Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy named among the top 100 charities in Canada

MANITOULIN—The Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy (EBC) is one of the country's most abundant land trust conservancies, ranking fourth nationally and second provincially, among 150 Canadian land trusts.

The conservancy, founded in 1997, holds over 23,000 acres, with over 4,000 acres on Manitoulin Island alone. It seeks to conserve land with ecological, cultural, historic and scenic value. The EBC had a record year in 2022 for acquisitions, spending $6.4 million on land, receiving $3.6m in donated land and easement, and acquiring 29 new nature preserves, adding 2,921 acres to their portfolio. In spring 2023, the charity added 15 new nature preserves totaling 2,031 acres, including Lake Wolsey and Nineteen Lake on Manitoulin Island, Fossil Hill and Lock on the Lake Huron shoreline, and the Bayview Escarpment on Georgian Bay.

Charity Intelligence Canada (Ci) does charity assessments of over 750 Canadian charitable organizations to promote transparency, accountability, and results in the charitable sector.

Ci Canada released their updated list on October 6, 2023. It gave EBC an "A," citing financial transparency, public reporting and that 99 percent of each dollar donated after overhead, fundraising and administrative costs are made available for programs.

Board Chair and interim CEO Saba Ahmad spoke with The Expositor about the positive grade, crediting the board of directors and staff’s "great sacrifice.” Board members Ted Cowan, Dr. Roy Jeffries and Linda Wilson's contributed monumentally to the organizations success. Ms. Wilson was instrumental in helping to change the name of Heaven's Gate Preserve to "Kitchitwaa Shkwaandem" and The Cup and Saucer to "Michigiwadinong" in Anishinaabemowin. Stewardship Director Dr. Roy Jeffery was recognized for his outstanding contributions to conservation with the President's Award from the Ontario Parks Association.

Despite the change in leadership, Ms. Ahmad says the organization remains true to Barnett’s vision of being "lean" in terms of operational costs. She says that since EBC's infancy, the former executive director and board were eminently devoted and generous with their time, operating under the working board model on a volunteer basis. The foundational board focused on increasing acquisitions and keeping operational costs low. Last month, EBC collaborated with Barnett to devise a strategy, come to a maximum bid, and evaluate a property, ultimately leading to a unanimous vote to decline to proceed. However, the bond with the former leader persists through an earnest passion for the land and championing the preservation of biodiversity.

"I know that many people say it's unusual to keep board members long-term, but these folks have donated much of their time and expertise to EBC," she said. "I don't know what we would do without them."

EBC uses two main approaches to conserve land: conservation agreements and land donations. It negotiates conservation agreements with landowners, which allow owners to create a list of restrictions on human uses of their property. EBC then protects the land and issues a tax receipt for an agreed-upon portion of the land's market value. EBC also accepts land donations and severances, whereby owners transfer their land to a nature reserve held by the charity as either a donation or a discounted sale. EBC states that it typically offers tax receipts worth 60 percent to 97 percent of the value of a sold property.

"The CRA takes reporting and issuing receipts very seriously," she said. "They look at it like you're printing currency, so when you have a database of over 17,000 names that have interacted with the organization, leveraging things like donor management software and automating payroll helps to keep the reporting very accurate and concise."

Ms. Ahmad took the lead role in the CRA audit 2017 because it's in her wheelhouse.

"I'm much less of a spokesperson and much more of a 'nuts and bolts' person," she laughed, "but I am very excited about a clean bill of health for the organization."

The board of directors has made efforts at broadening their representation, to better reflect Ontario's stakeholders' demographics. The current board and staff comprise collectively over 70 percent women; there are members of the 2SLGTBQIA+ community, and nearly half are people of the global majority. Since diversifying the board of directors, the organization learned it needed to implement a living wage policy as an ethical necessity.

Ms. Ahmad says she would love to see more Indigenous people involved at the board level, as EBC is deeply invested in reconciliation and implementing UNDRIP into their policies. There is an advisory board comprising 50 percent Indigenous representation, but she'd like to see more Indigenous youth involved as they are significant stakeholders in conservation and land stewardship.

There is currently a CEO position available

Jacqueline St. Pierre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Manitoulin Expositor