Michael Fullan, pictured, is stepping down as executive director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto after 29 years. Photo from Register files

For Fullan, the vulnerable come first

  • December 21, 2022

When Michael Fullan was hired to run Catholic Charities in 1993, the NDP government at Queen’s Park was trying to get religion out of the social safety net — looking for an excuse to defund the Catholic, Jewish and other religiously based social services.

Fullan got to work gathering allies among the faith-based social agencies. From there, it wasn’t hard to convince the government that cutting religion out of relief would be a bad idea.

“We may be Catholic, and I was there with my Jewish brothers and sisters and the Anglicans, talking with everybody. We’re all here to serve people,” Fullan recalled. “We’re not judging anybody. But we do good work and we’re efficient.”

Crisis averted.

Then came the Conservative government of Premier Mike Harris. Harris decided to take the welfare out of welfare with a 21.6-per-cent, across-the-board cut to benefits.

“I’m asking myself, what am I doing here?” Fullan said. “I didn’t come here to bring down everything? I was hoping we could build up community.”

But Fullan wasn’t helpless. He and his old friend Fr. Mike Doyle of the Spiritans used to wander down to Queen’s Park on a Tuesday afternoon.

“We would camp out in the lunchroom and ambush them (Conservative legislators), to let them know these are the issues, this is what’s happening in the agency world, believing they are good people who have come forward to serve as well, and want to do the right thing. But they need the information. They need to understand what it’s all about and where some policies are regressive — and how they’re impacting people.”

Fullan didn’t get what he wanted. Those cuts stood and Fullan has worked 25 years helping Catholic agencies get help to people despite the cuts. At the same time, the wiley old social worker didn’t make any enemies either. 

Fullan doesn’t do enemies — doesn’t have them, doesn’t make them. Really, he just doesn’t get the concept. Surrounded by people ready to fight or hoping to quit, Fullan just wants to talk.

“There’s something to be said about sitting down, talking to people,” he said.

All that talking gained for Fullan the respect he gave to others.

“It’s Michael’s character that he just never seems to get upset and he’s just willing to see, to go the distance, to see both sides of the issue and to bring things together,” said former Catholic Charities board member Nick Pantaleo.

“He’s just inclusive and respectful,” said Silent Voice executive director Kelly MacKenzie.

Silent Voice is one of the 21 agencies under the Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of Toronto umbrella. MacKenzie credits Fullan with teaching her how to lead an organization whose bottom line is hope in desperate situations.

“It was really about society and all of our agencies and all of the vulnerable and marginalized people we serve,” is how MacKenzie understands the Fullan agenda. “That was pretty cool.”

Fullan also understood that a tiny agency like Silent Voice, which serves vulnerable deaf people and their families in Toronto and beyond, could be hamstrung by all the demands of being a good employer. Small agencies on their own didn’t have the resources, the time, the money to provide benefit packages to employees, file reports to government ministries, keep their finances in order — all the little things that aren’t actually serving their clients. But together the 21 agencies could do all that or more.

The shared services model gave tiny agencies the oomph they needed to hire more qualified staff, to advocate for their people and the time and space needed to think about their future.

In the eyes of a sharp-eyed accountant and management consultant like Pantaleo, the shared-services model wasn’t just a style preference. It was smart thinking.

“He is driving some important changes at Catholic Charities,” said Pantaleo, before quickly correcting himself. “Has driven some important change at Catholic Charities and the agencies — gotten them to be more effective. Some of them are just really small. Some of them have strong histories that are difficult to let go of. Some of them have enormous difficulty abandoning why they think they were created to kind of merge with others and work more collaboratively with others. Michael has been driving that agenda for a number of years now.”

In his first weeks as executive director in 1993, Fullan remembers going around to visit the various agencies to get a feel for their work. He dropped in on one of the biggest — Providence Healthcare.

“They had one computer — one computer in the whole place,” he said. “I didn’t have a computer on my desk when I first came to Catholic Charities, nor did the staff.”

Even as he retires, Fullan sees his job as easing agencies into change.

“You know the human condition, myself as well — change doesn’t come easy for any of us,” he said. “But it’s absolutely essential.”

The big changes demanded of Catholic agencies over the past 30 years haven’t been a management drive for efficiency. The world is changing around them as they face clients with new and more complex problems.

Fullan sees the rising tide of untreated mental health issues as a major challenge — now and into the future. Small agencies that serve young parents in poverty, families under stress, the disabled and the homeless need to find the resources to responsibly, effectively bring people through depression, anxiety, even psychosis.

“We’ve got to come together to find ways to be able to deal with the clinical aspects of these presenting problems,” Fullan said.

Building on the shared services model for back-office work, the agencies are beginning to share mental health and counselling resources.

“At least now we have that clinical oversight with agencies working together,” he said. “We can deal with some of the significant mental health issues, with the focus being on ‘How can we keep this family intact and make it stronger?’ ”

If asked, Fullan will certainly offer advice to all the agencies and whomever follows him in the executive director’s chair. But he will be missed.

“I don’t know how they’re going to find somebody with that combination. It’s going to be a real test,” said Pantaleo.

“He had the agencies always first and foremost in his mind,” said MacKenzie. “He never lost sight of what we were doing and always advocated on our behalf.”

But Fullan has eight grandchildren, “seven boys and one princess.” He hopes to spend his days with his dear wife Frances. He’s always been a volunteer and won’t stop. And there’s a serious challenge awaiting him — learning to nap.

“I never had a nap in my life,” he said. “Even in kindergarten, my mother would put me down in the afternoon and I would climb out the back window. We had a little laundry shed there in the city at Dufferin and Bloor. I would climb down the pole and she would find me out front with my friend, Gary. So I’ve never been able to nap. But I want to learn.”

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