How family foundations can help create a lasting legacy


Bill Elkington tells us how The Erika Legacy Foundation works to break down the stigma of mental health and suicide.


Bill and Sabrina Elkington will never get over the loss of their daughter Erika, who died by suicide in 2015, but whenever they receive a call or letter saying the foundation set up in her honour helped save a life, it hurts a little less.

“Nothing will help us cope with what happened, but it does reduce the pain when we know we’ve had an impact that has saved someone’s life and that they’re doing well,” says Bill Elkington.

The family set up The Erika Legacy Foundation in 2016 to raise funds to support research, education and raise awareness about mental health issues to help prevent suicide and suicidal behaviour.

“We can’t change what happened, but we can help make sure it doesn’t happen to others,” he says.

Mental health ‘difficult to understand’

Erika passed away on Aug. 6, 2015, a month shy of her 30th birthday. Her obituary said: “She was loved by all. Those who had a chance to know her will tell you, her spirit and drive were infectious and she brought joy to everything and everyone she touched. Why Erika is no longer with us today is difficult to understand. Mental health and suicide is often like that; difficult to understand.”

Erika was not what most people would associate with suicide, her family says. They describe her as being “a shining star in this world … who believed people had greatness within them and success was something we could all achieve.” She spoke five languages and travelled extensively, seeing much of the world by the age of 26. By 29, she had completed a Bachelor of Education, a Certified Human Resources Professional designation, graduated from the Sauder School of Business in family business and earned a global MBA from Duke University. She also loved business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on helping women succeed in the workplace and starting their own companies.

In her final hours she wrote: “I had an incredible life, one I treasured, one I don’t feel I earned. I was blessed. I was loved. And this is on me. I was not strong enough.”

Removing the stigma around mental health

The Elkington family could have kept silent about the cause of her death, but instead chose to go public, as difficult as it is, to try to help others and remove the stigma around mental health.

His daughter was a resilient person, Elkington says, but she had an illness that’s indiscriminate and often misunderstood. “There is so much misinformation about suicide,” he says. “This isn’t a choice.”

“We encourage people to learn how the brain and its chemistry work, and how those physically change when there is a mental illness,” adds Elkington. “It doesn’t matter how strong you are or appear, like any disease, when you become sick, you become weak.”

According to a study by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), commissioned by RBC Wealth Management, 46 percent of Canadian respondents say their most important life goal is to improve their physical and mental wellbeing.

The new face of wealth and legacy research surveyed 1,051 high-net-worth-individuals (HNWIs), including 259 respondents in Canada, from March to May, 2018. The survey explores how the meanings of legacy and wealth are being redefined across regions, genders and generations.

The Erika Legacy Foundation was set up to support research and study the social, personal and economic conditions that lead to suicide. This will help better educate people about the illness, which doesn’t discriminate by age, sex, race or financial status.

The registered charity also wants to change how society thinks and talks about mental health and suicide. They ask people to refrain from using the word ‘commit’ in association with suicide. “People are sick when they die by suicide. They aren’t committing a crime or a sin. People who die by suicide had an illness, and left unchecked that illness can take their life,” says Elkington.

Part of its mandate is to share information and stories from survivors and families touched by suicide and other mental health issues. “The only way you can change something is if you’re proactive about it, and that begins with expanding the conversation on suicide and mental health, not just starting it.” says Elkington.

The foundation also aims to inspire people by giving them hope and a reason to live. It’s what Erika would have wanted, he says. Erika had a saying, ‘Live to inspire,’ which is the slogan used by the charity.

Furthering the cause through a foundation

For the Elkington family, setting up a foundation was the best way for them to try to channel their grief, while also trying to help others in the process. “What we are most proud of is the number of lives we’ve saved,” Bill says. “Being able to help them has been very fulfilling; very hard, but very fulfilling.”

RBC helped set up the foundation, including details such as defining its goals and establishing its governance, as well as offering some guidance and moral support. “We’ve never done anything like this before,” Bill says. “Having that support has been instrumental in creating a good foundation with good governance … to ensure it makes an impact.”

Many families set up foundations or other philanthropic structures to further a cause that’s important to them, says Susan McIsaac, managing director, strategic philanthropy with RBC’s Enterprise Strategic Client Group.

“People often move to philanthropy as an expression of what they care about,” McIsaac says. “At the root of it all is helping people.”

According to data from The EIU, 44 percent of Canadian respondents believe the ability to create change through charitable giving is more important now, compared to two generations ago.

For the Elkington family, The Erika Legacy Foundation is a fitting way to create a legacy for their daughter, while working to build awareness around mental health that will help others. “The more we make it easier for people who are suffering to talk about it, the better,” McIsaac says.

RBC’s work with The Erika Legacy Foundation is part of the organization’s overall strategic commitment to mental health through the RBC Youth Mental Health Project, which helps to ensure youth in communities across Canada have access to mental wellness support services.

“We know that young people today face many barriers when it comes to accessing mental health support and programs,” says Valerie Chort, vice president, corporate citizenship, at RBC. “That’s why RBC is investing in prevention and early intervention initiatives, to ensure that young people have timely access to care, when and where they need it most.”

Creating a lasting legacy

Elkington is proud of the foundation’s work to date, but cautions others considering a similar structure that it takes a lot of time, resources and commitment. It also means having to speak publicly about the cause, to help raise funds, which isn’t for everyone.

“You need to understand what’s driving you and if you want that exposure,” Bill says. “If you don’t want to be out in public there are other ways to contribute behind the scenes. Communication is key. Erika’s brother and sister have been involved since the beginning and getting the input and approval of every member of our family is key. Good governance and communication is essential.”

Long-term, the goal of The Erika Legacy Foundation is to build an endowment that can be sustained for years to come. The foundation also plans to partner with, and award grants to, other charitable causes that align with Erika’s beliefs.

“It’s something we know Erika would be very proud of,” he says. “It helps us live to her values.”

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