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Doing Time – The Ampersand November 2022

November 1, 2022

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Dear Friends and Colleagues,


As you know, community is part of our firm’s DNA. We volunteer, we serve on boards, we donate, we speak, we teach, we write, we mentor, and we meet with just about every person sent our way, appreciating how busy we are and respecting our time and all, but hoping, just this once, we might find half an hour to visit with their neighbour’s sister’s daughter about veterinary school. We do it for many reasons. Mostly altruistic. But we do it. And we do so enthusiastically, passionately, and committedly.


It is against this backdrop that we write about a troubling trend as we emerge from Covid. As a firm that leads more Board searches than just about any other search firm around, be they public company paid boards or not-for-profit volunteer ones, we’ve noticed of late that it is increasingly difficult to get people to give. Give their time. Give their treasure. Give a damn.


One of our team’s more civic-minded members, Erin Dand, who herself volunteers as a leader in Centre Street Church’s Youth Adults ministry and as a Mentor with the Calgary Region Immigrant Employment Council, recently shared with me a note from someone she was trying to recruit to a volunteer board in our city. The note from the individual, who themselves is the CEO of a not-for-profit, said “I just stepped off a Board, so I have the time, but I’m also considering taking more time to myself.”


Fair. Covid’s been tough. And while I would never suggest that certain members of our society who lived through Covid have received ‘the worst discrimination of any group in my lifetime’ (Lord, help us), I would note that leaders, particularly of non-profits, are especially fatigued as they emerge from Covid, their organizations often in tatters, their people beleaguered and their coffers dry. So, this particular ‘decline’ gets a pass.


But when a young partner from a big law firm a few days later similarly rejected Erin’s advances, saying “I’ve done my time on non-profit boards” it got me to thinking. And me getting to thinking is usually followed by me getting to writing.


Erin’s situation is not isolated. Across virtually every non-profit for whom we have had the good fortune of assisting these past few years, we have noticed a marked drop in inbound applicants and an even more precipitous decline in the level of engagement we are seeing from our community. Both on behalf of our clients, and as a firm that prides itself on getting involved, this is a discouraging trend.


As Erin’s note to me after a few more rejections – and after I threatened to write an Ampersand about this — went on to lament:


“This is such a classic post-pandemic sentiment that I’m hearing more and more. People just want to do things for themselves.


But it makes me sad because if we all just focused on only ourselves, no one would advance the great work needed in the community. And if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we need community. We can’t expect our neighbour to do all the heavy lifting.


Hopefully your piece inspires people to give back to the community, whether through a Board or as a volunteer, and that this doesn’t necessarily feel like “work”, but something that is rewarding and helps make all of us better. I think volunteering can be part of a fulfilling and balanced life.”


What she said.


The reasons for getting involved in a non-profit board are many. You can google ‘why join a non-profit board’ and get 280,000,000 hits in 0.54 seconds. I’ll save you the time. This article, from Joan Garry Consulting, covers the usual suspects: you’ll learn patience, how to ask for money, enrich your resume, meet interesting people, enhance your sphere of influence. You’ll learn to listen, tolerate others’ views, read financial statements, run a meeting and much more.  Interestingly, most of the lists on the Internet describe what’s in it for you to join a board. I don’t disagree with much of that. But the part that’s missing is what’s in it for the organization, the people who work there, and our broader community by having you do so.


Three brief anecdotes illustrate the point.


I serve on the Board of the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation. Staffed with dedicated and knowledgeable people, it’s an incredible organization. Established in 2007 as a wholly owned subsidiary of the City of Calgary, CMLC was created to implement and execute the Rivers District Community Revitalization Plan. At its simplest, and most complex, it’s about city building. Or, as they call it, placemaking. And as one who cares about the city, and places, it provides me an opportunity to contribute to our city’s future in a meaningful way. Full disclosure; this board pays a modest stipend but it’s a lot of work and time. In addition to regular Board meetings, there are two shareholder meetings per year (basically, City Council), an annual strategic planning retreat and I sit on two committees, each of which has regular meetings throughout the year. There are ribbon cuttings, ground breakings, Last Steel Beam invitations, and other events that require, or at least, compel my participation.



Occasionally, there are meetings I’d rather not attend, let alone prepare for, in the face of other competing demands on my time. Yet, I attend and almost without fail, like going to the gym, leave feeling better than when I arrived. Recently, I had the privilege of touring the BMO Convention Centre. If you haven’t noticed, it is undergoing a massive expansion and, when complete, will be an architectural marvel, gathering place and cornerstone of a world-class entertainment district.


At the conclusion of our tour, we stopped in the breathtaking main ballroom. I asked PCL Builders’ veteran General Superintendent for the BMO Centre Expansion, Brian Rondeau, what the project meant to him, to his career.


He paused, took a deep breath, surveyed the million plus square feet and 9,000 metric tonnes of steel under his watch and humbly described to me and the rest of the Board that his passion for the project is inspired from the impact the Calgary Stampede has had on his life as a native Calgarian. That he spent countless Calgary Stampedes coming down to the park with both his parents and grandparents to see the livestock exhibits and midway as a child. That he has attended every Stampede since he was born, and it has always been the most important event to look forward to each year. And now to be part of such an amazing project that will redefine Stampede Park for future generations, long after he’s gone, is, as he described it, “a true honour…one that I take very seriously.” He went on to describe what great clients the Calgary Stampede and CMLC have been and noted how fortunate he is to be part of this collaborative, community-building project.


