Todd Bender didn’t always run a nonprofit. In fact, although he originally went to bible school in the hopes of becoming a minister, now he runs City Kidz, an organization helping children in poverty by showing them they aren’t alone.
After meeting a young boy named Shawn, Todd knew this was his calling and devoted his life to growing his organization. He has learned some incredible lessons along the way, but it wasn’t easy.
In our interview Todd discusses
- The incredible story of City Kidz and how one child changed his life forever
- How hiring outside of the nonprofit industry helped his organization
- How City Kidz began and built awareness before the age of the internet
- The greatest lesson he’s learned from over 20 years in the industry
Hello and welcome to Fundraising Superheroes, a podcast celebrating non-for-profit organizations and all the people that work to make the world a better place. This podcast is powered by Donor Engine save hours a time and do so much more for less with their all in one non-profit software. Visit DonorEngine.com to learn how your organization can spend less time managing your nonprofit and more time focusing on your cause. I'm your host, Sabrina Sciscente, and today we have the founder of City Kids, Hamilton, Todd Bender on the show.
Their mission is to increase resiliency and inspire big dreams for Canadian children living in low-income communities. They do this by providing inspirational experiences and nurturing personal relationships, one child at a time. I am so excited to learn more about the organization. So thank you, Todd, for being on the show today.
It's good to be here. Thank you for having me. Thank you for including me in the podcast, I'm looking forward to sharing.
Thank you so much. So can you start off by telling us how you founded your organization?
Yeah, absolutely. I always find it interesting, Sabrina, when people refer to me, is the founder. It's so funny to be called that. And I often say that I feel more like City Kidz found me, then I founded it, but I was the short version of this is that I was probably 19 to 20 years old.
I was heading off to Bible College. I was looking towards becoming a minister and my faith was it's been such a motivating factor for a lot of my work in life and but I was just never good at academics. So while I was there, I ended up volunteering in a drop-in centre down in the community that the college was. And I was working with kids while I was there and it was actually drop-in centre that wasn't meant for children.
But what would happen is after school, a lot of these kids would show up. I started organizing games, and what really I think began this whole idea of the beginning of City Kidz was founded in a little boy that I met back about 27 years ago now. So there was this little boy who actually walked into the drop-in centre one day after school. I was at the back with some kids and we were playing some games.
I saw him come in and he was seven years old, a tough little kid. I went up to him, he had a scowl on his face. He obviously looked, you know, that he wasn't doing well. And I went over to him and introduced myself to him, asked him his name. He looked back and said, My name is Shawn. I invited him back. He didn't want to come and participate at all at the beginning.
But eventually, as the time went on, he started hanging out with us at the back. At the end of that evening, it was getting late. I was stacking chairs and we were closing up the centre. And I just noticed he hadn't left yet. And I asked him that he, you know, if somebody's picking him up or how he's going to get home and that his parents would be worried about him. And he looked up to me and said, my parents don't care where I'm at.
I grew up in a small community. So, you know, some of these experiences for me kind of new, that there would be a 7 year old boy that was in the middle of a town or a city that that his parents didn't know where he was or that he thought his parents wouldn't care. So I decided to walk him home. Certainly was a little bit concerned about the fact that I'm this strange adult walking this little boy home who I just met.
He lived about ten blocks away. I was surprised how far he actually had walked to come. And when I knocked on the door and Shawn went inside, his mum came to the door and I introduced myself. It was pretty clear that there was a lot of challenges going on in the home. And so this experience with Shawn struck up a friendship like a big brother, little brother friendship over the course while I was at the time, I was that college for the fall semester.
And every day he would make his way to the college afterwards and I would sneak him into the cafeteria to feed him. He'd bring a lot of friends with them. And so I started growing this kind of kid's experience at the shopping centre. But it was Shawn really that sparked, I think, what became my calling in life at the end of the semester I was flunking out, to be honest. I was spending more time volunteering at the drop in centre then I was in class.
I wasn't seeing the relevancy. Academics at the formal academics, I just found a boring more than anything and not relevant. So I'm walking Shawn home after class at the end of the day and it was getting late. It was starting to get dark as we were walking home along these railroad tracks, Shawn was up ahead and balancing on the rail tracks. And I was just totally ignoring him and feeling sorry for myself that I'm flunking out of school.
