Whether you’re thinking about the future after COVID-19, how robotics and artificial intelligence will change society, or how much further we have to go before all groups feel included, there’s no doubt that post-secondary institutions are challenged to serve today’s ever-changing needs. Meeting those needs requires shifts in how students are educated or trained, and the resources to make it happen. 

The Suncor Energy Foundation (SEF) is a long-time supporter of post-secondary education. Over the years, the SEF team has noticed barriers in the current post-secondary system that affect how – or whether – institutions respond to evolving demands and diverse perspectives. This awareness got the SEF team thinking: how can we change the way SEF donates to post-secondary institutions to increase participation of students, institutions and community members to help build  a more fair and sustainable system?
“We wondered whether we were making as strong of a difference with our post-secondary partners as we’d hope,” says Lori Hewson, director, community investment and social innovation. “Some of our past donation recipients agreed. In fact, a few told us that having a more competitive process with aspirational criteria could help them to innovate and seek solutions in support of the kinds of changes that are necessary to address today’s complex problems.”
As a result of talking with a wide range of people both within and outside Suncor, the SEF team was ready to launch a new idea. And that’s how, in the middle of an unfolding pandemic, SEF began accepting applications to the  “Driving Innovation and Reducing Barriers” program, also known as the SEF post-secondary donation program. The program’s goal is to support initiatives aimed at removing or reducing barriers for students and community members. 

Given the pandemic, SEF extended program deadlines and ultimately received applications from universities, colleges, and technical institutions across Canada. 
For the first time, SEF also invited an advisory group of Suncor employees to review applications and provide recommendations on which institutions should receive funding. 
Participants of the post-secondary advisory group expressed that they had a positive experience and would like to be involved again in the future. “Everyone felt heard and able to contribute,” says Caitlyn Howard, former Environment, Health and Safety co-op student and advisory group member. “And everyone came well-prepared and committed to the process.” 
“Along the way, we learned more about issues that affect post-secondary institutions,” adds Prit Kotecha, also on the advisory group and a director in the Downstream business. “It was empowering to know we were part of a process attempting to change or improve the system.”
The time the advisory group spent on the program paid off. The SEF Board unanimously accepted the group’s recommendations that the Foundation make new donations seven post-secondary institutions.  

“Advisory group members also commented they’d like to engage new people in their own teams’ processes and decision-making,” says Paul Gardner, chief people officer and chair of the post-secondary advisory group. “They noticed that the post-secondary process reinforced the value of hearing from diverse perspectives and ‘devil’s advocates’ – and that’s exactly what we want to see when we talk about our company values like ‘stronger together’ and curiosity. I’m looking forward to seeing how we can use this advisory group model to facilitate decisions about SEF donations in the future.”