Cause & Effect
By Mark Ellwood
Amoryn Engel credits the skills she learned in her first job, producing news at ABC in New York, to helping turn her into one of Toronto’s top fundraisers. Whether crafting segments for ABC, as she once did, or encouraging friends to open their wallets, Engel relies on the same gift: storytelling. “It’s about presenting the right story to the right person in a compelling way so they feel a personal connection,” Engel explains. Hard work helps, too, of course. “Women like Barbara Walters didn’t get where they did by resting on their laurels—I mean, there were no laurels,” she laughs. “They worked tirelessly around the clock, and they were there 24/7.”
Journalism and philanthropy are twin passions for 45-year-old Engel, much like her late mother, Naomi, who first covered society events for the National Post and introduced Amoryn—who is now the Post’s society editor—to the charitable world while she was still a teen. “My mother was colorful and outrageous and a bon vivant whom everybody knew. Philanthropy and giving back were always part of my DNA, as she used to take me along to charity events as her plus one. But I was always more interested in the cause as opposed to the glitz and the red carpet.” Engel has certainly passed on that passion to her two sons with husband Kevin Warn-Schindel. She says she encourages the boys, aged 13 and 10, to “wake up, brush their teeth and think, What can I do to make the world a better place?”
Since that stint at ABC News, Engel has made philanthropy her second full-time job, working with a select roster of local causes to both chair galas and raise funds from individual bequests. A recent success in the former came when she chaired the first-ever Wanderluxe Gala to benefit the Air Canada Foundation and the SickKids Foundation, raising more than $1 million in one evening. Engel helped secure donations, sponsors and auction prizes from the likes of Air Canada, the evening’s primary underwriter. “It was a very bespoke, high-glam event, where everything clicked—just really amazing,” she says.
Now, though, Engel admits she’s focusing her efforts less on such splashy bashes and more on connecting donors with causes they can be personally passionate about—those storytelling skills at work, again. When she was tasked to help the Children’s Aid Foundation source funds to support kids in foster care, Engel turned to a friend who herself had been adopted. “She had felt so alone as a kid and never wanted anyone else to feel that way, so we came up with a backpack program for kids coming into care,” where they could store their precious possessions. The project raised $4 million and that was just the beginning. “It’s become the Little Engine That Could, as it’s snowballing out of control with people wanting to become involved,” she says.
What advice would she, the seasoned philanthropist, give anyone else considering taking on a similar mission? “If you’re going to ask, you’re going to get asked,” Engel laughs, before adding, “Pick your partnerships carefully. You’ll be a successful fundraiser if you find a cause you feel passion for. After all, if you’re not drinking the Kool-Aid, no one else will.”