I don't know what my purpose is and I don't know what I'm gonna do with my life. I just wanted my life to count for something and know that I could make a difference. And here all along, it was right in front of me and I didn't realize it and so somewhere while I was lost in thought, staring up at the stars that had just emerged.
Shawn had made his way back and he had grabbed my hand, which was unusual because I was a very affectionate guy who was very careful of those things.
And we didn't hug. I didn't hold his hand. He was a tough little kid too. But somehow he must have suspected that I was, I don't know, feeling something. And he reached up, grabbed my hand and Sabrina it was that moment that I truly would say City Kidz was founded, because it was that moment I realized that in my life I've been looking for something, something to do, something to make my life count, something I could do to change the world.
And I've been praying, asking God for that. And all this time there was a little boy just wanting to be loved and maybe asking God to send somebody his way just to let them know that he was significant and that he mattered and that there was a purpose for his life. In that moment it was an epiphany for me. I realized that my life was going to be about searching for the Shawns and creating experiences and making sure that every single one of them would know that they were loved and that that they mattered.
And so that's the origin story that really sparked what led to me starting City Kids. I dropped out of college shortly after that to the horror of my parents and decided I was just going to show up in a city and start looking for "Shawns" of the world. And then there's a whole lot of other stories that go into that. But I ended up in Hamilton and here we are, you know 27 years later. Now, Hamilton's my home and we've been able to do a lot of wonderful things with the kids and families here.
That's phenomenal. I love asking this question, especially to founders, because nine times out of ten they find their organizations out of experiences that they never thought would happen or, you know, stories like yours where they meet somebody and it changes them. So I love hearing those kinds of stories where people find other people who really need help and they can build organizations off of that. When you got started, what was your biggest challenge versus the challenges you're facing now?
Do you find that you're facing the same difficulties or have they morph into something else?
Yeah, no. The biggest challenges, I think, do change from when you're a startup to when you develop more of an institution. And I would say it's all relevant. I don't think there's been a given day or a week that there hasn't been challenges as a leader that we have to face and things that we have to navigate. Certainly during these times, there's lots of challenges. In the early days, you know, I think one of the saving grace is for me is that you didn't know what you didn't know.
So you didn't concern yourself with a lot of things that I'm concerned with now because I wasn't aware of those concerns. And so you also didn't have much to lose. You know, the difference between being an established organization with staff members, employees and most importantly, kids and families that are depending on your services and your support is that, you know, making mistakes now and not getting things right has very real consequences to people.
In the early days when we started, we literally had nothing. And doing something from scratch, it meant we could take a lot of risks because there was very little to lose in those times. So the challenges were great. Of course, as a startup, you don't have the resources and everything is hand to mouth. So you're really going from day to day to week to week and you're trying to build up capacity so you can do more. And you really learn quickly, Sabrina, that people get into it.
I'd like to think and I think it's true for all of us that get into to non-profits and charitable work that we don't get in it to make money. We get in it so we can help other people. But very quickly, if you're a leader in a nonprofit you recognized, unless you learn how to run your organization as a business, you're not going to have resources and ability to be able to do the great work that you signed up for, let alone grow the capacity of it.
So I think in the early days it was the challenges were really trying to figure out what we were going to become, understanding what our mission was, what it is that we were actually trying to accomplish, taking the you know, the the vision, the heart that began this idea of wanting every child to know that they were loved and they mattered, and then turning that into a theory of change in it and creating designs around programming that have really measurable results.
It's been quite a journey along the way. And I would say now a lot of the challenges have to do more with just managing and operating an organization that has a lot of moving parts. A lot of things that you have to manage. Resources are still always a challenge, of course. I think I'm probably more suited for the startup piece. I think that entrepreneurial piece of me, the design, the idea that you could design something, you could launch it and see the results immediately. Whereas now the methodology and just the time it takes to be able to carefully launch something, assess it, launch it, it takes longer for change now when your organization is bigger.
So there are different challenges. Certainly, their challenges have always existed. But adapting to that change is probably been the greatest challenge for me over the last few years.
Yeah, you guys are a huge organization. How did you grow the way you did? What tools or strategies helped you along the way?
