Summer Students

Bianca Ponziani

I removed the paper from the printer’s output tray and gingerly slid on a paper clip sans creases. From the way I was beaming you’d think I had just printed a thesis. Instead, I held crisp cheques for Grand Challenges Canada’s travel agent, ready for a signature.    

Let’s step back and consider that accomplishing even routine tasks at Grand Challenges Canada helps our team support innovators and their bold ideas — ideas that incite audible “wows” in staff meetings. That’s the real story, and the source of my exaggerated proud moment.

Printing my first check as a Business Analysis summer student felt like I was doing my part to “pay the bills around here,” a main task of the Finance Team. When someone can say, “I pay the bills around here,” it’s a pretty good indication that they are not easily replaceable: learning to navigate financial software programs (and their favourite lullabies) is training-intensive. Financial Analyst Melanie Wolicki is my teacher in this regard, and mentor in many others.

In one of our chats, Melanie explained that vendors arrange credit agreements with clients on the understanding that they will soon be paid; they may also offer payees a discount should the account be settled before the 30-day industry standard. Grand Challenges Canada prides itself on quicker-than-average turn-around times, an operating efficiency enabled by the federal government’s funding commitment to our organization. This strength came to light last month when our team flew to Calgary for the bi-annual community meeting and there were flight tickets to pay. The Calgary-related check I had just printed was to be “out the door” by the week’s end, a turn of phrase that I now own along with, “Document X lives here on the server,” and various acronyms for grantee portfolios.

The Finance Team has been my Rosetta Stone for the languages of financial analysis and grant administration, which can be likened to two dialects of the same language. Our Finance Team functions along this linguistic border, a division of labour that improves performance on routine tasks. “Routine” tasks a) need to get done, and b) need to get done on time, so the fact that I had been charged with our routine check run was not lost on me.  

Financial reporting to government bodies such as the International Development Research Council (the agency that advances our funding) is another routine exercise. Preparing these reports prompts a reflection on organizational expense trends, such as ensuring that we’re on track to achieve overall operating costs of less than 10%—a remarkable feat for any organization!

This Finance Team objective indicates our focus on results, which became apparent to me while reviewing Request for Proposal submissions for due diligence services. While due diligence is a crucial safeguard for Grand Challenges Canada (a service we often outsource for reasons Raymond Shih, Program Manager – Financial Innovations, explains in Part 4 of his blog series), strategic decisions stem very much from the ethos that, “We’re right beside grantees in the pursuit to save and improve lives,” as opposed to, “We’re extending them a financial courtesy”.

Consider the risk that Grand Challenges Canada assumes by granting millions of dollars to innovators far and away from its MaRS headquarters in Toronto, Canada. Remarkably however, we work with our grantees in a paradigm of trust, rather than risk. Management prioritizes grantees even as our strategic scope widens to include furthering diplomacy through science, securing international partners, and developing the Financial Innovations Program.

Whatever form the latter, more creative aspect of Grand Challenges Canada’s finances takes, its aims will be buttressed by the less glamorous, but no less important bit of financial analysis that I help carry out. That said, I have discovered that there is something very sexy about financial reporting:  the numbers staring back at me on the screen often have exciting backstories or represent thought-provoking trends. For instance, when I prepare a bank reconciliation, it’s not your typical cross-referencing of receipt-to-grocery bag contents. In actuality, I’m cross-referencing payments that finance the production of life-saving medical technology. That’s no loaf of bread.

It’s not easy to lose sight of how my work as the Business Analysis student—one tooth on the Grand Challenges Canada gear—fits into the bigger picture. This is empowering. Put another way, the privilege I feel to be contributing to Grand Challenges Canada is not fleeting: it is felt as I write this blog, chat with the dynamo students with whom I share desk space, and sit with Melanie while she translates high-level strategic objectives into financial objectives (raising questions such as which portfolio is a sound investment in terms of resultant impact, or which Grand Challenge is financially neglected and can we play a part in putting it on the global public health agenda?).

I am now motivated to further explore how financial innovations can be harnessed to reduce health disparities, and how financial analysis can best support this approach. I believe this a return on investment for Canadian taxpayers’ money, which is what Grand Challenges Canada’s funds amount to. It’s a return that may manifest more gradually and on a smaller scale than the health improvements made possible by our grantees’ innovations, but from the way I was beaming, check in hand, you wouldn’t know. Considering the source of many of my proud moments here at Grand Challenges Canada, it’s no exaggeration to say that they live somewhere on our Finance server.


Bianca Ponziani is the Business Analysis summer student at Grand Challenges Canada. She holds a BA (Hons.) in Political Science and Environment from McGill University and will be attending law school at the University of Toronto. Follow Bianca on Twitter @bgponziani.