was hired on as a Strategic Alliance Coordinator. It was just three of us. That was in 2014. I think there were only 1,500 members. I used to think we were so busy when I started, but now, it’s even more – in a good way!

In 2019, we’re a staff of 7 people and we reach more than 9,500 members across the country. We’ve distributed over 7 million books.

When I first joined it was a lot of “can we do this? should we do this?”but we did it anyway. We’ve always been working on a national scale, but with a small staff, it can be hard. Now, with the help of our partners, volunteers, and community groups, we’re able to go coast to coast to coast. It’s amazing.

I’ve always thought of us as a resource-based organization: we provide the resources that help a child to learn and grow at whatever stage they’re at. 

Is there a way you talk about that number (9,500 members) to make it more understandable?

There are stats about how 1.2 million Canadian children don’t have access to basic resources. I try to make it more local, by pulling examples of organizations we work with: “Here’s a high-needs schools we work with. They serve about 600 kids.” Someone can see that local impact and then look across the country.

In Toronto, or Vancouver, you often think of expensive houses, but there’s so many pockets where people can’t make ends meet. It shocks people, but it’s the reality. So through that number [of 9,500 members], hopefully in this way, we’re making a difference for kids in need.

Is your day-to-day now a lot of fund application?

Definitely a lot. The majority is fund development: writing applications, researching. I manage the proposal and funding calendar, which I love. Especially since, the evolution of the calendar also shows the evolution of our fund development. We rely on a lot more funders now, and slowly we’re securing partners who support us for the long-term: not just financially but through volunteering with us or supporting our mission. A part of my job is to find more of those.

I know that it’s a thought that “yes, a nonprofit has to get money somehow” but what’s something that is surprising about your role? 

When I talk to people, even my family members, they assume that individuals give you money –

Or the government?

Or the government. But we don’t receive a lot of government funding. We rely on a lot of corporations and foundations to support our programs. Some people might not realize that corporations give out money in that way.

Are they surprised that it’s on an on-going basis?

Yeah, I think so. If someone isn’t in fundraising, they might think that you would easily get a lot of money. But no, sometimes you’re submitting 10 proposals and you might get one back that’s approved. That’s the reality of fundraising.

You put 100% effort into every application and potential partnership knowing that nothing might come of it or it all might work out. 

What is it about your job that gets you excited every day?

I like researching and finding out there are all these corporations that support what we’re doing, who are interested in providing the same resources to kids and youth that we do.
I don’t go to many of our events, but when I hear feedback from members, or see a picture of kids holding their books, that helps me to visualize the end result when I’m writing applications or going through my day to day. It brings it full circle for me.

Our members love the kids they work with; they are a 110% dedicated. Seeing how much they care, it makes me a bit emotional.

Members will come up to us and say “you don’t know the difference you’re making,” and tell us about their grade 2 class. 

All the work that goes into the application process and working with a partner has resulted in kids being happy. That’s one of my favourite parts of working here.

Any final thoughts?

When I first started here, I started as an intern. Personally, I thought I was going to move on, but being here has changed the course of my career. I’ve been with an organization that has grown, and being a part of that growth has been very good.

Sometimes things just happen the way they happen, and I’m glad that they have. 

I’ve met a lot of amazing people and our staff is amazing. Sometimes there are those days where my commute is a bit long, but then you remember you want to do this because you’re helping kids.