I'm laughing because I wish I could tell you that we knew what we were doing and that we launched this extensive, comprehensive strategic plan and implemented it. And the reality is, yes, I mean, all those things we created plans, we cast vision and we tried to implement on those things. But the truth of the matter is there was a lot of trial and error along the way. We've always been a driven organization by vision, and we've always managed to be able to adapt and change very quickly to the environment.
I think that's one of the things that's helped us to grow and always having a strong, I guess, a strong North star. Right. We always have known, no matter what path we take at the end of the day, what we're trying to accomplish. And so that allowed us to continue to adapt, to change and to grow. I will tell you, though, I mean, part of the secret to along the way has been making sure that we surround ourselves by a lot of smart people.
Right. So you recognize in order to you know, in order to get something you never had before, you got to do things you've never done before. And that often requires people and expertise that you have to find elsewhere. So I think we've been really fortunate at city kids, that we've had a lot of champions along the way, a lot of mentors that have come alongside that the vision and the mission of City Kidz has really resonated and that they have given up their time and their selves to help support and chart the course along the way.
But it takes time. And I think you have to have an eye to the long game. I think anybody that gets into this work and wants to grow in capacity, you have to recognize that it really takes time. It takes an investment up front. And you've got to recognize and be patient. There's going to be lots of setbacks along the way and challenges. But if you're willing to commit to the long haul, you can see great change.
Yeah. If you have a great team like you mentioned, it can make things so much I don't want to say easier, but a lot better because everyone's passionate and focused on that end goal. How did you begin finding your team?
Yeah, I was very fortunate early on that I think part of my personality, but certainly, the work that we were doing did attract people. There was a lot of interest and passion around the work that we were doing early on. And so I was very fortunate that some very talented people found their way to me.
I just needed to have the wherewithal to recognize the talent that was there. I think the other thing I recognized that this was really going to take a lot of people to make happen. One of the things I started to do was look outside of our industry. I think a lot of people in nonprofits, when we hire, we tend to look only within our industry. We don't look at other different industries that might have transferable skills.
Some of my best staff people have been with me for years, came from entirely different industries. They weren't trained in nonprofit. They weren't. But they had the passion. They had the values. They shared the excitement and passion for the vision. But then they had a skill in the for profit sector that was transferable. I think about actually Susan Morris, who has been with me in the organization for 15 years now or more. She started as a volunteer and she was a salesperson selling cosmetics.
She just happened to be the top Canadian salesperson. And that was one of those things where I saw how compassionate she was and passion she was for the kids. And I saw this great skill of her ability to love people and then to be able to sell products. And so it was kind of an easy transition to be able to say, you know, instead of selling makeup, how about coming over here and raising money to reach more kids?
So she's phenomenal at the work she does. She cares deeply about her supporters and is so good at being able to help supporters invest into the work that we do. So our volunteer base has been a really great source. A lot of times we don't recognize that some of the best people are right in front of us and that's our volunteer base. We drew from that, too. So, yeah, I would say, keeping your eyes open to mentors. Any time I recruit, you know, I really try to think about if I didn't have any limitations, if there was no restrictions and I could get the best of the best or worry about how much money it cost.
Who would those people be, I always start there and don't cut ourselves short and say we have an amazing organization with amazing potential and we want the best of the best working here. So I always start there at my A-list and try to find ways to be able to connect with people. It's amazing what motivates people. Often we think we can afford great talent and some of the greatest talent I have, were motivated not by the financial aspects, but by the mission and the cause and their ability to move it forward.
Yeah, a lot of the times people I find are afraid to ask for their A-list because they're like, oh, they won't have the time, or why would they want to work for a nonprofit when they were so successful in a for profit? But if you never ask, you never know. It's all about sharing and connecting and seeing. Let them make that decision if they want to be interested or not.
Yeah, it's so true. And I find not every leader, my colleagues, but a lot of times you're right, it comes down with confidence. And I think what we need to believe is that our mission is critical, our mission is important, and we need to succeed. And I think the work that we do and the level of importance that it is, it deserves the best. And we should have that mentality as leaders, that it deserves nothing but the best people, the best resources, the best ability to succeed.
And so if you start there and don't cut yourself off short, you might be surprised just the types of talent that you can recruit to help move things forward.
Definitely, when you started off, I know for a lot of organizations, it's really hard when you're beginning because nobody knows about you. You know, you want to find those people who are out there willing to support you, but you got to get that message out. How did you begin marketing and communicating your vision to others?
