Like Olympians, communities work together to win

publication date: Aug 16, 2012
author/source: Janet Gadeski
"Faster, higher, stronger." Those ideals drove Canadian field hockey player Ian Bird to give his all at two Olympics in1988 and 2000. Now they drive his vision of what Canadians can achieve for their communities by working together.

"There were 30 to 35 guys doing something together over a decade," he recalls. Each top-notch player had been the star of his local team. On the Olympic team, though, those 35 leaders had to work together. Their joint effort transformed Canadian field hockey from a backwater sport into an internationally competitive game.

That experience opened Bird's eyes to the impact of collective power. Now, as president and CEO of Community Foundations of Canada, he's applying his passion for collaboration to lead CFC's Smart and Caring Communities project.Ian Bird photo

Philanthropy paradigm passé

In his first year, he's already noted the huge shift in the workings of philanthropy - a shift so great that he now says, "The philanthropy paradigm no longer works ... Even the word ‘philanthropy' is changing its meaning. It's no longer about what one has and another doesn't."

Rather, he continues, the new model rests on what everyone brings to the table. Those who were traditionally described as "recipients" now expect involvement in shaping programs and policies. Agencies, citizens, and donors all recognize that while some may have money, others have knowledge, experience and ideas that are just as essential to address seemingly intractable challenges.

Investigate together, solve together

Community foundations' dependence on the knowledge and experience of their citizens led to Vital Signs, which the association describes as "an annual check-up that measures the quality of life in Canadian communities, identifies trends, and shares opportunities for action." It's as different as can be from traditional, top-down, check-box, form-based information gathering.

"The process goes way beyond information," Bird explains. "How you get there is just as important as the final report." Community participation - consultation, reflection - informs what is asked and how. When the reports are released, healthy partnerships to address key issues are already in place, thanks to the collective information gathering. Bird calls it a great combination of community participation and robust information.

Collective action vital for great impact

It's not surprising that an Olympian sees a parallel between community problem-solving and world-class team effort. "Most of those performances revolve around doing something more by tapping the abilities of people around you," he enthuses. "Look at what [coach] John Herdman accomplished with our women's soccer team. We won't make the impact we want without coordination and collective action."

Bird never misses a chance to lead collaboration by example. Canada's community foundations have been honoured with an Impact Award from the U.S.-based Community Indicators Consortium for their leadership on Vital Signs. CFC says the award goes to projects "that best demonstrate the power of indicators to drive positive community change." The Olympian collaborator immediately shares the credit.

"Our network is honoured to receive this recognition and we share this award with all the local organizations who work with us on Vital Signs and who use it as a tool for action," he declares.

Photo: Community Foundations of Canada

For more information, Skana Gee, 902-466-7191; Anne-Marie McElrone, 902-466-8284. More news about the Impact Award here.

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