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New SVP ED Helen Stortini Talks COVID-19, Capacity Building, and more

Posted by SVP Vancouver
SVP Executive Director Helen Stortini and her family

SVP Vancouver’s new executive director is no stranger to the SVP community. As the former executive director of SVP Alumni Investee Growing Chefs!, Helen Stortini has collaborated directly with SVP Partners and staff for many years. As she takes the reins at SVP Vancouver, we had a chat about her experiences this year during COVID-19, her thoughts on the increasing value of capacity building for nonprofits, and more!


Welcome to the team Helen! We’re excited to have you onboard. Just prior to joining SVP, you were working to adapt Growing Chefs! programming to the new realities of COVID-19. What was that experience like?
It was awe-inspiring. It was a challenging time filled with uncertainty and more than a few sleepless nights as we came to understand the emerging pandemic and how it would affect our programs and the communities we support. But it was also a time where my team absolutely stepped up to the challenge. They were bold, collaborative, responsive, and in an incredibly short period of time, created something remarkable. All while leaving their egos at the door. 


Tell us a little more about what the work that you and your team undertook.
It became clear to us very early on that COVID would have a huge impact on both the food security and social isolation of families and children that were already in need. Within three weeks, we had a meal program up and running in partnership with Fresh Roots (another SVP Alumni Investee), that over five months served more than 70,000 healthy, delicious, chef-prepared meals to families and children in need.

We helped form a city-wide task force to bring nonprofits, city employees, school boards, for profits, and elected officials together to address the food security crisis. And we launched an online curriculum to provide families with at-home food literacy learning and social connectivity. It certainly wasn’t easy, but out of the crisis we bore innovation, we forged strong collaboration, and we developed new programming that will endure long after the pandemic is over.   


This year in particular has been a gruelling one for nonprofits. What keeps you motivated?
The talent and commitment of the people doing the good work to drive positive, systemic change. 


The COVID-19 crisis has really demonstrated the need for capacity building within the sector. How important has capacity building been to your work over the years?
It’s crucial. Nonprofits are often so focused on delivering their programs to the communities that they support, that it can be hard to find time and resources to commit to it. So when funders provide that opportunity, it’s transformational.

If an organization is enabled to build good governance, financial stability, fundraising capacity, operational efficiency, and a talented and committed staff, it’s much easier to take risks, try something new and innovative, and accept failure if it doesn’t work. 

Without capacity building, so much of what we achieved at Growing Chefs!—LunchLAB, the COVID-19 response programs, the tremendous growth and scale of the core classroom program—would not have been possible. So many more children and families can be empowered and supported when an organization can spend the time and resources to build internal capacity. 


You’ve spent many years working in the nonprofit sector. What do you think is the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?
Effective leadership comes in so many shapes and forms, and not just from folks with ED and CEO in their job title. Strong leadership can be bold and audacious, but it can also be quiet and humble. It’s so important to listen with the intent to understand, and to be able to recognize the power and possibility in these different styles. 


As an Investee and later an Alumni Investee at Growing Chefs!, you’ve been a part of the SVP family for quite some time. What about that experience made you want to join the SVP team?
I’ve seen firsthand the positive impact that SVP can have on an organization. It can enable an organization to be innovative and bold and create real meaningful change in our community. How could I not want to be part of that? There is so much talent, creativity, and drive at SVP. I’m thrilled to be working with such an incredible group of Partners, staff, and Investees. 



Favourite food?
Impossible to answer this! But right now, sungold tomatoes. 

Favourite book?
Again, so hard to answer this one as I love so many books (and had a career in book publishing prior to moving to the charitable sector). But my most recent favourite read was The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. 

Favourite hobbies or pastime(s)?
Biking, reading, cooking with my five-year old (probably no surprise!), and boxing (maybe more of a surprise!). 

Beach or mountains?
Beach and mountains! It’s why I live in Vancouver. 

Best COVID-19 at-home survival tip?
Weekly Sunday night pasta dinners on Zoom with my parents in Ontario and sister in Texas.