You know, I think that I think the environment was different when we were a startup and grassroots in terms of even the fact that in Hamilton, where we began. There weren't a lot of non-profits or charities that existed at that time. There was certainly the major institutions that have been around for 50 and 75 years that a lot of the stakeholder groups in our community looked after. I think the environment was different, certainly, but at the same time, we didn't have a lot of the mechanisms that we do now, like social media.
Even I say to people when we started City Kidz the Internet was just starting in 1992, in the early 90s. So social media and all those types of things to market weren't even available to us. So I would say the most powerful thing that happened to City Kidz was word of mouth advertising.
This idea of people heard about what we were doing and told their friends who told two friends who told two friends and it began to grow like that. We certainly use the local church, who was back then and still is now a major resource for us in terms of getting the word out and connecting to potential volunteers and to grow the organization. And we certainly our a stakeholder group is much broader than that now in terms of our supporters. But that was huge for us early on. I would say that that was the launching pad that I used.
So being an ordained minister myself and actually in the first few years of being in Hamilton while I was starting City Kidz, it was also a children's pastor at a local congregation. So I used what was in my hands, if you will. I used what was the resources I had and tried to leverage that to the best of my potential. And I think that's probably the best advice I would give anyone is to say, look at what you have, look at what you have available, your networks, the resources you have in terms of your supporter base, and then do the best you can to leverage those opportunities.
So we were really grassroots guerilla type marketing, a lot of word to mouth. And then as we began developing resources, we began much more conventional messaging methods and structure. One of the big launching points for us where we were able to really break through into the community in terms of our brand awareness, probably happened to build maybe 10 to 15 years ago when it was actually Bob Cowan who had just started at CHCH.
And so I had met with them early on and asked that he would be our honorary chair. And so by having somebody with such high exposure every day and also becoming the honorary chair of City Kidz, he was able to do a lot of promoting for us. He would be the emcee at our other fundraising events and CHCH in the mornings and the morning show he would do shout outs periodically.
He would show up to some of our events. It helped us leverage other media opportunities. So when they knew Bob Cowan was going to be there, whether it was a program thing that we were doing, media would be able to cover that. That we can trace back some really good growth around those things that really launched our brand awareness. So that what was some of the techniques that we used.
Yeah, that's a great idea. Reaching out to the local media and getting them to come in and cover your events, that's a really great way to get your name out there.
So you have three locations across Canada. Regina, Ottawa, Hamilton, how did you decide on these locations? And was it hard expanding your organization at first?
Yeah, well, ten years ago we were in a spot where we had built some good infrastructure in Hamilton. We had really established our program designs, our model. And I always had a national kind of vision. I guess I would say I've always had this heart for Canada, especially Aboriginal kids, too that have such deep needs when it comes to some of the vulnerabilities that they have and the poverty issues that surround so many of our First Nations families.
So I always had this in the background of my life that, if we ever could get to the point where I could be freed up a little bit to start seeing what we could do to help other children in other communities and other people in other communities as well. So well, 10 years ago, we were at a spot where I was able to take a year, like I said, was probably more about 15 to 18 months where I travelled the country.
We got to almost every major city. I didn't get out of the territories. And the goal was basically to see, are there other people like us out there? And if so, what are they doing? How can we connect together? How can we support each other? And also, the question we were asking is, could a City Kidz that we're doing in Hamilton, could that type of concept work in other communities and especially in first nation communities as well?
And what would it take to contextualize? So we had a couple of questions like that. As we travel the country, we met so many amazing people, but it became clear to me that City Kidz was really unique and we were unique in the way of our ability to transcend a lot of the challenges that so many nonprofit leaders get stuck in. When we were on the East Coast, we met a lot of great people who had been doing similar, nothing exactly like City Kidz, but certainly reaching out to communities and reaching out to vulnerable populations.
But it was really clear that they hit a sticking point and they just weren't able to get beyond that and they were feeling defeated and challenged. And so a lot of the capacity had and grown after their 10th or 12th year of conception. So we realized that there was something that we were doing that we could potentially help other organizations.
And along the way, when it comes to Regina and Ottawa, we met a few individuals who were deployed at the point where when they heard about what we were doing and they had heard a little bit before they wanted to start a City Kidz.
