Lindsay Glassco is a Passionate Advocate who Centres Some of the Most Vulnerable Populations in her Work
Meet the 2024 Top 25 Women of Influence Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient
By Sarah Walker
We’re honouring Lindsay Glassco, President and CEO of Plan International Canada, with the 2024 Top 25 Women of Influence® Lifetime Achievement Award, celebrating her extraordinary contributions to sustainable development and social change throughout her remarkable career that spans more than 30 years.
Lindsay’s legacy, marked by her dedication to connecting individuals, nations, leaders, and teams, and her commitment to fostering tolerance, respect, inclusion, and innovation, stands as a powerful example of how passionate advocacy and forward-thinking leadership can profoundly and positively influence communities and people globally.
Lindsay Glassco, President and CEO of Plan International Canada, has several gripping stories that showcase her unique spirit, but none more than her tale of surviving an avalanche.
“In March 2002, I was buried while back-country skiing in the interior of British Columbia,” she says. “I had to dig myself out. I searched for about an hour to find my friend. Our guide dug himself out. It set me back — mentally and physically — for a year and a half.”
Yet, in the face of such overwhelming odds, she took this challenge and channelled it to draw upon her courage, resilience, and mental fortitude.
“It was a pivotal moment in my life and has provided me with so many indirect benefits, especially in my career,” Lindsay notes. “I have a heightened sense of empathy and vulnerability in others and understand I never truly know what someone is going through. It’s given me an inner strength and a strong sense of self, and a mentality of — if I can survive an avalanche, I can survive anything.”
After taking a brief sick leave to deal with the trauma of surviving the avalanche, she was faced with stigma from people who didn’t fully grasp what she had been through. When she came back to work, some colleagues joked about how it “must have been nice to have such a long vacation.”
“It really showed me the lack of awareness about mental health and well-being and encouraged me, as a leader, to talk about my experience at work to make colleagues feel safe,” says Lindsay.
Lindsay has also had to face overcoming societal and professional challenges, particularly those associated with gender bias. Lindsay says she’s faced so many situations where there’s been a clear bias and where her professional standing has been undermined purely because she’s a woman. She’s been told to “behave like a man” or been asked to take a picture of her male colleagues because she didn’t belong in the photo. The most jaw-dropping incident happened when she was in another country and slated to meet a head of state.
“One of the most junior male delegates said I had to sit out because there was a shortage of chairs even though I was one of the most senior people there,” Lindsay says. “I could have said something, but I have learned when to pick my battles. When the door to the room opened, I walked right in and took my seat. Women should always have a seat at the table.”
More than anything, these experiences reinforced her personal outlook on life and stoked her desire to connect and be the creator of social change for people around the world.
The Building of a Global Leader in Social Change
Raised in Canada, and the youngest of five children, Lindsay’s desire to make the world a better place started as a child. She learned the value of giving back and being optimistic from her tight-knit family. “My grandmother was an incredibly positive person,” she says. “She made others feel like a million bucks. I always appreciated that.”
Lindsay’s first foray into political activism and supporting important social causes happened while she was studying English Literature at McGill University. In between competing on varsity rowing and ski teams, she and her peers advocated for the university to divest from organizations invested in apartheid South Africa. She also represented her fellow students in a Parliamentary Commission on Quality of Education, something that exposed her to the importance of listening to and learning from a diverse range of opinions.
At the end of university, Lindsay travelled to Southeast Asia, where she “saw the biggest global issues, inequalities, and true poverty for the first time.” She came back to Canada and worked in the private sector for the sports marketing firm IMG. But with a desire to make a meaningful difference, she then packed her bags for Lesotho, Africa, where she taught with the World University Service of Canada for two years.
“That was the moment — those two years — where I really started my international development career,” Lindsay says. “I lived there during one of Southern Africa’s most difficult droughts and saw the power of education and the influence and impact it can have on a community.”
She threw herself into mentoring her students, many of whom she is still connected to, and learned about the challenges they faced. “My personal growth and development during this time probably outweighed theirs,” she says jokingly.
With an eye on learning and sharing some of the insights and skills she honed as a teacher, the then-twenty-something Lindsay launched a global consultancy to provide strategic advice and policy and program management expertise to a variety of organizations, including the Canadian International Development Agency, United Nations Volunteers, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
She returned to Canada in March 2000 to work for the federal government.
“The government provides an incredible learning ground for management and strategy,” Lindsay says. “It forces you to take a disciplined approach to leadership. I learned the importance of rallying a team around a vision and creating clear accountabilities. I learned how to balance stakeholder relationships and perspectives to create policies. Most importantly, I learned that in order to make big changes and create successful recommendations, you have to have buy-in from all stakeholders. If you don’t, a policy will fail.”
