By Johanne Adam
Louis de Melo, vice-president, External Relations, who started his term at the University of Ottawa in July 2009, is leaving his position to become CEO of the Sinai Health Foundation in Toronto, and vice president, academic advancement of Sinai Health System.
A uOttawa alumnus (BCom ’94), de Melo has overseen activities related to development, alumni relations, communications and government relations at the University. Among other things, he was one of the architects of the University’s strategic orientation.
The Gazette spoke to him for some reflections on his time at uOttawa.
You’ve spent eight years as University vice-president, External Relations. What have you valued the most during your term?
I’ve truly valued the professionalism of the External Relations team. They’re extremely dynamic people, a sharing team. They certainly don’t look in the rear view mirror, but instead, are always looking ahead. It’s very motivating to work with people of this calibre.
I’m also very proud of the boost to the reputation of the University of Ottawa over the past eight years. Everyone put their shoulder to the wheel — it was the work of the entire University community.
This reputation can be attributed in large part to our alumni’s involvement. The attachment they feel towards their alma mater has grown over the years, creating excellent ambassadors for the University’s values and mission. These people are involved in the life of the University and, as a result, the University community is more alive than ever.
I’m proud that we’ve implemented strategies that help our alumni feel at home here, because success — in philanthropy as in life — is essentially based on the relationships you build. And I feel that we’ve got some good momentum at the University.
What were the biggest challenges during your term here?
At the start of my term, we had to rebuild the External Relations group. For example, at the Development Office, only 40% of the positions were filled. In addition to recruitment, we conducted a major reorganization. The communications and marketing services, which were separate entities, were combined. Then there was the introduction of the web team in 2009. Some elements of Alumni Relations were also transferred to the Development Office, because this fit better with our philanthropic mandate. As well, at that time, the Centre for Global and Community Engagement (now the Michaëlle Jean Centre for Global and Community Engagement) came into being under External Relations.
The other challenge was to explain to the University community the added value of philanthropy. Pretty often, philanthropy is seen as an extra, rather than an essential element of an organization’s activities. I feel that in recent years, the University has made a lot of progress as far as that goes. People now recognize that philanthropy is part of day-to-day life at the University and that it’s not just the responsibility of External Relations, but of the whole University community. As well, the Offord report, which came out in July 2016, showed a marked improvement in the culture of philanthropy at the University of Ottawa. The financial results have also followed. In fact, in 2016–2017, we passed the $36 million mark in committed funds.
How will your experience at the University be of use in your new role?
I’ve sat on the University’s Administration Committee, so I’ve been actively involved in all the major decisions at uOttawa over the past eight years. It should be said that the University has a budget of nearly a billion dollars, with more than 5,000 employees.
As for philanthropy, we’ve organized the largest fundraising campaign in the history of our university.
I should also mention all the work that was done to put in place an alumni network around the world and high-quality programming for our alumni everywhere, as well as my involvement with the faculties. These are all assets I will be able to apply to my new work.
You’ve been working in philanthropy for years. What do you like about this area?
What first attracted me to the world of philanthropy was the passion of the people working in it. These are people who deal in dreams and do it for causes that matter to them. I’ve always said that philanthropy is the crossroads where the excellent and the exceptional meet. And as I see it, there’s a correlation between major philanthropy and the universities that stand out. Philanthropy allows you to try things and engage in transformational actions that operating funds don’t normally allow for.
Philanthropy lets you dream big and when you dream big, you work inevitably with people who themselves are also big dreamers, who aren’t afraid of taking risks, who’ve got ideas and are making changes. I find it very inspiring to work with these people.
What always surprises me the most is how generous donors are and how much they want to make a difference. They feel privileged and want to share the fruits of their success with the community. At root, they’re driven by altruism and want to do good.
You’re leaving Ottawa for Toronto. What will you miss most about the National Capital Region and the University campus?
First of all, I’ll miss my colleagues. I’ve been extremely lucky because I’ve been with outstanding people here. But when you leave people behind, you have to always remember that it’s only the work relationships you leave behind. I think this career change will allow me to turn these work relationships into long-term friendships.
As for the campus, I love the return to classes because suddenly there’s this great energy on campus, and it’s very contagious. It has kept me young because every year there are all these 18-year-old students arriving and you have no choice — you’ve got to get on the same wavelength as them.
I’ll miss the city of Ottawa as well. It’s a G8 capital and a fully bilingual city. I’ll definitely miss being able to speak both languages.
Would you like to say a few words to your colleagues, to donors and to members of the University community?
I would like to say thank you, because it’s been a privilege and an honour to serve the University of Ottawa. To tell you the truth, I’ve never had the feeling that I’m going to work. I didn’t count the hours of work because I really enjoyed what I did, despite the very complex challenges that presented themselves at times.
I’ve learned a lot from people here because they’ve been generous with their time, expertise and knowledge.
Finally, I thank the University of Ottawa because the person I am today is much better equipped for life than the person I was eight years ago.