And our goal wasn't to actually launch. It was really assessment and research for me. I never wanted to have this idea that we just want to launch City Kidz everywhere we have. We wanted to create this empire. That was never my heart. My heart was to figure out how we can help the most amount of children at the end of the day to see an end to child poverty. That was really the impetus for us to do this.
But we met a few people along the way and the timing worked out where our branch manager in Ottawa, she approached us and said, you know, I really want to do this. She was an accountant at the time. And she wanted to start a City Kidz in Regina. And she was going to champion that cause the same thing happened in Ottawa with another individual. So simultaneously, we were able to help get these things launched.
We had the backing of World Vision Canada at the time, too. So we had a national partner that was helping us to do some seed money to fund it. Our models work opposite the franchises instead of franchises paying, you know, the main head office, vice versa. We seed into and we took the first three to five years to help fund to get them started. And so that those are both communities that were really interesting to us.
Ottawa, because it's the nation's capital and we know there's great need there. But if we wanted to start eventually an advocacy level of City Kidz, that that would be a place that we would want to be. And then, of course, Regina, we work with predominantly First Nations communities there. And so that was a really interesting and really was motivated to help both of those things happen. But I will say that it took two champions who were willing to found the organizations there become the founders of their own works through the city as model, because they're the ones that really have had to pay the price, make the sacrifice to really make it happen.
Yeah, that's really cool how, you didn't even really intend to grow like that, and then people were just so passionate about your mission that they were willing to start their own branches.
Yeah, we really I mean, it was really eye-opening when we did travel the country to see first the great need that exist and the wonderful people that are all trying to do to do something. But, you know, it also occurred to us that there really has been a missing voice advocating for children living in poverty.
Now, there's major institutions that have existed for a while. I know that across Canada. But it really occurred to me as I visited different communities and talked to mayors and talked to key stakeholders that there wasn't really a coalition, if you will, that were really advocating for for our kids. So especially our kids living, specifically Iraqis, kids living and suffering in poverty. And I think that was really motivating for us as we came back from this.
And so we still have a national vision. We still want to see more branches develop where appropriate. But what we've done now is we've taken all that data and over the last 10 years that the two branches continue to grow there. They're now self-sufficient. They're part of a bigger vision that we have. Now we've been taking the time to really refine our model with the hope that sometime in the future that we can continue to increase in capacity and help other communities.
If you could go back in time to the first day you started City Kidz, what was the biggest thing you learned from the process and what would you tell yourself back then?
Yeah, I mean, that's a really great question. I think the first thing that I probably didn't realize back then is just how long it would take to really begin to realize what your dreams are and the dreams that we have. And I'm still realizing them.
I feel like I'm just getting started. And so just this idea of being patient, this idea of that is a marathon, not a sprint. I think early on I wanted everything to happen immediately. And I think there was certainly some benefit to that because we were able to expedite things. But there was a lot of suffering along the way for me, too, because things would end to disappointment, right? Because you're never able to accomplish as much as you want to accomplish.
You can never move as fast as you really wanted to move. And when you feel this pressure continually that I really, truly believe that there are very real lives at the end of what we do, that the work that we do can literally transform a child's life. And the longer it takes for us to get to them, the less opportunity and chance we have to change the trajectory and the outcome of their lives. We know what statistics say. We know a child who grows up in poverty.
Statistics show us that no, nothing is for certain, but there's a lot of good data on that. And the sooner we can interject ourselves that we can come into lives and begin to connect with kids, build relationships, we can begin to change the trajectory. So for me, everything taking so long really meant that there was another child whose door we weren't going to be knocking on, whose family we weren't going to be connecting with and couldn't help.
So that really I think in the early days that was really hard is still hard for me now. But it was really hard early on that there was a lot of them, a lot of frustration around things not happening fast enough. I think I think the other thing, too, is I would tell myself to to to be OK with this appointment. It's OK to be disappointed. I think one of the things that I live in a constant state of discontent when I think when you're a visionary leader and you're trying to really create change, that we always challenge yourself, that we don't become complacent.
I was never, ever interested in developing an institution and managing an institution that was never, ever a goal. My goal was to have the ability to be able to reach a lot of kids and to continue to see change. An institution was going to be the platform and the means to the end. But it's been full of disappointments. You know, it's funny because a lot of people look at from the outside what we do and they see a lot of success.