Shortly thereafter, Right to Play came calling.
Impact Through Non-Profit and Charity Work
Right to Play reached out to Lindsay to manage the Sport for Development and Peace International Working Group, a four-year policy initiative to advocate for governments to invest in sport and physical activity, something, as an athlete, she’s quite passionate about.
By the end of her tenure, 38 governments signed a pledge to implement 300 policy recommendations related to sport for development. It was an incredible feat.
“In Canada, we’ve always had access to physical education in schools, but so many places around the world still don’t have that,” Lindsay says. “We were able to offer guidance on how to make sport accessible in schools, to people with disabilities, and how to actively engage more girls and women. Watching governments endorse these recommendations and then seeing them get implemented in their countries was incredible.”
She adds: “Sometimes, policy work can feel like it’s not going anywhere; you can’t help but wonder, ‘will this actually make change?’ but in this case, I could really see that we were shaping and making a more physically active world. It’s a career highlight.”
Lindsay says she experienced a similar buzz while working for the International Olympic Committee. She and her team took the initiative to negotiate with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to build a multi-sport playground in the Azraq camp in Jordan for refugees fleeing conflict in Syria.
“It took a lot of negotiations, but when we went to inaugurate the facility, [to see] the excitement of the refugees, I almost can’t explain it — it was a place where they could go for an outlet,” Lindsay recalls. “These were people who had been through immense trauma. It was so incredibly rewarding to give these individuals a space that offers joy. I saw the real-world impact of my team’s work, and I’ll never forget that.”
While reflecting on her experiences working around the globe, Lindsay notes the similarities between all of us. “There is a near-universal desire for compassion, peace, and making the world a better place,” says Lindsay. “There are things such as hope that bind us all. It’s why we have to work together to find solutions to address everything from socio-economic challenges to climate change. When we work together, change can happen.”
A Future with Plan International Canada
After years spent selecting roles that spoke to her principles, enhanced her skills, and made a difference in the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable, Lindsay entered a new career chapter as President and CEO of Plan International Canada in July 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When I was approached to join [the organization], it felt like the culmination of everything I’ve ever worked for,” Lindsay says. “The role aligned perfectly with all of my values, career lessons, and passions.”
Though it was challenging to virtually manage 350+ staff members she’d never met in person, Lindsay saw it as an opportunity to pivot and reinvent how the teams worked together and with stakeholders around the world.
“Much like my career, I followed my intuition and put people at the centre of all that we were doing,” she says. “Like other CEOs, I emphasized empathy and well-being and fostered connection however possible because so many of us were feeling isolated. We had to work together and shift our understanding of what was possible.”
Today, the organization is bigger and bolder than ever.
“Girls will always continue to be at the heart of Plan International Canada’s work,” Lindsay notes. But there are also advancements being made to deepen support and increase the organization’s impact globally, engage youth as agents of change, and reshape and decolonize its overall operating model.
“There’s a lot of passion for what we do at Plan International Canada,” Lindsay says. “It’s great to be surrounded by like-minded people who share the same values as I do. It is a very inspiring work environment.”
One myth she has encountered while working not just for Plan International Canada, but across the not-for-profit sector, is that people don’t think these organizations operate as a business.
“That’s just not true. Our operations are no different from corporates,” Lindsay notes. “We have annual revenues of $289 million and have to balance them against operating expenditures. We have to adapt and innovate to keep pace with global trends. We have to modernize to stay relevant.”
“I’d like to change the phrase ‘not-for-profit sector’ to something like ‘social impact sector’ because [the former] doesn’t adequately capture all we do,” says Lindsay. “This work plays a fundamental role in the fabric of society. It’s a $189 billion sector in Canada. These organizations are complex and require business savviness and sophistication. We’re selling a product that’s not tangible, but no one should underestimate or undervalue this work. It’s changing the world.”
Looking back on her career, which has included receiving awards like the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for her contributions to Canada, Lindsay says she’s proud and is looking forward to what’s next.
“Even though I’ve jumped around, the underlying thread is there’s always been an element of social justice,” Lindsay says. “It comes back to being lucky to have found organizations that have missions that resonate with me and that have provided me with a platform to advocate for change.”
“If I know my work is going to impact one person, and they’ll then influence their community, that’s enough to keep me going,” she adds. “I’ve seen firsthand the power of people coming together to create policies and programs that advocate for change. I’ve collaborated with the best teams. I have a huge appreciation for life and all I’ve accomplished because I found and followed a mission I believed in — I encourage everyone to find theirs.”