People for Pensions Profile: Liz Sutherland

Liz Sutherland

Liz Sutherland is the Director of Policy at the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN), an organization that supports the 58,000 organizations and nearly one million workers in Ontario's nonprofit sector. Since joining the ONN in 2015, Liz has worked with the ONN's two pension task forces to review and recommend a sector-wide pension plan for Ontario's nonprofit workers.

For starters, tell us about yourself!

My family came to Canada from England when I was really little, but I grew up in Ottawa and consider it my home! While I've been in Toronto for a number of years now, I recently moved back to eastern Ontario to be close to family and now live in the beautiful town of Perth where I am enjoying my first winter here (despite the pandemic).

As you know, I work at the Ontario Nonprofit Network – I'm the Director of Policy there. Outside of work I like to cook and bake, read novels, walk my dog, and I like to volunteer and recently joined the Board of the Perth and District Community Foundation.

When did you first learn about the value of pensions?

I used to work in the federal public service and had a defined benefit pension there. Growing up in Ottawa, many people want to work in the public service in part because of the pension and the benefits, but when I joined I was in my late 20s I really only had a general awareness of what a pension would mean for me. In fact, when I left that job, I actually cashed out my pension into a locked in retirement account. Looking back, I would have done things differently, but it felt like the right decision at the time.

At the ONN, you've done a lot of research into the value of defined benefit pensions. Do you mind sharing some of the highlights of what you've learned?

Before working on the pensions task force, I had a pretty general understanding of pensions. I knew the basics, but the big Aha moment was about the value of defined benefit pensions, not just in what they provide workers, but in how efficient they are. For the same contributions, you can actually get a better retirement because of things like lower administrative costs and the fact that you receive a lifetime benefit.

We were also surprised at the demand in the nonprofit sector for a pension plan. So many workers weren't covered, and a lot of organizations were very concerned that when their staff retired, they were retiring into poverty after spending a lifetime serving others. We knew that wasn't right and there was a lot of demand for a plan that was affordable and would allow organizations to ensure that their staff could retire in dignity.

The ONN has made the decent work campaign a clear priority for the sector. Can you tell us about that campaign and why you believe that pensions are such an important part of decent work?

Decent work practices improve the quality of life for employees while also supporting more effective and impactful outcomes for organizations. The ONN has been working to build a decent work movement in the nonprofit sector since about 2015. It came from a study we did which found that almost half of nonprofit workers at the time were working part-time or on a short-term contract, and few had access to pensions.

Introducing a sector-wide pension plan was about making sure that a decent retirement was part of the decent work movement. We believe you can't talk about decent work without talking about pensions.

80% of nonprofit workers in Ontario are women. Can you speak a little about the importance of pensions in addressing the gender gap?

We know that women live longer, earn less, and take more time off for childcare responsibilities. That's already a triple-whammy in terms of saving for retirement.

However, defined benefit pensions are a retirement equalizer because they provide a lifetime benefit, meaning women actually get more out of their pension because they live longer. Also, DB plans provide a survivor benefit which can help women who are widowed.

Now that you're a member of a defined benefit pension, why do you personally value having a DB pension?

I'm a planner by nature and I expect to live a long time so I want to know what I can budget for in retirement! Right now I'm in my late 40s, so I can look ahead and my DB plan gives me that security of knowing how much I can expect to receive in retirement.

You still have many working years ahead of you before retirement, why is a pension a priority for you today?

I think a lot of people start thinking about retirement too late – whether it's waiting until after your childcare worries, saving for your kids' tuition, or after your mortgage is paid off. You can't build retirement savings overnight; it takes decades and the earlier you start the better. For me, knowing that my pension is taken care of gives me the peace of mind to focus on other things that are important to me.

To end on a fun note, what are your goals for when you retire that a pension can help make possible?

I've got beloved nephews and a niece and who knows where they'll live in 20 years, so I want to make sure I'll be able to visit them wherever they end up!

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