And yet what they don't see is the level of disappointment and failure within that. And I think I don't think there's any organization that's been able to achieve any individual that's been able to achieve any impact or success, that doesn't have chapters and chapters full of stories of failure and disappointment. And so I would tell myself this idea that it's OK to be disappointed and it's OK to be discontent but to also be mindful, also to enjoy the moments. Because if we spend too much of our time as leaders constantly in the future, thinking about the next steps and thinking about what we want to change and trying to turn those disappointments of discontent into new action, we often will end up missing.
The wonderful things are happening right in front of us. And I think a regret I mean, I don't these things don't keep me awake at night.
But I think if there's one thing I look back on, I realize that I've spent so much of my time building for the future trying to reach more kids that I often, for myself, miss out on the beautiful things happening right in front of me. But I do think that is part of the burden we carry as leaders is to is to know that we have to continue to push, continue to challenge, continue to stretch. And it's hard to have your headspace in the future, but also practicing mindfulness in the moment.
But I think that is a challenge and I think that is something that I would certainly have told myself starting out.
But here's the interesting thing, I'm not sure I want to listen to it because there are a lot of great people along the way that we're trying to tell me those things.
Yeah, I definitely feel that right now. I'm also starting my career and my mom, my friends are like, just slow down, don't worry about it.
I'm like, no, if you slow down, then, you know, tomorrow you won't have as much progress as you want to see.
And it's just like this whole cycle of pushing and pushing and pushing. So it's really important, like you said, that you take those moments and you just stop and you appreciate how you've grown and what's happening right now.
Yeah, and that's really good advice. And I think I think that's the trick. Right. I mean, the truth is that as a young person, there's certain things that we just need to do and experience. As we know. I'm 48. I turned 49 this year and it feels like I'm still getting started. But the phases of my life have definitely informed and my experiences are definitely informed how I go about things now. And I think when you're young and starting out, there is this sense of altruism and idealism.
And I truly believed in when I was 20 years old that I was going to change the world by the time I was thirty and that we were going to solve this child poverty thing in the world would be this beautiful place. And I think that's what's so beautiful. All about our young people and beautiful about, you know, our millennials and this idea that we can change the world, that it is possible. And by the way, I'm still an idealist.
I still believe that. But I'm more tempered now for sure. And I recognize that it is a long haul. And, you know, somebody said to me once that it's more important what we put in motion, not what we actually do in terms of the concrete things that part of our life is about what we put in motion. And I think, you know, I look at my the story of my life in my faith informs a lot of what I do.
You know, a lot of people look at what's happening now in our world and it can really feel tragic and a lot of ways. But I just choose to believe that God is telling a great love story. And I've been given time on this Earth a limited amount of time. How many years I get to be here and I'm going to get to be part of the great tragedy, are going to be part of a great love story in my job while I'm here, is to try to move the world forward, try to make it a better place to help as many people as I can.
And if I can start something and build momentum, then somebody else can maybe build on that afterwards. That mentality now in my age has been much more helpful. It's not about contentment. It's about tempering my case. It's recognizing that even if I was even if I wasn't able to get up tomorrow to do what I do, if my time ended now, I've already fulfilled what my life has been about. And so that's a big change for when I was younger, younger, it was really all about things I needed to accomplish, challenges I needed to overcome and things I needed to succeed.
But I wouldn't change it. I think that was really part of how I was able to become who I am today and I wouldn't go back and I don't think there'd be a single thing I would change about that experience because it really is what helped me to become the person I am today, the failures as well and all of that.
Yeah, a lot of lessons that we learn in life. It's you have to live it, you can't really be told.
Although I tell you as a parent of some, I have four kids and three of them are young adults now and my youngest is 17. You really do wish that they would just take your advice and but yeah, we have to live our lives. And my wife and I talk about this all the time that we've done the best we can. We've given our kids good values. We support the best they can.
And now they have to live and experience life. And through those challenges that they will grow as human beings. Right. And we can believe that the values that we put in that they're going to become they already are great human beings and they're only going to become better as they work through their own challenges.
For those listening to learn more on City Kidz, visit citykids.ca and that kids with a "Z" you can donate or sponsor child there and learn more about their mission and progress.
As always, thank you so much for listening. And we'll see you next time on Fundraising Superheroes.