You could hear a pin drop on the recently poured concrete floor in the expansive ballroom. In that tiny moment, in that vast hall, his passion for this project was reflected back at him through the appreciative eyes of every member of the Board and CMLC management.


And this is the rub. We live in these bizarre times where there’s just so. much. noise. So many lies spread. So much bile spewed by so many people. Everywhere you look, everything you read. The gaslighting, the tweeting, the b.s. piling up, that to see this man, this Construction Worker straight out of Central Casting, distill such a massive, complex undertaking into the simplest, purest, truest, most honest explanation of what it meant to him, well, it all sort of restored my faith in humanity.


It didn’t last long.


For a few days later I met a young woman in my office boardroom, Amber Griffith. I had met Amber a couple days earlier at a Chamber of Commerce event. She is the Executive Director of Axis Connects, an upstart organization committed to advancing diversity in Calgary’s business community. Almost every Executive Director I’ve ever met is like Amber. Hard working, committed to the cause, not in it for the money, managed by a Board of lesser or greater sophistication, and, above all, unflinchingly dedicated.


I have no horse in this race. In fact, one of the driving forces behind Axis, and a founding Board Member, is a major competitor of mine. That’s not the point. But having met Amber on the Friday, learning about her and about Axis and their upcoming Women’s Leadership Forum, it was particularly irritating to scroll through my Twitter feed the next day to see @mikesbloggity quip “This might be what pushes me over the edge.”


The this? A panel at the forum about male allyship. No matter that two of the panel members are friends I respect tremendously. No matter that the whole point of the panel is to highlight the importance of men supporting women. No matter that studies show that companies where men are actively involved in supporting women have a greater impact in increasing diversity in leadership positions than those that do not. No matter that Axis believes that male leaders have an important role to play as allies and supporters of aspiring and current female leaders. That a male ally is someone who actively advocates for both men and women to work together towards gender parity and demonstrates a commitment to champion women in their workplace and in the community. No matter that it is critical for male leaders to be modeling the behaviour of male allyship for other men coming up the ranks. No matter that the gender diversity challenge does not just impact women – everyone, male or female, must play a part in solving for gender disparity in leadership roles for overall societal equality.


No matter. Can’t let the facts get in the way of a good tweet. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve noticed the world’s problems tend to get exacerbated, not solved, when advanced 280 characters at a time. To wit, the comments @mikesbloggity attracted, like moths to a flame, were just so darned discouraging.


“I cannot believe the blind arrogance in having a women’s leadership conference and the speakers are all white men!!!!” “Once again men talking at a women’s leadership forum!!?? Gee thanks guys!!”  “Real ‘champions’ would look at the lineup and mandate, then refuse to participate in such a condescending sham. Every single person involved here should be embarrassed.”


And on it went. Serves me right for reading the comments. The comments on Twitter are the drunk uncle of Thanksgiving dinner. Better ignored than engaged with.


Where’s Brian Rondeau when you need him?


You see, I think every hour spent volunteering throws enough positive Juju out into the atmosphere that it counteracts a thousand ignoramuses. Volunteering is the Internet Imbecile offset credit. It forces you to engage, to be informed, to consider opposing views, to think. You can sit on your couch, hide behind your phone, and bravely lob clever missives into space with impunity, but they land like those kamikaze drones, indiscriminately destroying anything in their path. No matter. I say the best air defence system we can deploy isn’t fired off 280 characters at a time but with hours of honest. hard. work. Around board tables, in our community, at association meetings, bake sales, bingo nights – shining light on those who need it. That’s the antidote for The Darkness.


Which leads to my final, brief, anecdote, meant to illustrate how we here at our firm try to stay positive and throw that good karma out into space. My long-time partner, Ranju Shergill, chairs the Board of CIWA, the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association. Our firm was pleased to step up as a sponsor of the CIWA Gala on September 29th, celebrating the organization’s 40th anniversary. As Ranju so beautifully wrote in a recent blog post that I implore you to read, the keynote speakers at the Gala were an A-List of local leaders who could have easily used the platform to get political or get even, or worse. Each of them had good reason to. Instead, they got human.


As Ranju wrote, “It’s not just because I had the privilege of hosting this gala, but it was different because speaker after speaker was captivating and personal. Each speech was not what we expected, and each speaker was truly inspiring and spoke to our hearts.”


We could use more heart and less hate. More community and less solitude. More Brian Rondeau and less Kanye. More getting involved. More giving a damn. Not to be dismissed as “doing time”; rather, embraced as doing time. Time to do more. Time to give back. Time to offset the crazy. Time to turn down the noise while turning up the volume on what matters.


As Erin said, we can’t expect our neighbour to do all the heavy lifting.





P.S. If you’re interested in giving back to a not-for-profit Board, please email your resume to [email protected] and we’d be pleased to add you to our confidential talent database so we can let you know when we are working on a not-for-profit Board search for which your professional skillset and volunteer experience may be a fit.