An innovative leader with a growth mindset, Carlene Donnelly knows that the commitment necessary for transformational changemaking - for an individual, family, community, or country - is a marathon, not a sprint.

"When we know better, we must do better." ~ adapted from Maya Angelou

Meet Carlene Donnelly, CUPS Executive Director

Carlene has spent the past 25 years as a senior leader in the social services sector. Since 2003, she has led CUPS through significant change and growth, participated in high-profile research and advocacy projects, and has shared her learnings with audiences around the globe.

Carlene believes in a science-informed approach to improving outcomes for Calgarians and passionately advocates for organizations to adopt a business framework and apply current brain science to achieve a larger impact. Under her leadership, CUPS has evolved from a traditional charity to a trailblazing, science-based social agency, capable of improving outcomes for Calgarians for generations to come. Her innovative approach using the practical application of business to increase the impact of the organization has yielded many significant advances, including:

  • Growing the budget from $650,000 to $17 million
  • Executing a successful $20 million capital campaign to accommodate this growth
  • Securing contracts with provincial health systems to ensure comprehensive primary and specialist care for all CUPS clients
  • Expanding the child development program to a two-generational model – aligned with current science – to ensure entire families are set up for long-term success.
  • Because of her focus on reporting, CUPS began to develop program plans tied to demonstratable outcomes and put a data infrastructure in place that positioned CUPS to speak credibly about impact.

When did you recognize your first calling into leadership?

Even as a child I did not like when things were not fair.  I was always sticking up for the person who got the raw deal as young as grade 1.  I think even then I wanted to do something to even the playing field for everyone. 

People experiencing low income are not just challenged by a lack of resources, they are also challenged by self-esteem, unfair opportunities, and having barriers to reaching their potential. This never sat well with me, even as a child.  

In my 20’s I recognized that at times when leadership was needed, no one stood up.  I remember thinking that I couldn’t wait for others to make the change – I had to be the change, so I did.  I'm not sure it was a calling but rather a realization that 'the somebody' who had to make that change could just as easily be me. 

What does 'Roots of Rising Possibility' mean to you and where you envision your work going next?

The past, present, and future of innovative change for the betterment of humankind.

I envision championing the research, practice, and policy vision; where using evidence-based brain science in social and human practices allows us to get to the root of issues. In this way, we can truly empower those who are broken, and have the data to prove our impact and the return on investment of this systemic improvement in practice and in sustainable care for the community as a whole. It's time to take this vision of care to a national and international level.

"I believe that as a society, we are ready to convince all sectors that working differently on social and human issues can both impact a greater positive change and be a cost reduction to large systems. 

We have the data to move this information forward and need to adapt the language/explanation to unique sectors (such as business) to effectively communicate and garner full engagement from these sectors."  

Progress has been made in the past quarter-century, and I am hopeful of all that is possible moving forward, together.

What is the wisdom of your lived experience in the social impact space that you'd like to pass along to emerging leaders and visionaries?

Be the change, not just the critic.

Stay true to who you are and what you believe is your journey. Be curious. Risk being different. Create new pathways if needed. And remember, failure is a part of continuous growth. Never stop listening, learning, and doing it all for the right reasons.

" The crescendo of my journey as a changemaker - my leadership legacy - will be that my impact at CUPS, in our community and across the country lives on long after I do."  

We have come a long way in the past quarter-century, and I am hopeful of all that is possible moving forward, together.

Tell us about a leadership lesson so powerful that you want to share it or so necessary because you see it being repeated over and over again with zero traction.

2021 CUPS Carlene (6)

Carlene reflects on the oversight government leaders truly give to the social sector:

2021 CUPS Carlene (4)

Carlene shares what she feels is the greatest untapped opportunity at this time:

Action steps to resilient local and global communities by 2030

  • Prioritize collaborative work based on research, practice, and policy as a funding priority.
  • Focus on cross-ministry work on social issues, ie. housing and health, mental health & community preventive programs, etc.
  • Deliberately weave social inclusion and diversity into collaborative work with a special emphasis on gender equality. Opportunities for entrepreneurial work should be encouraged.
  • Innovative projects are celebrated and supported by a special stream of funding, again preferrable through cross-ministry work.
  • Community-led projects are supported particularly in the area of preventive work.

All of the above needs to have direct links to ministries, government committees, and planning. There needs to be solid, effective communication and reporting back and forth to ensure this action is intentional and impactful to the fullest degree possible.

"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more than you are a leader."

~ John Quincy Adams

Our path forward is one of continuous growth and learning, a path often less travelled. Travelling this path - walking bravely forward from here - takes vision, collaboration, and tenacity.

Karen Benzies headshot full

"The leadership at CUPS is really what makes the people and programs work to generate outcomes. Carlene Donnelly is an exceptional leader. She is visionary and brings people together to solve complex social problems. Never one to shy away from a challenge, whether it be a capital campaign to fund a new building or contributing CUPS' expertise to international research studies, Carlene consistently advances evidence-informed programs and services for marginalized populations."

- Dr.Karen Benzies

CUPS Calgary Key Investor

Professor at the Faculty of Nursing and Adjunct Research Professor with the Departments of Pediatrics and Community Health Sciences, at the University of Calgary

“Carlene is an exceptional Executive Director. She is a driven and compassionate person who has the unique ability to deal with an internal organization and outside partners in a candid and fair fashion. Often leadership is either good at the internal organization of a business or charity; or good at the customer, funds or sales side. Carlene has the unique ability to do both"

- Michael Lang

CUPS Calgary Key Investor

Chair, Stonebridge Equity Partners

Michael Lang